Callie Baker –Lessons She Taught Me

Last Friday evening my foreman passed away in her sleep. She was going to be 12 this December. She was by my side as I wrote these messages to each of you. Her dedication and loyalty was a constant reminder of exactly what it takes to be a farmer. She never complained about today but instead looked forward to tomorrow. As they say in agriculture, hope springs eternally each year. To her it was the excitement of just the fresh air hitting her as we rode to our next destination. In short, she never complained and looked forward to the next new adventure.

Her passing made me pause. Nothing lasts forever. Everything worthwhile needs hope. My question today is, are we on the verge of an enormous shift in all of agriculture? I see the erosion of the traditional family farm. The family farm is still the base but economic necessity is making those that continue need the core of generations before. Recently we loss John Fowler. He was fifth generation. He did not get to where he was alone. It took dedication from many Fowler’s long gone.

Change is going to happen in everything we come in touch with today. Farming is not exempt. To build the base necessary to have a commercial farm today it almost has to come from inspiration from generations before you. I have often jokingly referred to farming as the “curse of our Fathers.” Most of the large farms of today are a result of generations learning their trade and expanding to adapt to change.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

I said earlier that “everything worthwhile needs hope.”  I am very concerned that not all those who are willing to take up the challenge of agriculture will always have that feeling, like Callie did, that tomorrow would be exciting and full of opportunity.

As a fruit farmer you collectively agree to have funds deducted from your account to invest in applied research. In the short run, funds could most likely be better used to buy that new tractor you desperately need. Research is a gamble, with no certainty to success. The only certainty you have is, if you do not have research you will stagnate and fall by the wayside. There would be no new orchard systems or exciting varieties to grow without it. Research is for the future. Research offers hope and new opportunity.

Callie reminded us all that no matter how good things are today they will not last forever. Change is on the horizon. Farming is not for everyone. In fact, it is for a very select few. Life depends on the constant renewal of food supplies. We must not allow the remaining few who are willing to accept the “curse of their Fathers” to ever lose hope.

Our challenge then is to somehow educate, enlighten and convince all those mouths we feed each day. We have no choice but to protect agriculture and all those who are willing to accept the challenge of feeding us.

Callie would hate to think that there never again would be a pickup truck window rumbling down a farm lane to ride in. For all the future “Callie’

s” let’s make certain we keep this industry full of hope. Time will record if we allowed this industry to pass away. Remember nothing last forever

New Season Ahead.  Are You Ready for What Lies Ahead?

Is it just me or is there a feeling of uncertainty about this crop? I think many growers are coming to the reality that too much of their acreage is no longer in peak demand. The shelves are seeing new names that have now so slowly replaced long standing favorites. While the apple shelf space is still impressive it cannot hold all varieties.

A few years ago, the Eastern crop had a record low crop due to poor weather. The apple shelves did not go bear. Fruit from outside the traditional reach found its way to our markets to fill this gap. Life has never been the same. New supple ties were made and new varieties became available to our consumers. We did not lose our apple consumer they simply had a new list to select from.

We need to accept that our consumer is not the consumer of our parents. That consumer was happy

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

to drive a Ford or Chevy. Today’s consumer wants to select from all the types of cars of the world. Our apple consumer is no different. Our challenge is to accept this reality and wisely move forward. To hold onto older varieties is similar to trying to sell yesterday’s newspaper.

So how do we meet this shift? It may sound like a broken record, but we must continue to invest in research. We need to invest in production and marketing research. We may know how to design the modern orchard but what good is it if we have the wrong variety. I believe we need to make the effort to partner with our State and Federal policy makers to invest in much needed research.

We all know the struggles we are currently having with shifts in public policy on farm labor. We cannot allow this debate to dampen our efforts to increase funding for research. If our labor is to cost us more we certainly need to be harvesting the most desirable crop.

I am confident that in many ways this year will see a huge shift in our orchards. We cannot take the attitude that we will grow what we want despite the consumer shift. We truly do farm today from the shopping cart back to the farm. Embrace change but first make every effort to research that change.

Farm Worker Fair Labor Practice Act -Part Two

One year ago we all were trying to project what might happen in Albany with the new party balance. It really came as no surprise that we would be faced with a huge effort to alter the farm worker rules in our State. After months of the most united effort by NYS agriculture the Governor recently passed the Farm Worker Fair Labor Practice Act. It was hoped that if and when such an act would be passed we could each make long term plans based upon the act. This is not the case. The ink is not dry from the signature by the Governor and there are rumblings by the Senate and Assembly that they want more.

In August I currently know of two meetings to be held by agriculture to discuss first the current Act and second what we need to do to be prepared by the new demands. Unfortunately in my opinion this act has opened up a new energy by those who do not wish to understand agriculture to do even more. The newly created farm worker review board is of course one concern. The second is that by gaining passage of this act those in the legislature have gained new energy to push for more. We had hoped we would have time to absorb the new Act.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Questions are coming in faster than answers. Every farm now has to have in place a procedure to deal with when and if their employees wish to unionize.  What impact will it have on every farm in NYS if a farm is unionized and that farm is forced to meet new rules from labor? Will this then not set a precedent to be pushed upon all farms?  We need to really have frequent and open discussions with our help as to if they are approached by labor organizers how to respond. No doubt the picture that will be presented will be void of many of the realities of unionization.

In short, farms are very much in jeopardy moving forward. I can only hope that we can maintain our united collective voice in dealing with this new round of challenges to be flowing from Albany. I must admit I personally felt very defeated when I saw the details in the new Act. The fact is we will need to maintain our voice now more than ever. Not only are the roots of our crops here but so are those of our farms and families.  I personally understand if you have a feeling of frustration. I suggest you lick your wounds and prepare to meet the next round. To lie down now is to virtually turn the keys to your farm and the farms of the next generations over. I have to ask myself what would my ancestors have done? I know for a fact my parents would be sitting fire!

Pardon Me If I Do Not Say “Thank You”

I sit here awaiting the final version from the 2019 legislature on the Farm Workers Act. I think the weather outside my window mirrors my mood today. It is raining and the last thing any of us need today is more rain! It is not official but every indication is that we will see this Bill passed before they all return to their URBAN homes. We will be left once again to try to reinvent our operations if we wish to continue farming inside the borders of New York State. We have tried for years to educate the policy wizards about all that we are doing on our farms to enhance human resources. In most cases it far out distances most jobs in the non -agriculture world.

We will most likely see, beginning in 2020, overtime after 60 hours per week. Here I suppose I am expected to pause to say “thank you” because they really wanted us to be after 40 hours per week and 10 hours per day. After hundreds of hours patiently trying to educate the realities of this upon the Non-Agriculture economy we have pushed the beginning number to 60 hours.

Second, new positive is that the State will discontinue taxing H2A employers for unemployment insurance. This does zero for the largest sector of the New York State Agriculture dairy, as they are not legally allowed to be in the H2A program. The tax is unique to New York State as all other States do not levy it as they know there is zero opportunity for any worker to ever qualify. The Federal policy

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

does not charge this either. So in essence they have stopped charging us for a tax that I felt was illegal. Once again I should pause to say “thank you.”

Yes we will see the opportunity for farm employees to form a union if they so desire. There are yet miles of discussion needed here before we will truly understand the workings of this part of the Bill. We have stressed that we would be willing to see if we could find some mutual ground here. Our number one fear is a work stoppage where farms would be left with no employees to harvest perishable annual crops such as apples or dairy herds left with no one to milk them.

The final concern I will share with you is the new Work Labor Board that will be created out of this Bill. It will meet as early as March 1, 2020 to determine if the Farm Worker Bill is being fare to the employees it is designed to protect. They have the sole power to make changes in the Bill. They do not need to have legislative approval. So in essence if this small Board decides that on March 1, 2020 that 60 hours is not correct, they have the power to issue a new number. In theory they could then lower it to the desired 40 hour level. Yes it is time for me to pause and again express my feelings of gratitude. Thank You.

In short, we have lost much and have precious little to show on our side. We are an industry that is already being asked annually to raise the State minimum wage above most other States. Our workers are usually paid above this wage due to the unique skills they offer and the shortage of this employee pool. We cannot stop trying to influence sound economic policy on the new majority in New York Legislature. The gap between urban and rural unfortunately did not narrow after all of these debates. Unfortunately, if agriculture is to remain viable in New York our work is not over but has only just begun. I fear those that do not understand our world have a new thirst for more in the future. Pardon me if I do not say “thank you.”

Three Hearings Down—What Have We Learned?

As we draw closer to some decision by the New York State Legislature on what will be the details in the final version of the Farm Worker Labor Bill we should try to reflect on what we have seen.

To begin with, I was very proud of the quality of each and every testimony given by our industry. No two were alike. Each exposed a unique aspect of agriculture. Regardless if the testimony was from Morrisville or out on Long Island the message was consistent. Here are some of the conclusions offered by everyone.

To begin, this issue will impact all types of agriculture. Fruit, dairy vegetable or any other type will be impacted. Each stated the reality that they are Price Takers. Supply and demand will dictate the returns. We do not have the ability to increase our prices to offset increases in our individual operation. We either can or cannot succeed under the existing price structure. Unlike public government we cannot vote in an increase.

Every report stated a huge respect and dependency on their employees. They knew how dependent they were in having these people in their operation. Every effort was made to meet employee needs.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Almost every farm reported long repeated years of consistent service. Likewise, employees when asked reported a comfort in the relationship they had with their employers.

What struck me was the reality that we were being asked to support a legislative change to a system that was not broken or under stress. Usually new legislation is created to replace flawed conditions. Could each situation be improved? Yes, of course.  It appeared that when an issue did arise the employee and employers were able to discuss and make changes.

The two large issues seem to be collective bargaining and overtime. Farms in general were not really opposed to giving employees the right to collective bargaining so long as they were assured of a no strike clause. As one farmer stated we have been “collectively bargaining” for years with our employees on a farm by farm basis.

Employees that testified showed a keen understanding of the economics of the farms they were working on. They understood that the farms were offering all that was possible. They also seemed to understand that yes it would be nice to receive more money but the farm could not pay 50% more and not have any more work accomplished. They wanted to have the unlimited hours and the stability of being employed in one place. They did not wish to join so many other Americans that today are struggling to make ends meet with two jobs.  I wager many US citizens wish they could have greater than 39 hours of work each week like these farm employees.

In short, it really comes down to the fact that in production agriculture we work on often times impossible margins. Competition for market share too often leaves low returns. I think these hearings have actually exposed the true economic reality of agriculture. It is not that farms are willingly underpaying their help but that they simply are maxed out. So long as technology does not offer a cheaper way to bring the food to the market place we will see this struggle to satisfy everyone’s expectations.

Farming is certainly not for everyone. It is a demanding vocation with mixed returns. I feel it will always be dependent on world, national and local supply and demand. We are all very fortunate to have people who are willing to accept the challenge of agriculture and those who find value in working in it. Governments have the ability to make farms less profitable but they do not have the ability to guarantee economic success. While some may idealistically state this is solely a moral issue the reality of it is a simple question of basic economics.

 

Public Hearing on Farm Worker Fair Labor Practice Act Senate Bill 2837, SUNY Sullivan, Loch Sheldrake, NY

My name is Paul Baker. I grew up in Niagara County on a fruit and vegetable farm. I was the fifth generation to work on this farm. My Son Brett would follow me and be the last, sixth generation.  I have always lived with “farm workers.”  My father worked for over 25 years with the same migrant family from Florida. In the winter they harvested citrus in the Ocala area of Florida. When the citrus was harvested they traveled to our farm to harvest our crops. Each mid-November they returned to Florida to the citrus.

I grew up with these people. After work I played basketball with them in the barn. Once, when I was struggling with my high school French studies, my Dad’s foreman, a WWII vet, made me only converse with him in French. A language he learned while serving our country in the war. Later when the farms labor was from Jamaica my son would go each night to the Housing and enjoy music with the men, his friends.  I tell you this because in agriculture we have a very strong bond with our help. They really are an extended family. For 18 years we welcomed basically the same men to our farm to complete the growing cycle. The housing was always very close to our own. After my Father passed away my Mother was asked if she felt unsafe living so close to the camp? Her reply was” I feel much more at risk when they are not there.”

I tell you this multi-generational tale to try to illustrate the unique bond we have with our employees. To suggest that we would not have their best interest in mind is to not comprehend this bond. If we mistreated our employees, then why did they come back each year?

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

I have heard in the two previous hearings statements to the effect that farms could always pay more to their employees. This is not an economic issue but a moral one. Over the years we have had to find ways to offer increased wages. Cost of living continue to increase. History will support me when I tell you that agriculture has met this challenge through research  improvements in farming practices. Higher yielding orchards, improved root stocks, labor saving equipment have been ways we have been able to meet these increases in labor costs.

In principle I find many of the items in this bill misleading. To people who do not know our history you would be led to believe our employees do have basic protections such as workers compensation or unemployment. All of our housing is state and often federally inspected. Farm owners, for years, attend self-improvement seminars on compliance and ways to improve human resources.

I think it is time for both sides to try to find ways to continue this long positive history of farm employees in New York State. To do this, both sides must agree that at the conclusion of this effort we will have a strong base for agriculture in our State. Only then can both sides continue. Yes this is a moral issue. Unfortunately, even in houses of worship they find it necessary to pass the plate. Economics is a fact of life.

I think I speak for farms across this State. We are willing to discuss issues and find solutions to meet your request for the big questions of the day, those are at what level can we afford overtime and collective bargaining, so long as it has a no strike clause. I hear many want a mandatory day of rest included. I would offer that often this should be left to the wishes of the employees and the seasonal pressures of the moment.

I am here to tell you that the system is not broken. We do not have employees on strike or in the streets carrying protest banners. Can we improve conditions? Every human resource situation today can only reply, of course.

Hearing at Morrisville SUNY on Farm Labor

Thank you for the opportunity to present some objective observations from my position as the Executive Director of NYS Horticultural Society during the last ten years. For 40 years earlier I was the owner operator of Baker Farms in Niagara County. This was a fruit and vegetable fresh operation. My observations then come from two different perspectives. I have real world farm “boots on the ground” and organizational experiences.

I applaud the efforts to have multiple hearings so that every side of this discussion may be uncovered.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

In my opinion, the Senate and Assembly bills we are here to discuss have long lasting implications for all of New York State agriculture and the entire up state economy. In short we need to get this right!

To begin, I am certain that everyone here has the most sincere intentions to make certain all farm workers are given every protection under the law. Farming is different from almost any other occupation. It requires total dedication to your craft. Traditional norms often do not apply. Societies have attempted and failed, such as in the Communist models, to remove the farm from the owner. In my opinion, farming is in many ways similar to being a parent.  Just as when your child has a need, you address it with no regards to time. When a crop needs to be harvested or a herd needs to be milked it has to be addressed. Farming seldom can be slotted in an 8 hour or 40 hour time slot.

When you select agriculture as your career path you accept certain realities. Just as one accepts if you are a doctor you cannot dictate when your expectant mother will deliver her child.

Agriculture, unlike public government is dependent on producing products that will meet public demand. Each farm must produce and market within the economics of the supply and demand chains. Unlike State Government that can dictate annual increases in minimum wage. Agriculture pricing is a product of world and national supplies. Buyers will seek the highest quality for the lowest price. Always have and always will. Our grocery stores will never be void of the highest quality produce and food products. The sad truth is that if New York fails to produce one gallon of milk or one bushel of apples our local shelves will remain 100% stocked.

It is this reality that brings me to my question for this body. What is the desired end best result from this legislation? It will not serve any farm worker if we create legislation that does not allow agriculture to remain competitive in this food marketing supply chain.  If farms cannot meet payrolls they will be forced to close or dramatically alter their product choices. They will be forced to downsize, move away from labor intensive agriculture or close. In each of these examples it does not offer greater opportunities for farm employees.

We have the opportunity to calmly explore numerous options beyond the current language in the  Senate and Assembly bills. I honestly feel that the final wording of these Bills can be drafted that will allow NYS Agriculture to remain a leader in production. It also can find ways to mutually protect both the employer and employee from unfair labor practices. No one wins if the final legislation is not forward thinking in ways to see Agriculture continue in New York State.

I am encouraged that we are having these hearings. I pray for cool heads. I know that farm workers are some of the hardest and most talented workers. All of New York Agriculture is united in finding ways to protect and reward farm employees. To use an old saying we must be very careful in drafting this legislation so that we do not “throw the baby out with the bath water!”

Thank you for the opportunity to address this hearing.

 

 

Hearing on Senate Bill 2837 Suffolk County Legislature April 26, 2019

Mindset of Agriculture Today While we Await the Outcome of Senate 2837

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

I thought it might help to hear what is on the minds of Agriculture in New York today. As the Director of 3 farm boards, I receive, on a daily basis, calls from farms asking me to project the outcome of this legislation. Nature does not allow these farms to set everything on the back burner and await the final outcome. They must make real world decisions today that may or may not really be in their best interest depending on this piece of legislation. Here are a few of those decisions/questions;

  • Should I put my farm up for sale today before this Bill becomes a reality? There is little question that land values will take a dip if this Bill passes.  I know of large farms that have in fact sold or have placed their farms up for sale before land values fall.
  • What about investing in new land, equipment, storages, employee housing both new and improved are just a few of the questions that are on hold.
  • Should I return my seed/trees for a credit or plant it? I am unsure if I will be able to afford the labor cost later this year.
  • I actually have dairy farms that are slaughtering new calves because they cannot afford to feed them under current economics. Just meeting current bills is an impossible task. If this Bill passes as currently drafted they see no path forward.
  • Estate planning? How do we plan for tomorrow not knowing if we can survive the future costs here in New York? Young farmers are looking to other careers.
  • How do I craft contracts for 2019 if I cannot project my labor costs?
  • Time to lock in on seasonal recruitment of my labor for 2019. Can I sign a work order if I do not know the terms for myself or my employees? H2A agreements need to be crafted and advertised. If I limit my men to 40 hours will I be able to attract my experienced labor to my farm?

Most every farm at this date is locked into the 2019 crop. They are very uncertain as to the rules of employment and what this will mean for their operations. Nature will not wait. Crops need to be set in a timely basis to meet harvest before the frost of winter arrives. Overhead dictates farms must move forward. The costs of not doing so would be equally damaging.

I understand that we need to ensure that every employee is protected under the rules of fair labor. I see this discussion having huge long term effects on the state economy.  We are in the midst of annual minimum wage increases here in New York.  Due to the chronic lack of New Yorkers who will work on farms we must recruit from outside our state borders and often from outside our national borders. In order to manage our farms the reality is we must attract workers to our State. Farms, out of necessity, are using the federal program H2a.

Farms this year will have no choice but to accept the final language of this legislation for crop year 2019. The real impact will come as soon as crop year 2020. Once the true cost of labor is known, farms will drastically shift into new farming practices. If they see that they cannot pass on the new labor costs they will lose their markets. Traditional crops will have to be reassessed as to their feasibility. In short, agriculture will have no choice but to take on a whole new look. Only time will tell if this look is good for both farms and their employees.

 

Farm Worker Hearings Schedule is Now Set

We now have confirmation that the New York State Horticulture Society will be on the short list to offer oral presentation at the Farm Worker Hearings. The list of hearings will be as follows;

April 25, 2019             SUNY Morrisville, NY

April 26, 2019             Suffolk County Legislature, Smithtown, NY

May 2, 2019                SUNY Sullivan, NY

We will submit a written report. Second, we will then give an oral report on our concerns. This will offer a

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Q &A. The plan is to offer equal presentations offering balanced time for each side of the debate.

In preparation for these three hearings, I encourage you to submit your own version of how you see this Bill impacting your operation should it move from Bill to Law. Also attempt to offer examples of what has happened when you have tried to curtail hours on your farm. Please send these ideas to our office. I will be offering 3 reports. I wish to offer 3 separate reports that will help report your views. It is very important you participate in this process. Either email or call me to offer your opinions.

I can be reached at the following:

Paul Baker

716-807-6827 (cell)

pbaker.hort@roadrunner.com

or

NYSHS@hotmail.com

 

 

 

So, What is Happening as Far as Overtime?

The wheels of Democracy are moving. Exactly where they will stop is the question. As a grower you must be filled with more questions than answers on this legislative activity. I will try to bring you up to speed. I must tell you that at this time it is totally up in the air as to which way it will end.

To begin, we have two basically identical bills in play. Senate Bill 2877 sponsored by Senator Ramos from the Queens. She is a freshman Democrat. The key issues to her bill are the following; Overtime after 8 hours each day and overtime after 40 hours in a week; Collective bargaining; Mandatory day of rest each week. The Assembly has a very similar Bill 2750 carried by Assemblywoman Nolan, Democrat, from Queens. In the next couple months the plan is to have several hearings across the State to review and discuss these bills. At this time the specifics of when and where these events will take place are not set.

In an effort to be objective I think the authors of these bills most likely have good intensions. The issue is they have very incomplete information from which to draw their conclusions. It is our intention that we will be able to bring both sides to a clear understanding of the facts. I will tell you it is currently very difficult as there has been very little effort thus far to understand the conditions on a modern farm in New York State by the two authors of these Bills.

According to a 2019 report from Farm Credit East, mandatory overtime would increase labor costs on farms by almost $300 million and decrease net farm income by almost 25%. Net farm income is down 50% from a few years ago and farmers have little to no control over the prices they receive for the products they offer for market.

Farm workers have repeatedly stressed to farmers that the number of hours available to work weigh

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

heavily in their decision to work on a particular farm.  If a farm must reduce hours to fall under the overtime threshold, it would most likely force existing workers to look elsewhere for a job making a tight labor market even more stressed.

Collective bargaining has long been a grave concern for farms. The reality is that this is not such a threat so long as we can have a “No Strike” clause added. Currently there is none in either Bill. The mandatory day of rest needs to be amended to read “voluntary” day of rest. During peak harvest times neither farmers nor farm workers wish to be forced to sit.

What can you do? As the announcements become known, you need to voice your individual story as to how this Bill would impact your farm. If possible, have your employees offer their voice as to how they feel about the impact of this Bill on their lives. If you can take the time to offer testimony, do so. If not, submit written accounts of this Bill on your future. If the opportunity presents itself, be present to show solidarity to this issue. I cannot stress enough the best time to deal with a Bill is before it gets passed and signed into law. We need to stop or dramatically force changes to this Bill in the Senate and Assembly. Once it passes both chambers most feel there is little doubt the Governor will sign it.

Everyone wishes we were not faced with this challenge. The 8 hour per day and 40 hour per week version will, if passed, dramatically alter New York agriculture. We simply will not be able to meet national prices. As much as you may not like it, some form of overtime will very likely be in play. We need to get these numbers at a level we can still hire labor and remain competitive in the market place.

The details of this bill will have enormous implications on New York State agriculture and the up-state economy. It will serve no one to complain later if we do not make every effort to meet the challenges of this bill head on.