Are You Ready?

Three days ago the calendar suggested that spring was here. We have already changed the clocks to allow us the maximum sun time. The question is, as you trade in your winter gear for short sleeves, are we ready for this season? Perhaps a better question is are we any better prepared to face the risks associated with growing the 2011 crop? I think we are and I will attempt to explain why in this report.

NYS Board of Directors from the Horticultural Society on February 10 traveled in unison to Capitol Hill to tell their Congressional members, in person, exactly how upset they were that there has been zero positive movement to relieve the guest worker issue back home. In fact, it could be actually stated, and they did, that because of the interference of the Federal Government it is now even more difficult to place legal farm workers on the land in New York State. Growers quoted financial costs that they were absorbing due to the failure of the Federal DOL to process their H2A documents in an efficient manner. They made this message on this day in both Senate offices and eight up-state Congressional offices. The message was loud and it was heard. How do I know it was heard? Two offices in particular were prompted into action directly as a result of these visits. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and Congressman Bill Owens have been actively involved to set the process in a corrective mode. They are currently both leading efforts to streamline the H2A process, if for no other area than the growers of New York State. Senator Schumer is working in the Senate to deliver a package to move the immigration issue to a vote. Senator Gillibrand has been very active in setting up contacts for all growers to contact her office if they require assistance in this process. She has gathered and delivered a strong voice of protest to DOL and encouraged Homeland Security to find a quick solution to the Jamaican deductions issue so that we will not have a repeat of 2010. These actions would not have been taken if it were not for efforts made by your Board of Directors to travel to DC to make not only their case but that of all growers.

Congresswoman Slaughter is holding a question and answer for growers in her region to directly pose to the Federal DOL. Her insistence on this issue on March 30, 2011 will leave no doubt in the minds of those in the DOL offices that they are on the clock and expected to perform in a judicious and timely manner.

Beware A Strong Southerly Wind

On February 16, 2011, I was in Kearneysville, West Virginia to chair a meeting to encourage research to counter the brown Marmorated stink bug (BMSB). Last season this pest reached levels of destruction that totally destroyed crops and vegetation in the mid-Atlantic regions of West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. The BMSB did make some movement into Adams County, Pa. but was not at a level there that it was a commercial issue. Fruit growers, however, in all of these regions are concerned as to how they will counter this pest because there is currently no successful treatment to control the BMSB.

Our mission was to encourage continued funding for the USDA station in light of loud cries from Washington to cut spending to such facilities. We joined US Apple and other representatives from the North East to pull out all of the stops to find a suitable program for this pest which arrived here from the Pacific Rim countries less than a decade ago. Since this pest has no known natural enemies and can over winter in our areas it has grown today to a level of commercial risk. I have sent reports to Albany, NY about the possible impact this pest may have on our State’s horticulture. I have asked Commissioner Aubertine to make every effort to encourage DEC to move swiftly to clear passage of any remedy if one does present itself.

Changing of the Guard

On March 14, 2011 we saw Peter Fleckenstein from Beak and Skiff replace Walt Blackler on our Board of Directors. We all want to thank Walt for his years of unselfish service to our industry. Walt will continue to represent the Horticultural Society on the NYS Research Board in Albany, NY. Tom DeMarree will serve his second term as chair of the Board. This is an excellent board that is very engaged in the programs and willing to go the extra mile for the industry. On two occasions when I was needed to be in Washington, DC and Kearneysville, West Virginia, Doug Fox covered the meetings in Syracuse for Council of Agricultural Organizations and later Rod Dressel and Chuck Mead gave a presentation at the Hudson Valley Fruit School. I think it is worthy to note the commitment of this board to represent your needs. We already sited the trip to DC by Rod Dressel, Chuck Mead, Bruce Kirby, John Ivison, Doug Fox and Will Gunnison on February 10. Dan Sievert was with me on February 3 as well to call on the Hill on similar issues.

Adverse Effect Wage rates for 2010 vs. 2011

As of March 1, 2011 the Adverse Effect Wage Rates have been issued. These rates cover every state except Alaska. As is always the case, there is a positive increase to the rates. In NY the rate increased to $10.25 per hour marking a $.09 increase over a year ago. The range in the nation is from $12.01 in Hawaii, where they saw the rate increase $.56 over last year to a low of $8.97 in both Mississippi and Louisiana. In both of these states the rate actually went down $.13 from the previous year. The overall average was an increase $.16 per hour nationally. Other states of interest to New York growers are; California $10.31; Florida $9.50; All New England States $10.25; Michigan $10.62; Ohio $10.84; Pennsylvania $10.60; Texas $9.65; Virginia $9.30 and Washington $10.60.

Executive Directors Report

As each of you return to your orchards I want you to know that the NYS Horticultural Society has only one mission. Our goal is to represent your needs when and where your voice is needed. In 2011 I have already been to Washington, DC four times and to Albany, NY twice on issues that directly impact your operations. I have the pleasure of working with a very unselfish and progressive Board of Directors. They will watch over the issues of the day and direct my efforts to represent you when you cannot afford to be away from your operations.

I honestly believe that, while all of you are disappointed that we have not seen AgJobs passed or a more progressive immigration platform established, in NY you are currently very much the envy of all growers in the US. Only in NY do we have both US Senators on the record in favor of AgJobs. You have had more Congressional co-sponsors to AgJobs over the last two Congresses than any other State. You have Senator Gillibrand seated on the Senate Ag Committee. Congressmen Bill Owens (D-23rd) and Chris Gibson (R-20th) serve on the House Ag Committees. The case has been made and heard that agriculture is a very important business here in New York. With such a strong presence as we currently have we will continue to work with this delegation to deliver positive messaging to Washington.

I want each of you to stop and decide if your source of labor on your operation will be from the H2A venue. If it is, you need to proceed now to secure your orders so that you will be able to contest and adjust to the diverse requests that currently seem to be consistent with this process. I personally used this process for 18 consecutive year’s right up until I retired from commercial farming. It was cumbersome but I do not personally think it was a poor investment. I kept very good cost per unit records and I found that while my wage rates were higher as a result of being in the program, my cost per unit was lower. It can be an excellent way for you to source a dependable labor supply.

If you do decide to go this route than you need to begin to know the local offices of your respective Congressman. Years earlier if I were to have written this report I would never have suggested this as a necessity. The reality is that in order to protect your job order you have a very good chance that you will need to call upon this office for their assistance in securing your papers in a timely fashion. I do believe that our delegation is aware of this and you will be treated with the proper respective you so rightly deserve. After all, you are the farm that is attempting to secure a legal guest worker.

Final thoughts on another topic that may become a news item. There is a very good chance that we will see Congress pass E-Verify. If they do and you will be forced to comply, do not feel that you are safe. Currently all this will do is verify that the names you have are associated with those social security numbers. If you are subject to a close audit, even if you are under E-Verify, you may find that those people are not valid. Thus, if this occurs on your operation in a critical time of need, such as peak of harvest you may be faced with terminating your current staff. Companies that have voluntarily gone into E-Verify have already been subject to this and lost their staffs. We have voiced our objection to this in both Senate offices and asked that agriculture be given some form of protection.