Growing Ag in New York

On Tuesday, December 12, 2017, Paul Baker who is the Executive Director of the NYSHS, was asked to address a Congressional

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Committee concerning agriculture in NYS.  Below is his presentation.

Thank you for first of all calling this topic to the forum. The very fact that we are having this discussion is positive. Agriculture has always been a huge economic driver in New York State.  That being said I would caution that history is a report on the past. Simply because past history has reported a trend does not guarantee future directions. We live in a global economy that, due to rapid advances in communication and transportation, our planet is virtually becoming much smaller. No longer do oceans present huge barriers to trade. What happens inside the borders of New York State will have economic implications on all trade statewide, nationally and globally.

The question today is what can we do to grow NY AG? I would first offer that we need to accept that Agriculture by its very nature is not confined to local business alternatives. A New York farmer produces milk or apples for consumers far outside  his neighborhood or State lines. Agriculture does not face the same challenges as do providers of local services. A consumer may not like the price of a cup of coffee at the corner deli but she will not reach out or travel to a coffee deli in a faraway areas for an alternative.  His market place is dictated by supply and demand factors that are set by factors that are driven by national and global economy. An apple grown in a Western New York orchard has just as great an opportunity to be enjoyed by a consumer at a local Wegmans or in a home in Tel Aviv.

I feel we must help New York Agriculture to be competitive in this already described market. To fail to do so will send sales opportunities to more progressive locations. No longer can we feel that our New York consumers are ours alone due to their proximity. Yes the local trend will continue to have its niche but the lion’s share of the volume of products will flow to the larger market place.

I personally feel we can do much to place NY Ag in a strong competitive position. Our climate is our own. It is different from the desert climate of Washington State where the largest volume of apples are grown. Cultural practices that are suited for a California or Washington State setting will most likely have little applications for our New York farms.  For this fact alone we need to collectively invest in research to develop cultural practices that reduce pesticide dependence and increase our quality. I feel that this research should be a shared investment. The producers, I feel, need to illustrate to the State that this research is of value to them. They need to show that they have some “skin” in the game. Research is absolutely necessary for any enterprise to continue moving forward today. We should partner to make certain it is on target and constantly seeking fresher solutions to the new challenges of the day.

The acid test for you as a legislator I would offer is, how does this request strengthen or weaken our ability to be competitive?  We first have a collective responsibility to every New York citizen to make certain we are maintaining the purity of our water and land. The consumers have every right to expect that the bounty that flows from our farms is safe and nutritious.  Once meeting these standards we then must move to enhance the economic stability of agriculture in this state. There is a danger that societies can make that just because we have a history of a particular industry it will always remain. I need not remind each of you of the many industries that have continued but are no longer here in New York State. Agriculture will remain here only so long as it can remain economically solvent. If too many restrictions are placed upon it above the national norm it will seek relocation.

We are blessed with abundant water, rich fertile lands, a challenging climate and a huge market. If agriculture is to continue here in New York Sate it will because of the wise decisions both private and public powers make. We will dictate our own future. We have huge advantages here in New York State. My wish is that we will have the vision to see the entire picture and develop a strong path forward.

Time for a Real Reality Check

 

This will be a very difficult article for many of you to read. I can assure you that it is even more difficult for me to draft. We have been discussing and advocating for changes to improve our labor situation on our respective farms. Many of you have traveled to countless meetings in various locations such as Albany and DC to make your case. The end result is we have kept the debate alive but in truth seen little positive changes. So what do we do? Being from New York State and being a farmer giving up simply does not seem like a choice. We each have faced more setbacks that we have had no control over in the past. Is this setback like bad weather and weak markets? I would argue no. To continue to beat the same drum in the same way may however not be the best usage of our efforts.

America has always had a shortage of farm labor ever since the last Pilgrim stubbed his toes on Plymouth Rock. Non-agriculture occupations have always loomed in a more positive light here. We actually fought a Civil War over this very topic. This  reluctance to change came close to destroying the Union. Time marches forward. Technology offers many changes to our work. In most work sites, technology has made the work less strenuous. The sad truth is that this is not the case in agriculture. Yes we have advanced machines to do many chores but the horse seems to have made out better than the field hands. The horse no longer pulls our farm tools but we still depend on a man to pick our fruit.

As farmers, we have always blindly accepted that the laws of supply and demand would decide the price of a bushel of apples. Yet we seem to not accept these same laws of supply and demand when it comes to our cost for labor. Today we have evolved and made great advances in our operations. New equipment, buildings and in general every advancement to our industry has been accepted and somehow we have found a way to finance this growth. So my question is, why is labor different?

I think it will continue to be the farm business that embraces new technologies that will survive. Supply and demand is very real. It is present in our ability to source the necessary human resources we need to remain world-wide competitive. Every industry has been forced with this similar dilemma. We have seen this in industry, entertainment, pro sports and more. In order to field the best human resources you have to offer the most attractive package. Agriculture is no longer immune to this truth.

I agree that we need a legal system to hire the best human resources necessary to operate in 2017. This may mean we need to source this labor from abroad. Many of the best hockey players and baseball players we watch every day are not US citizens. To remain at that elite level those enterprises have found a way to employ the necessary talent.

We need to accept that we are not the same agriculture of our grandfathers or for that matter our fathers.  We are today “agribusiness” not simply the “family farm” that only hired family members and distant uncles. Times have changed. We have changed. The farms of the future will accept this and make the needed changes to source the most talented team. Yesterday is gone. It will only return in our memory. We need to see the reality that farm labor comes with cost. It is rare and it is talented. If you wish to draw from this limited pool you need to be willing to invest in it.