A Final Farewell to George Frederick Lamont

On March 13, 2020 we all lost a generational person. George was simply in a field of his own.  I find it very “George” that he passed on Friday the 13th. He always had his own spin on any event. I think George’s greatest gift was he was never satisfied. This is not to say he was a negative thinker. On the contrary he simply felt we just have not researched enough to be content. He unlike most embraced change. If everything was to remain fixed, we would all be driving horses. To George it never was a question if the glass was half full or half empty. If we were questioning the state of the bloody glass it was long overdue to get a new glass.

I will not begin to list his many personal and industry accomplishments. To all of you, like myself, we each have a favorite story of just how George Lamont interacted with your life. My first memory of George was in the living room of my home growing up. George was the youngest member at this gathering of forward-thinking apple leaders.  He was already looked upon as an innovator that deserved to be heard by seasoned leaders in our industry.  If George was involved in any discussion it was a certainty that he would be questioning why we were not heading in a new direction.

Today the fruit industry is facing grave challenges in marketing, new labor regulations, varietal shifts

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

and a list that seems to increase daily. In truth this was the world of George Lamont. He always projected a calm air of confidence that we would survive the current challenges and rise to a better place as a result. For every question there must be an answer. It may take a while to uncover but it was always there if you had the imagination to look beyond the present.

Even in his later years he created challenges most people would not ever consider. The last time I personally talked to George was at Jim Allen’s retirement party. He told me that he was living in Saranac Lake. I asked him why there? He quickly named the highest mountains in the Adirondacks. It was his personal challenge to climb each one. I do not know if he ever finished this last project. If not, it was certainly not for trying.

As I have already reported we face numerous challenges ahead in our industry. We do not know today how we will resolve these new hurtles. I guess we each should ask ourselves if an 80-year-old man can have the vision to climb the highest peaks in the Adirondacks than we should not feel any mountain that lies ahead of us is too tall. When we do solve this new series of challenges do not be surprised if you hear George in the back of your mind ask you “What took you so long? We still have much to do.”

George you will be missed but never replaced. Word of advice George be a little patient with Saint Peter! I doubt he has had many the likes of you to deal with!

2020 year of Opportunity and New Directions

You did not select being a fruit farmer because of the constant repetition in the work. Farming is, at times, too unpredictable but it certainly stretches your personal skills to the max. Let’s take a moment and try to for see what might be lying in wait for us in the next year.

To begin, it will be the first year under the new farm worker bill. Every farm will be attempting to maximize the work schedules and fall close to or slightly above the new overtime limits of 60 hours. I am not too nervous over this as I see it having some side benefits as it forces employers to place higher emphasis on the work tasks assigned. We will each learn to meet this challenge. Honestly I see this as a challenge but need not be one that will drastically put farms in grave risks.

The next needed fresh look or perhaps opportunity will for each farm to stop and reassess the variety

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

break down in their portfolios. As an industry we have always seen new varieties enter and in time push aside older ones. The only difference today it that this evolution seems to now come at a faster pace. The consumer will have the final verdict as to what they will place in their cart. Our farms will forever, moving forward, be driven by this shopping cart choice. Take the time to ask, observe and then act to make certain you are investing those new 60 hour work weeks in the correct spot.

Thirdly we need to understand that the marketing order will be up for certification in 2 years. This offers a great opportunity to review past directions and take a fresh look at how this order can be structured to best serve the present needs of your farm. I strongly encourage you to maintain the order. That being said I just as strongly need you to ask yourself how you want the order to be administered to best help you bring improved financial returns to your farm. If you see the order as an expense than I think you have failed to give the order the direction it deserves to be an asset. Orders only work when they have the support and creative inputs to be successful.

I think fruit production in the future will be different. That is good. We began by agreeing we are not the type of worker who can survive 52 weeks a year doing the same task. We are lucky living here in the north. Once a year it forces us to take a step back due to weather to review what we are doing. Spring will be knocking on your door too soon. Take Mother Nature’s cue and review before you plunge into perhaps outdated tasks. The future is yours to design.

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.

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.

February Reality Check

I just spent two full days taking two groups around Albany. The first day they were from the Berry Industry. On the second day, they were primarily apple growers, but they had other tree fruit interests. Each group had budget items to discuss. At every one of my 30 visits we closed with a Q and A about the possibility of new legislative action on the Farm Omnibus issues. Of all the possible issues, the possibility of overtime at any level but most of all 40 hours looms high.

I am not here to cast any negatives on any sector of our industry. The reality is this as I see it. Dairy is locked in a struggle to cover overhead while they continue to out produce demand. They have no legal right to hire foreign workers like the H2A. Overnight, fruit is seeing that its traditional top four varieties are now listed in the back of their consumer’s demand. The rapid decline of demand for Macs, Cortland, Empire and Red Delicious are leaving producers with over 50% of their acreage in a less desirable demand position. Dairy and fruit are the top two categories in New York. I need not list the issues that are present in the remaining crops. Are they important? Cornell studies say apples account for 1.2 billion dollars annually. Regardless of misconceptions by too many New Yorkers, agriculture is a major economic driver we cannot afford to lose.

One quick takeaway that I think is important to mention here. In both Albany and DC we see a huge

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

changing of senior leadership. Albany and DC are having to adjust to a large percentage of new legislators. They are loud and they intend to quickly make their mark. Educating these new legislators is a very new challenge. They arrive, in most instances, with strong convictions. Often times their sources of information are based on perceptions from social media verses facts. So we must defuse these already strong perceptions before we can to move ahead in any discussions.

Here are two examples of what we are facing. In the Senate Veteran Committee there are only two members with any military experience. In the Assembly Agriculture Committee similarly there are only two members with any real agriculture experience. We are seeing committees making policy for us all that have no real world understanding of their respective topics. I have echoed this to you all before. If you decide to not speak, many will fill your absence that have no understanding of your world.

Regardless of what you might think you have heard or hoped for this issue will appear shortly after they complete the arduous budget debates in early April. Perception becomes reality. If you have ever been to either the legislative chambers in Albany or DC you must first pass inspection for security reasons. Trust me when I tell you the ‘weapons of misconceptions’ that are sneaking threw are very dangerous. We must make every effort to continue to be in discussions prior to these legislative floor hearings. I believe, for the most, part people wish the best for each other. Too often however we all may rush to judgment before we truly comprehend the entire topic. We have time between now and the end of this legislative session. I urge you to get involved. It is nearly impossible to get rid of bad legislation. It is often time best served to head it off before it becomes reality.

Will We Ever Reach the Ultimate Success for our Commodity?

Today you can fly from St. Louis to LA in 4 hours. Not so long ago it took 5 months by covered wagon to make this same trip, under ideal conditions. If you had problems, Denver became your new home. Your wagon could cover, on a good day, 20 miles. It carried no more than the capacity of a modern pick-up truck. My point is obvious, I hope. Once you move ahead you never really go back. What will it be like in 50 years to grow apples in New York State? What I know for certain is that it will be very different.

I used to operate a fruit farm. I was fourth generation. At that time, we packed most of our own fruit. It was almost a daily ritual that my Father would come into the packing house to visit. The first place he always went was to the cull bin. I knew the second place with certainty! He would come to question my sanity. He would tell me that I was discarding better apples than he ever raised? What was wrong with my management skills? My Father is gone today but I never really was certain that he could accept the grading standards of those days. The truth is, each year we produce a higher quality product. It has better condition and eating ability. Our consumers have grown to see this “perfection” as the new norm.

Everything in 2018 is better than it was a few years before. ‘New” is a short-lasting piece of time.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Change is the norm in everything, not just in agriculture. We must be willing to change with the times. Markets, varieties, customer preferences last as long as the new cell phone models. To accept this, we need to be willing to constantly self-examine all aspects of our business. People will always be looking for someone else to grow their food. Gone forever are the days of populations that were self-sufficient in this task. Not so long ago the world population had more people living in urban settings than rural. In short, this means people are looking for someone else to provide the food and fiber they need to survive.

To meet this reality, we must continue to invest in all forms of research. We need to be willing to accept that change is the new norm. To resist or ignore this is a path to ruin. This means we must take long objective looks at how we both grow and market our crops. Referring back to my Father visiting my packing house, he was not comfortable with how rapidly the industry was evolving. His way of doing business had changed and was never coming back.

I have just concluded my 15th year of helping a modern fruit farm with harvest. I am very grateful for this opportunity to experience first-hand the new reality in fruit production.  I think it is important if I am to be credible in representing our industry that I get my boots dirty on the ground. If I did not, I would be like my Father visiting the cull bin years ago. People will always need fruit. It is our challenge to understand their needs and then surpass their expectations. Those that are successful in the future will always be ten steps ahead of the pack. Embrace the challenge and support those that are willing to invest in ways to improve today. We truly are a work in progress.

Perception verses Reality

Recently I was asked to appear on a three-person panel to discuss modern agriculture in a heavily agriculture-based area. The people in attendance were from all walks of the community. It was not my typical audience where I traditionally am speaking to my peers. I am not certain which side learned more that day? The other two people on my side of the panel did an excellent job of speaking to the audience. They were neither too technical not so simplistic to serve no real message.  The underlying message that I took from this day was that here in the heart of agriculture, land not inner city, we were totally a mystery to these interested people.

I suppose I expected a greater appreciation of agriculture here in farm land. I did not expect those who have lived their entire life with concrete verses soil under their feet to appreciate our challenges. The group was attentive but almost in shock when hearing the individual financial, compliance and marketing challenges that farms were up against. In the end, I got the feeling they saw us as a group who had just informed them that Santa Claus was a myth. They wanted the safety of knowing their food, which was grown just down the road, was safe and CHEAP. One man came up to me at the end and stated that he really did not care about our challenges. He had more than enough of his own. He wanted his food “perfect and cheaper.”

I personally dislike when people throw statistics at me to win their point. It is fair to state that today

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Americans have very little knowledge of 2018 agriculture. They all have busy days and too many distractions to really care if we are being profitable or over legislated. What they see is that apples in the retail aisle are priced in dollars per pound not pennies. They only see perfect cosmetic fruit and must assume this is simply how Mother Nature delivers it to us. Since they are all consumers they feel they have the right to address an opinion on how we farm regardless if it has any reality to their desires. For example, they wish us to deliver this cosmetically perfect fruit to them totally organic and pesticide free. They also want us to do this with the minimum use of the ten fingers we seem to feel are critical to this delivery. Life should be so simple.

I personally had hopes that the millennials would bring a new awareness to the science of modern agriculture. I had hoped that they would not be so easily swayed when the topics of GMOs and the true safety of all our food supplies grown within our borders.  This does not seem to be the reality. This group wants more organic and absolutely zero GMOs. They do not wish to understand how modern agriculture techniques can reduce pesticide and fertilizer usage. They do not want to know why we need to import our labor when we have US citizens on unemployment. In short, we seem to be a group that wishes to ignore progress and continue to farm as we have for centuries. Here their “perception is reality.”

I take from this experience that we are even more in need of consumer education. Since we are all consumers we should share a common respect for the process of producing that food supply. I was wrong to assume that there was a stark difference between the people living in a rural setting verses an urban one. In fact, people living in the rural see first-hand the expensive machines going by their homes that in many instances are worth more than their homes. Hard to feel compassion for those who can afford such machines.

I feel that marketing and new opportunities to address the public need to address this reality. We each fear what we do not understand. No one likes the first day of school or the first day on a new job. We each find ways to comfort ourselves as to what is happening outside of our world. We need to invest in finding ways to make their reality based upon truth more so than perception. We need to articulate our story and not allow all the messaging to flow from uninformed sources. We live in a world that if it appears on your phone it must be true. If we wish to be understood, we must be willing to invest in the message.

 

Ways to Reduce Your Labor in 2019

Everyone who is managing a commercial apple orchard in New York State is concerned with whether they will have enough labor to harvest the new crop. I operated my family farm for over 30 years. Too often I was guilty of the concepts I will challenge you with. I know that what I am suggesting is not easy, but it may be the difference between you just surviving and seeing a profit.

To begin let me pose a question to you. Are you managing orchards that are productive but not profitable? Have the markets shifted away from these blocks? Will these blocks struggle to break even? If this is the case than you need to ask yourself why you are continuing to operate these blocks. Bushels alone do not guarantee profit. If those bushels have to be sold at a discount to move them are they doing you any good? Have newer strains found shelf space in their place? Am I having to house extra men to harvest these apples? Am I mowing, fertilizing, spraying and pruning these blocks often times more in an effort to meet color requirements? More than 100 apple varieties are grown commercially in the United States. Fifteen of those varieties represent 90% of the production.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Most of agriculture’s history enjoyed the fact that if you were able to grow a crop you could find a use for it. Distribution systems were such that you could find a “profitable” utilization for your efforts. In essence, if you grew it there would be a consumer waiting for it. Those days are gone here and globally. Today we need to farm from the shopping cart to our farm gate. They decide if they want your product. They have more choices than demand for each product. They are no longer in a consumer position to accept marginal quality.

Recently it was announced that the Gala variety has replaced the Red Delicious (dates back to 1870) as the most popular variety. Long standing varieties such as the Macintosh, that was discovered in 1811, and the Cortland, that was discovered around 1900, are understandably under great consumer challenge. Newer varieties have arrived. Consumers have diversity today in the market place. As they review and cast their vote at the checkout counters we need to take notice. They are sending us clear messages as to what they prefer. If we ignore this then we should not be surprised when our sales for older varieties decline.

I am not suggesting that any one variety is no longer profitable. I am asking each of you to evaluate your particular marketing program and react to those trends. At one time in my farm history I grew profitably over 100 acres of pears. The markets I was associated with made this a profitable venture. In the last years I was managing my farm it all changed. I was investing in removal of pears in favor of other newer apple varieties. What was once a sound program had shifted due to consumer buying trends.  As I alluded to earlier, I was guilty of holding on too long as well.

In conclusion, before you expand your housing take a good look at what you are needing to harvest. If you are gearing up to harvest crops that are productive but not profitable you need to step back. We all need to shift to meet consumer demands. The entire globe is eating better. Consumers everywhere have a higher income that allows them to select what they will eat. Be certain you are striving to match those trends.

 

Another Season Is Here Already

By the time you read this, assuming it does not get put on your future read pile, I will be back assisting in another harvest. I find these periods of helping with harvest vital to my staying in touch with you.  Yes, I was fifth generation farm family. The truth is I suspect that no matter what your craft, if you are more than 10 years removed from active duty your true perspective is flawed.  Much is the same as when I farmed but much is new.

I am a believer that if you wish to truly judge a topic it is best to experience it, if possible. A good example might be in education. If a teacher has not taught a classroom in over 10 years, I question if they understand all the baggage each child brings to class. Similarly, if a principal judges his faculty on his experiences of years teaching in the past I question his true perspective. My years of farming are a base, but I need to take off my dress shoes and lace up the work boots, in my opinion, to truly see the challenges. I am grateful for the opportunity to attempt to stay current.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

If all that I have stated to this point makes sense to you than I ask you a second question. How can our elected officials make sound decisions on your behalf? They can if they have access to people who wear those work boots and make the effort to enlighten them. If the “boots on the ground” crowd decides to stay away that void is quickly filled by those who have zero feedback from the farms. In the last few years I have been very encouraged to see new faces (many times with familiar last names) stepping up to make the effort to discuss the issues when called upon. There is no substitute for living the realities of agriculture 2018.

The last view point I wish to make is that of your consumer. We need to continue to inform and share our farming experiences with our consumers. Each year most of our consumers have no contact with you, the producer. They are not your enemy but they clearly have no sense of reality of your pressures.  On a daily basis I see farm vehicles drive by my home that exceed the net value of the homes they are passing. Is it any wonder the average consumer is left with the initial opinion that the farmer is doing quite well. The second startling reality that most of the American consumers has no idea how small a percentage of the Farm Bill goes to serving farms.  They assume their tax dollars are helping each of you at a very high cost to their taxes.

In closing, I am making the case that each of us must make the time to discuss our issues. We also must make certain we are current on our opinions. I find today a very big question that is floated to me is on trade. Make certain you research your answers before sharing one. As I have already stated, the halls of Congress are filled with people who have never stepped one foot on a farm.  Each year changes the narrative. It is essential we each keep informed and then be willing to share our opinions for the advancement of all.

My Observations from My One Acre Piece of Land

Unless your operation is in Maine or south of the Mason Dixon line we all pretty much sound alike. A second thing we all have in common is we are each in the midst of a total rebuild. What you grew two years ago, variety wise, may be less or more valuable today. In most cases the less valuable category seems to be growing. Your consumers have less and less awareness of where or how the apples they consume got to their respective store shelf. Local does still have its niche for some varieties but nationally it is being driven by four to five recognized varieties. Consumers are looking for honey crisp, gala, fuji, red delicious and their old personal favorite from years of shopping locally.

The per capita consumption is stable. Regardless of the introductions of newer varieties the shopper is still consuming about the same volume. This tells me that each year as new varieties emerge we will see it displace a once popular variety. The real trick is to predict which variety will be accepted and which variety will be dropped. To make an inaccurate selection can be fatal. Similarly, to hold onto a variety expecting it to remain in high demand once the consumer has moved on is equally fatal. Orchards today are much more capable of being worked to a different variety than those of the traditional style planting. While this can be done it takes time and delays necessary cash flows.

I have stated that there seems to be a centering of a top five variety list by the produce buyers. This list

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

may alter year to year. Each orchard is limited by its location. Apples grown in the southern portion of Virginia will not be able to compete with varieties grown further north. Similarly, just because the buyers want a fuji it does not mean you can produce it if your growing season is too short. We need to match our selections to our location.

The next area of commonality is the human resource factors. Regardless of where you grow apples you will be looking for some supply of guest workers. The peeked short term need for labor will always make this a reality. Canadian growers are equally dependent on sourcing guest workers. If you wish to grow apples on a commercial level you need to be proficient in sourcing guest workers and then providing good temporary housing. The truth is, there are presently more jobs than workers. If you wish to insure a supply of good help you will need to invest as much effort in this as in growing that perfect apple. Housing seems to be the most limiting factor in today’s market. If you do not have enough labor you will be forced to, at times, abandon some blocks to pick your higher valued crops on time.

Finally, your ability to gather good information will determine your ability to survive. You will never reach a level where you have all the facts. We need to collectively work to support research both for horticulture and market trends.  We need more than ever the ability to influence both our respective State and Federal public policy makers. They need to be kept in touch with all of the changing pressures we are facing. No matter if your farm is in Washington or New York or somewhere in between you need to be supporting efforts to influence sound applied research. Knowledge is power, and it never was truer than today on your farms.

Apples are a global product. They are grown all over the globe. They are being consumed today in more places than ever before. As the saying goes, if your choice is to be an apple farmer you need to decide how you best fit into this industry. We will be facing perhaps the largest domestic crop in decades. Many will have a strong year and for some who are unable to cope with the need to change this will be a very difficult year. We are all a product of a long series of choices. Be certain you are doing all you can to arm yourself with the most current information so you may make those choices.

In closing, I was talking to a grower recently. He offered that he intended to cut back his operation. I asked him if he was down-scaling?  He said no simply making wiser choices. He said there were areas that he felt the best he could do moving forward was break even. He intended to remove those acres and concentrate on the acres he saw profit potential. Often times less is not stepping back but moving ahead.