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.

What is at Stake in the next Year in Albany?

No one has a lock on tomorrow. We each can offer our most sincere educated estimate about the future. We must try to stay within our known borders and then project what could possibly happen. With total 100% certainty the political climate in Albany in 2019 will be changed. We know for certain that all three chambers now rest comfortably within one party. This makes passage of party programs significantly easier to obtain. Based upon the history of the last decade, it is safe to assume new legislation will be offered up that will significantly impact our industry. The question yet to be decided will be whether we can withstand these revolutionary changes?

The most obvious issue that will be facing NYS agriculture will it be mandated, like all other segments of labor, to pay employees on a 40-hour work week and pay time and a half? Collective bargaining is also of concern. For today let us simply look at time and a half on a commercial fruit farm. To do this we will make a few assumptions. We will assume that for this farm to maintain a credible work force that they are in the H2A program. Last year the adverse effect wage rate was $12.83.  We do not know the new one but it most likely will be in the range of $13 plus.  For today I will use last year’s rate. For my calculations I am going to say harvest was 10 weeks. I am going

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

to say the farm employed 50 workers. The average work week in harvest was 60 hours. In 2018 then that farm had a weekly hourly outlay just for harvest wages of $38,490. (60 hours X $12.83= $769.80 per employee. Now X 50 employees = $38,490 per week). This, of course, does not consider State unemployment and workers comp related costs. If we now do the same exercise at time and a half for this same farm, we see his direct costs rise to $2 shy of $900 per man per week. So, his new payroll will be up (40 hours X $12.83= $513.20 plus 20 hours at $19.25= $385). So, the new weekly pay check will be then $898.20. Same crew and not one extra bushel harvested. This farm will then have a weekly payroll of harvest employees alone of $44,910 plus other employment charges (50 employees X $898.20= $44.910).

For our simple example, Fruit Farm X has an increase of $6,420 per week ($44,910 – $38,490 = $6420). Now over 10 weeks we see an increase to harvest employees alone of $64,200. Same production.

The NYS minimum wage in 2019 is $11.10. This is $3.85 above the federal minimum wage. If you are in H2A you are paying $5.58 above the federal minimum wage. Farm wages are not by any means the lowest in the land. They greatly exceed the average small business sectors up and down main street. We need to make this point. Each farm employee creates multiple off farm jobs in NYS. Clearly NYS fruit farms cannot remain competitive if they must absorb these new estimated charges. A compromise must be reached, or we will see NYS forever altered. I remind everyone of the stark reality that once a farm operation closes its doors it never returns. Are we ready to see this radicle change in our State? Now is the time for everyone to get concerned. Currently, we have not seen the legislation we did our math homework on in this State. Today is not too late to begin a very serious debate.

I am asking each of you to rethink all the issues. As farmers, we are not immune to annual changes in weather, technology and markets. It comes as no surprise to anyone that labor availability is tied to higher wages. Agriculture in NYS is tied to a very high usage of labor. We are not an Iowa corn-based economy. As the new year arrives each of you need to educate yourself on all levels. Take advantage of educational programs such as the Becker Forum coming in January 2019. Reach out to your respective NYS legislators and have a discussion with them as to what is at stake. Support the efforts of your respective organizations that are presenting logical debates to many of these proposals.  If you fail to speak, I assure you this void will be filled by voices that have no real skin in the game. Action will occur. I encourage you to be a part of it.

 

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.

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.

We Need to Tell Our Story

Some of you may have taken the time to travel to visit your legislators in either Washington, DC or Albany, NY over the past years. If you had I am certain you were encouraged to make your conversations personal. Help put a face on the issue rather than some obtuse distant issue that never impacted anyone. The harsh reality is that legislators react most often to issues that could possibly increase or decrease their opportunities to get elected come next polling time. They need to be impressed that to not address this will impact voters in their districts.

Last Saturday marked the travel day from the farm I have been assisting this fall. I checked my personal records and the date I had last year was November 10. This is a difference of some 20 possible work days for these workers. They will be returning to their homes with a much lighter wallet simply because the crop was much lighter. Mother Nature is at times very harsh. When I circulated these men I asked if they planned to return.  In every case they were optimistic that next season would be better

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

and yes they would be back. In almost 100% of these men this is their only opportunity to earn much needed money for the families they have waiting for them in Jamaica. I am certain the story is similar for those from other countries as well.

As I was waiting with these men to be placed on buses to send them home I could not help but be impressed with other forms of agriculture that was traveling by. Huge combines heading to their next field were common. These farms had zero need for the labor these men had to offer. Perhaps even more important the products they were harvesting, while of value, offered little to employment to citizens in the community. The acreage on this fruit farm could potentially be used to service these combines. If they are so directed it would mean the loss of hundreds of local jobs year round that help in the storage, packing and shipping of the apple crop. Jobs lost means votes lost. Economic opportunities lost hurt communities.

Lamzy Brown, Tapper, Fingers, Lesbert, Rambo are some of the names of these men from Jamaica. They each have a story. They each are crucial to the community they come to harvest fruit each year. The reality is that if they did not make the trip each year we would not be growing apples but rather corn or soybeans. The local towns according to Google have populations of 1,423 and 1,295.  I have to think that the successful harvest of this fruit offers critical employment options in these communities. This story is repeated all over New York and across this country.

When we take the time to visit our legislators I ask you to put a face on the issue. Speak up for not only those in your communities but for the Lamzy Browns who are a critical part of your existence. I personally tire of the arguments from Washington as they debate but do not understand the issues surrounding the vertical implications of a sound guest worker program. I am sad to say that as I am drafting this the latest effort in Washington, DC is being carved up by people who have no skin in the game. Their lives will not be impacted back in those communities that depend on the successful harvest each year of the apple crop. The Goodlatte bill while not perfect would be a very positive step in addressing a very old and ignored issue in this land.

My

opinion is that it will be yet another effort destroyed by those who have perhaps told their story more effectively.