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.

 

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.