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 on Senate Bill 2837 Suffolk County Legislature April 26, 2019

Mindset of Agriculture Today While we Await the Outcome of Senate 2837

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

I thought it might help to hear what is on the minds of Agriculture in New York today. As the Director of 3 farm boards, I receive, on a daily basis, calls from farms asking me to project the outcome of this legislation. Nature does not allow these farms to set everything on the back burner and await the final outcome. They must make real world decisions today that may or may not really be in their best interest depending on this piece of legislation. Here are a few of those decisions/questions;

  • Should I put my farm up for sale today before this Bill becomes a reality? There is little question that land values will take a dip if this Bill passes.  I know of large farms that have in fact sold or have placed their farms up for sale before land values fall.
  • What about investing in new land, equipment, storages, employee housing both new and improved are just a few of the questions that are on hold.
  • Should I return my seed/trees for a credit or plant it? I am unsure if I will be able to afford the labor cost later this year.
  • I actually have dairy farms that are slaughtering new calves because they cannot afford to feed them under current economics. Just meeting current bills is an impossible task. If this Bill passes as currently drafted they see no path forward.
  • Estate planning? How do we plan for tomorrow not knowing if we can survive the future costs here in New York? Young farmers are looking to other careers.
  • How do I craft contracts for 2019 if I cannot project my labor costs?
  • Time to lock in on seasonal recruitment of my labor for 2019. Can I sign a work order if I do not know the terms for myself or my employees? H2A agreements need to be crafted and advertised. If I limit my men to 40 hours will I be able to attract my experienced labor to my farm?

Most every farm at this date is locked into the 2019 crop. They are very uncertain as to the rules of employment and what this will mean for their operations. Nature will not wait. Crops need to be set in a timely basis to meet harvest before the frost of winter arrives. Overhead dictates farms must move forward. The costs of not doing so would be equally damaging.

I understand that we need to ensure that every employee is protected under the rules of fair labor. I see this discussion having huge long term effects on the state economy.  We are in the midst of annual minimum wage increases here in New York.  Due to the chronic lack of New Yorkers who will work on farms we must recruit from outside our state borders and often from outside our national borders. In order to manage our farms the reality is we must attract workers to our State. Farms, out of necessity, are using the federal program H2a.

Farms this year will have no choice but to accept the final language of this legislation for crop year 2019. The real impact will come as soon as crop year 2020. Once the true cost of labor is known, farms will drastically shift into new farming practices. If they see that they cannot pass on the new labor costs they will lose their markets. Traditional crops will have to be reassessed as to their feasibility. In short, agriculture will have no choice but to take on a whole new look. Only time will tell if this look is good for both farms and their employees.

 

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.

Help Wanted

We have perhaps created a perfect solution or perhaps we are the architects of our own demise. You make your own conclusions. Here are a few of my observations after being back on the farm once again to assist in harvest.

First of all, many of the farms have converted to the H2A systems of sourcing their labor for harvest. Some have redefined the term harvest and are expanding the duties to machinery operation, orchard pruning and packing house. The shift is rapid and in almost every experience once an operation moves to H2A they remain there. Many will, in the first year, only try a small portion of their needs. Most will convert 100% in the second year. Size of operation has little to do with which operation joins. The range is from very small to multi orders of several employees. The reality is that the traditional streams have eroded in both quantity and quality of workmanship.

Second reality is that there is a huge demand for domestic help. Farm after farm reports that they simply cannot find people to fill necessary positions in their operations. In many cases the labor pool is retired baby boomers more than younger ones. This shortage is opening up discussions with farms to consider writing broader responsibilities for new H2A employees in future contracts.

Generally, across the area, the shortages are not only on farms or packing house operations. Reports are common from all types of enterprises that they simply cannot source enough skilled

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

or entry level workers to meet their needs. Job opportunities exceed willing applicants. You may notice I said applicants not people. The reality is that too many US workers find life quite comfortable “collecting” rather than accepting a full-time job.

Generation Z, those born after 1998, are now entering the workforce. They make up 25% of our population. Studies have consistently stated that 62% of these anticipate a severe challenge to work with or for a Baby Boomer. Most of our farms and packing houses are currently managed by Baby Boomers! They will work for the millennials (those born 1980 to 2000)

at a higher rate This new generation of workers simply has little if any desire to work on a farm or in a packing house. Large milk processing plants cannot find enough help as they find this new generation will not conform to production rules. One being that no cell phones are allowed on the production floor during operation hours. Traditionally farms and packing house jobs have been a frequent place for entry level new employees to begin their careers. It seems in today’s market this is not the case.

One Congressman I talked to recently stated that he has grave concerns when the Baby Boomers finally exit the job market. He said the sad truth is most must work because their social security and pensions are not sufficient to cover their living costs.

The dilemma, as I see it, is that modern US agriculture is heading towards being 100% dependent on the federal governm

ent to not either remove the H2A programs or make them so expensive that farms can no longer do labor intensive crops. Between State and Federal legislation on labor we may see it impossible to farm in New York State. One simple reality is already playing out. Simply raising the minimum wages does nothing to increasing the willingness of new workers to look to our operations for employment.

If you ever wondered if you need to be involved in all of these debates over labor rules and compliance, I ask you to tell me where you see your workforce coming in the very near future.