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.

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.

Who will be the farmers of the next generation?

It is a simple truth that as human beings we are most comfortable with the things we fully understand. New concepts present a challenge to this comfort zone. In most every instance I can imagine when confronted with change you need to accept it in small bites. To try to tackle an enormous change is, in most cases, a good formula for frustration leading to failure.

When I was an active farmer I tried to attend as many of the educational seminars that were applicable to my operation. Many times I learned as much from discussions with my peers at these meetings as I did from the structured presentation. In truth, probably well over 75% of the information was redundant to me or ideas I had tested and decided that they offered no practical usage on my farm. It was in that remaining 25% that drew me to these meetings. If I could learn what to do and often times equally important what not to do I felt I was moving ahead.

I had a recent opportunity to be in conversations with a group of growers about what was the cost of attending a seminar. The opinion was expressed that if it exceeded a set amount it was simply too rich and they were wise to not attend. Now of course all presentations are not great eye opening events. For the sake of this example let us say the fee was $100. What can you really buy today with $100 on a farm?  Maybe one day of labor from a minimum wage employee? If that seminar helped you to avoid a compliance audit, a housing violation, an EPA investigation was it then worth it? The answer is of course yes. Education has never been easy and it has always come at a cost. The farmer that will be successfully running a farm in the next decade will have embraced this truth.

I will not expose who has been quoted saying this but I fully agree with the statement. It is the grower that refuses to embrace change and adapt to these policy changes that will be out of business within 10 years or less. Not all changes are ones we advocated but when those changes become the public policy (Law) then we must learn to work around them. To ignore them is to make a direct call to being audited and investigated. Ignorance because you did not attend these workshops will never be an acceptable defense. The next generation successful farmer will be aware of these changes and be making corrective steps to deal with them.

I encourage each of you to make yourselves aware of the many opportunities you have to keep current on CHANGE.  It will always be waiting for you each year. Observe your peers that you see as doing well. Those that appear to be finding ways to meet these new demands. You can survive tomorrow but not if you refuse it and only operate as you did yesterday.