Pardon Me If I Do Not Say “Thank You”

I sit here awaiting the final version from the 2019 legislature on the Farm Workers Act. I think the weather outside my window mirrors my mood today. It is raining and the last thing any of us need today is more rain! It is not official but every indication is that we will see this Bill passed before they all return to their URBAN homes. We will be left once again to try to reinvent our operations if we wish to continue farming inside the borders of New York State. We have tried for years to educate the policy wizards about all that we are doing on our farms to enhance human resources. In most cases it far out distances most jobs in the non -agriculture world.

We will most likely see, beginning in 2020, overtime after 60 hours per week. Here I suppose I am expected to pause to say “thank you” because they really wanted us to be after 40 hours per week and 10 hours per day. After hundreds of hours patiently trying to educate the realities of this upon the Non-Agriculture economy we have pushed the beginning number to 60 hours.

Second, new positive is that the State will discontinue taxing H2A employers for unemployment insurance. This does zero for the largest sector of the New York State Agriculture dairy, as they are not legally allowed to be in the H2A program. The tax is unique to New York State as all other States do not levy it as they know there is zero opportunity for any worker to ever qualify. The Federal policy

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

does not charge this either. So in essence they have stopped charging us for a tax that I felt was illegal. Once again I should pause to say “thank you.”

Yes we will see the opportunity for farm employees to form a union if they so desire. There are yet miles of discussion needed here before we will truly understand the workings of this part of the Bill. We have stressed that we would be willing to see if we could find some mutual ground here. Our number one fear is a work stoppage where farms would be left with no employees to harvest perishable annual crops such as apples or dairy herds left with no one to milk them.

The final concern I will share with you is the new Work Labor Board that will be created out of this Bill. It will meet as early as March 1, 2020 to determine if the Farm Worker Bill is being fare to the employees it is designed to protect. They have the sole power to make changes in the Bill. They do not need to have legislative approval. So in essence if this small Board decides that on March 1, 2020 that 60 hours is not correct, they have the power to issue a new number. In theory they could then lower it to the desired 40 hour level. Yes it is time for me to pause and again express my feelings of gratitude. Thank You.

In short, we have lost much and have precious little to show on our side. We are an industry that is already being asked annually to raise the State minimum wage above most other States. Our workers are usually paid above this wage due to the unique skills they offer and the shortage of this employee pool. We cannot stop trying to influence sound economic policy on the new majority in New York Legislature. The gap between urban and rural unfortunately did not narrow after all of these debates. Unfortunately, if agriculture is to remain viable in New York our work is not over but has only just begun. I fear those that do not understand our world have a new thirst for more in the future. Pardon me if I do not say “thank you.”

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.

 

 

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.

 

Farm Worker Hearings Schedule is Now Set

We now have confirmation that the New York State Horticulture Society will be on the short list to offer oral presentation at the Farm Worker Hearings. The list of hearings will be as follows;

April 25, 2019             SUNY Morrisville, NY

April 26, 2019             Suffolk County Legislature, Smithtown, NY

May 2, 2019                SUNY Sullivan, NY

We will submit a written report. Second, we will then give an oral report on our concerns. This will offer a

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Q &A. The plan is to offer equal presentations offering balanced time for each side of the debate.

In preparation for these three hearings, I encourage you to submit your own version of how you see this Bill impacting your operation should it move from Bill to Law. Also attempt to offer examples of what has happened when you have tried to curtail hours on your farm. Please send these ideas to our office. I will be offering 3 reports. I wish to offer 3 separate reports that will help report your views. It is very important you participate in this process. Either email or call me to offer your opinions.

I can be reached at the following:

Paul Baker

716-807-6827 (cell)

pbaker.hort@roadrunner.com

or

NYSHS@hotmail.com

 

 

 

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.

Unemployment Insurance on Federally Inegligible Farm Labor

We have each heard over the years about how New York State is a very difficult State to do business in. Equally, as property owners, we pay some of the highest rates in the nation. On the flip side our education systems from kindergarten to college rank among the finest. Unfortunately, this leads us to what I term “Reverse Darwinism.” In short, we see the most ambitious and educated having to flee out of State to find employment to match their goals. This leaves us with hard working families having to see their children leave to other areas. I personally have two daughters who now, for employment opportunities, live in North Carolina and Kansas.

On the national news this morning it was reported that 14 States are now enjoying the lowest unemployment in years. New York was not one of them. California and Texas however were. This tells me that other areas are finding ways to combine jobs and opportunities. Here in New York we just approved a State budget. Agriculture, the largest industry in the Up State by far, received a flat budget. All of agriculture is facing difficult times. Global competition is a reality not just a topic of conversation. Prices are simply not keeping up with costs of doing business. I was in Wyoming County earlier this month at a meeting with Congressman Collins and the under Secretary of Agriculture. Wyoming is the largest dairy county in New York State. The room was packed. It was reported that 17 dairy farms were for sale. The price of milk is averaging $4 a hundred weight below cost of production. Times are very tough for the largest farm sector in our State.

So why do I tell you all of this? Here in New York we do not seem to be able to not find ways to defuse good efforts to enhance our progress. While our budget was flat we did approve funding to help in areas of research and promotion. Could we have done more to stimulate and partner with privat

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

e business? Of course. The underlying cancer here is the cost of doing business here in New York verses outside the borders of our State. Despite the fact New York was not one of those 14 States with lower unemployment we have annually a very difficult time to find the human resources we need to staff the largest industry in upstate New York. As an industry we are forced to source labor from outside our area. Hence the rise of the legal federal program H2A. Federally and in EVERY OTHER STATE BUT NEW YORK such employers are exempt from having to pay unemployment on these workers because they are, by law, not eligible to ever be covered by it. Here in New York State we have passed a law to make these employers pay for unemployment on these employees that may never be eligible to draw on the fund. Depending on an employer’s rating this rate can be as high as 9%. To make matters even more ridiculous, now New York State Department of Labor is saying an employer has to include a value for the free housing they are required to provide under the federal law. This only increases the final value of funds an employer has to pay into this fund. Many of us are wondering why NYSDOL stopped at the value of free housing? We have to provide free transportation from their homes to work here and back to their homes as well. Maybe this will be added next.

In short, this is nothing short of a money grab to put funds in the general unemployment fund at the expense of the legal farm employers. In times such as we are experiencing this should be stopped and seen as a national disgrace.

Senator Betty Little and 11 other Senators have a bill (S 139) to remove this from being a law. Assemblyman William Magee has a similar bill (A 4480) in the Assembly to remove this as well. Unfortunately, in the Assembly this is not gaining any traction. This is the most scandalous piece of legislation I have ever come across. It needs to be removed. The fact is it will not unless we make some noise to protest this. Agriculture Affiliates and the New York State Horticulture Society have drafted just shy of 100 letters to the New York Legislators to ask them to act on this. If you agree with me that this is wrong than I ask you to address your opposition to your elected representatives. To simply sit by and allow this is wrong. As I already alluded to what will be the next way they can increase the base to collect more from our industry. If you do not mind paying for something you can never collect on than sit by and wait for the next new charges.