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.
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.