Paul Baker, Executive Director for the NYS Horticultural Society, Executive Director of Ag Affiliates, and Executive Secretary of the New York State Berry Growers, passed away from injuries he sustained from a car accident Wednesday afternoon near his home in Niagara County.  We are all deeply saddened and shocked from his unexpected death.  Paul had long career working within Agriculture and for the promotion of Agriculture.

He began his agricultural career working on his family farm, and eventually taking the responsibilities on of running it.  When he sold the family farm, he continued to work tirelessly to promote and fight for all agricultural issues.  Paul lobbied tirelessly in Albany and Washington for agricultural causes.

Paul was a man determined to do all he could to help agriculture remain a viable industry within New York State.  He was a genuine person who cared deeply for others and always took the time to get to know them.  He was a friend of the farmer as well as the farm worker. It will be extremely hard to find someone to fill Paul’s shoes. 

All our thoughts and best wishes are with his many friends and family.

Snapshot of the Future

Twenty years ago, when I was managing my farm, I was having to listen to suppliers who serviced my operation on how I was just not up to the challenge of foreign competition. I told them I was forced to compete with imports from China that were being delivered to processing plants in New York for less than I could even ship them. The suppliers said I simply needed to rework my costs and trudge on.

Fast forward a few years and those same suppliers were at my operation explaining how China was undercutting them. It seemed that then and again today what impacted the farms should have been a warning to the rest of society. Competition for any product or service knows no borders. We all face the same competition.

In our economy today we are amid dramatic changes in our society. I am not here to take issue as to what factors are driving these evolutions. It could be due to Covid, politics or a list you may wish to add to. For at least three decades our farm labor pools have evolved. As farms grew in size and complexity, we saw traditional labor sources change. The immediate problem for agriculture was that public policy had not evolved to accept this truth. We were being penalized if we ventured outside the traditional domestic labor pools. To survive we had to look beyond State and Federal boundaries for our labor.

For the past two years, as I participated on national conference calls, I consistently reported that we were seeing a decline in our ability to staff our agricultural needs both in production and processing from domestic pools. It seemed that I was a lone voice on this, but I persisted. Today, across the nation, agriculture must rethink where to find adequate labor to operate our packing and processing plants. Traditional on farm jobs that domestic labor staffed have also declined.

Advances in wages and technological advances have made agriculture jobs more advantageous and less arduous. Despite this, the difficulty to find domestic labor is a constant issue. It seems ALL employers today are facing hiring difficulties to maintain their operations. Like the suppliers to my farm 20 years ago my issues caught up to them. Domestic work ethics are being altered.  People have new ways to support their lifestyles.

I fear that once again non-agriculture will be too slow to accept the realities of modern labor attitudes.  We in agriculture have been making drastic changes to maintain production. Thinking outside of the box on this topic is the norm today rather than the exception. Until the rest of society truly grasps the issue, we will see continued push back on employment practices we are using. Traditional motivations, such as the 40-hour work week and overtime, are going to be a continuous influence on our operations. These old practices may prove to be outdated in their effectiveness to motivate the modern employee.

It is quite ironic to accept that it is the farm that has first felt the brunt of these changes. Most people, I am certain, have an image that to work on a farm is less than progressive. I suggest that if you want a snapshot of the future, drive off the expressway and spend a day on the farm.

We Need to Step Back and Find New Uses for the Apple

Earlier this year I challenged each of you to come up with a new use for the apple. My example was what positives flowed from the introduction of taking raw peanuts and creating peanut butter? This then merged with jelly to yield an American classic peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We still are looking for that new mix for our consumers.

If we step back even more and begin to unpeel the onion so to speak, I think we are already slow to invest in apple food research. We have a nutritional crisis on our current doorsteps. US citizens are no longer dying from starvation, but they are dying from obesity. Today 1 in 3 young Americans are too fat to enter the armed services. Since the 60’s obesity has tripled to now be 42% of our population.  No surprise this has led to increased health care costs. There is a reason most health insurance companies will pay for your health club membership.

Food companies see this and are investing huge sums in food research. Traditional protein sources have come from our animal production. The heavy meats and milk products today are destroying our health. We need to invest in ways to have consumers enjoy the taste of their meat products but from plant-based crops. Burger King has the Impossible Whopper now in their menu. They are not alone. Many other companies are investing in this shift away from the dominance of animal-based foods.

People have long predicted that the world population would grow faster than our ability to produce enough calories. What has happened in fact is due to our creativity on the farms we are producing more food than the world is consuming. This has kept food priced below where it should be. Result, we are eating too much because of price and taste.

China will soon be facing a huge food challenge. Due to improved earning capacity the Chinese have gone away from basic food dependence such as rice to more meat based. The demand for this meat-based food simply will not be available for this growing population. This will cause both domestic and international stress.

To try to draw this to a conclusion. We still must feed the growing world/US population in the future. Meat based food production is taking too much of the available acreage. We must learn to reduce the percentage of calories we consume from this group. It will never go away. Soy milk can replace some of the need for dairy based milk for example. We grow apples. We can grow given demand more than we currently do. We need to be investing in food research to use the apple in newer ways. Who would have thought that you could pour a glass of milk from almonds?

In short, we need to make certain our apples are being used even more in the future. If we combine all sales of farmer’s markets, CSA, pick your own, roadside markets, farm to school and direct sale to restaurants from our farms it represents less than 1% of the food we produce in this country. Commercial agriculture is a necessity to feed this planet.

The hope that local and organic will increase consumption has not become a reality. Only 2% of all farm commodities are grown organically. Less than 1% of our acreage is devoted to this usage. To win the health and obesity issues that are on our table we need to encourage new consumption trends. I suggest we make certain apples are in the heart of this revolution.

If you are interested in this topic, I suggest you read Resetting the Table by Robert Paarlberg.

How Do You Measure the True Cost of Your Labor?

If you had an employee who dropped 66% of your apples you would no doubt have serious concerns as to his value. In baseball a player who fails to get a hit just 66% of the time would be destined for Cooperstown. Employee grading then has a very task-oriented factor to it.

There is little doubt that the cost of our labor will creep up on an annual basis. If the productivity of that same employee remains constant than we are paying more each year and getting less in return. It must be the responsibility of the employer to research and find improved techniques for that employee to return more production per hour. This may seem obvious, but have we really challenged our researchers enough to return to us this needed improvement in productivity?

In fruit production we have made great strides in this. Dwarf trees, sleds for harvest, improved automation in our packing houses just to site three. We cannot stop searching for new techniques.

In the year 2000 I was asked to name one improvement that forever changed agriculture. Some of the early answers were electrical power on the farms and improved diesel equipment. I selected the hydraulic cylinder. This allowed an employee to lift not pounds but tons with tremendous simplicity. Forklifts completely altered how we handled our products. If we are to progress, we must find the next “hydraulic cylinder.”

The New York State Horticulture Society is asking for a research request this year of $750,000. Once again, we need to discover new procedures in the growing of our apples. Applied cultural research. At the same time, we need to devote research dollars to improving the tasks we wish our employees to handle. We need to find that new “hydraulic cylinder.”

I hope you will join us in supporting this increase in research funding. I am certain those new procedures are right in front of us. We simply must have the wisdom to see and implement them. As new demands are placed upon our farms, we must be willing to embrace new ways to do the same task. We can meet the challenges so long as we seek that better mouse trap! Change is a good thing. I am excited to uncover fruit production in the not-so-distant future.

Words Do Matter

We are each victims of our limited environment. We find comfort in living each day only reading the headlines. Our lives are so full that this quick assessment of the day’s topics is really all we have time to connect with. We each hear a specific word and our brain quickly assigns it to a definition.

As an industry, we need to help program our neighbors and customers to 2021. When the average person hears the term “farm worker” or even more refined “farm employee” it creates an image. Not being critical, I would venture a guess that the image is of a man (not a woman) toiling in the sun performing some menial task. This stereotype hurts us. It is there because we have not taken sufficient effort to foster a more accurate one.

I imagine the public sees this individual making minimum wage with little to no benefits. That being the case, it is no wonder that this public has compassion for this individual. When they hear that this person does not receive overtime protection until after 60 hours, they feel concerned. We have a choice. We can choose to allow this backward definition or work to educate. In my opinion, if we do not act today to redefine this image there is no doubt, we will receive more regulations placed upon both our employees and ourselves.

In less than one year the Wage Board will meet to review the working standards once again for our employees. We have this limited time to educate our peers in our communities that these are highly skilled and motivated people. They do what they do because of their training. Really no different from any employees on any job. No one forces them to their daily work. They do so because it is the job of their personal selection.

Most are employed well above the minimum wage. Many are salaried. Many come from as far away as South Africa to operate equipment often with a higher value than the homes in our communities.  They have unique skills that the average citizen does not. This skill is why they are here to work. They often receive many non-cash perks such as free transportation from their homeland and free housing.

To suggest that this is a very misunderstood person is a gross understatement. We are extremely fortunate to have their services. Most local citizens do not have the ability to step in and perform these necessary tasks. The performance of these skills opens thousands of local jobs in our communities.

What is in danger here is that a small group of people will make their decisions from the old stereotype. They will not pause to ask this employee why he or she is here in our State. They will not ask what conditions of employment make working in New York State his final destination. When the time is taken to dig deeper it will become clear that the job work agreements currently in place are both fair and necessary to both sides.  To alter the work option to only 40 hours would force this skilled employee to seek work elsewhere.

We must each make it our personal responsibility to educate the truth, not the false image of years gone by. To do this we must tell our tale in our churches, our schools, and our communities. We have the soils, the climate, and the long tradition of agriculture in New York State. We produce a product that every consumer on the globe needs three times a day. I encourage each of you to begin the education of our farms story. It is a proud story which needs to be protected.

Is There a Light at the End of This Debate?

Outside of my window winter is in full force. Nothing even remotely resembles spring. The Wage Board has rendered us a temporary reprieve as far as any new threshold for overtime. In 2021 we can continue to hone our labor management skills at the 60-hour level. In the short term this offers us some time to shift our operations to meet this challenge. As farmers, unlike other industries, we are better prepared to look at issues in longer time slots than a single year. Orchards take years to mature. We need to treat this issue in a similar manner. Where we are today in 2021 will most likely be a short resting spot from the final landing spot on this issue.

In my opinion, the debate is only on hold. I think there are many social indicators in and outside of our State that indicate sweeping changes are developing. I think it is almost a certainty that we will see a national $15 minimum wage. We all are aware that state minimum wages have little similarity in actual paid beginning wages. One only has to hold up two charts and see this. If you compare each state minimum wage against the state required Adverse Effect Wage rate you will see little similarity. In Georgia, the state minimum wage is $5.15 per hour while the adverse effect wage rate is $11.71.  The Georgia wage could never be used as the federal rate is $7.25. Raising the federal rate to a universally realistic rate for everyone to $15 does help keep production costs across state lines in line. The real differential will be the application of overtime levels.

The National Council of Agriculture Employers did a study in April 2020. They found a remarkably high inflated US unemployment rate due to Covid-19. They reported that there were 275,000 agricultural jobs listed yet only saw 337,000 people even making an inquiry. Needless to say, very few of these inquiries resulted in a job being taken. In short, high unemployment rates and higher state minimum wage rates do not equal farm hires.

I think we should examine trends in hours of weekly employment. In the US employees reported 41.5 hours. I find that at the same time 11.1% of US employees worked in excess of 50 hours per week. This tells me that many people are in need of more than 40 hours per week to meet household needs. I wonder how many of those 11.1% would have liked to remain at their primary job instead of seeking other odd jobs offering a lower hourly wage.

I think, while it may be difficult for most of us, we must accept new levels of comfort. Today’s employee will not work the hours of past generations. Everywhere we look we see business making better usage of the fewer man hours today’s employee will share with us. Stores have cut hours by having self-checkouts. On the NYS Thruway we no longer have employees in toll booths. Our challenge today is when we cannot find enough workers, we must find ways to make them more productive for us.

The light at the end of this debate, as I see it, is we must first accept that we must get our work done with fewer hands. To do this we must find new means of increasing the fewer man hours we have. Automation will be in essence the new “man” on the job.

The push to bring all our farm workers to a 40-hour work week will not end. In the short time we must learn new methods to accomplish the job. To refuse to do this is to fail. We no longer walk to work. First, we rode a horse. Next, we drove a car. Today we do not even leave our homes, we ZOOM!  The only thing we know for certain is that tomorrow will be different from today. We need to evolve. I think in time we will be able to focus on the new light at the end of the tunnel.

Wage Board Final Vote on December 31, 2020

The Wage Board kept us all hanging until the very last afternoon of the year.  After several open comments from the public, they voted. Before voting the three-member Board held several discussions. These discussions were open to the public. Only the Board was able to discuss the subject.

On the final hour, a vote was taken. In essence, the verdict was that we needed at least one more year before we could feel confident on any lowering of the overtime threshold. Dennis Hughes, representing the AFL-CIO made a motion to submit new language. He wanted to lower the overtime by 2.5 hours each year for 8 years. This would move the overtime from a 60-hour level to 40 in 8 years. He felt that the farm workers have already been denied the 40-hour protection now for 80 years. He was terribly upset at the decision to wait one more year. He felt it was an unnecessary delay. His amendment was not accepted. This report will now be sent to the governor for his review.

In my opinion, we dodged a bullet here for one year. While I see it as a victory for agriculture, I feel the war is not over. In fact, this decision may actually spark new opposition from the non-agriculture population.

The Chair felt that the past year had placed unusual harm on all small business due to Covid-19. I really do not know if she would have supported the same verdict under a normal year.

David Fischer represented agriculture on our collective behalf. He is the President of New York State Farm Bureau. I do not want to be a Monday morning quarterback, but I think there are a few points left out.

The four main points I would hope we would build upon before next year are the following:

  1. I do not think there was enough discussion as to what the farm workers wanted. How any change would impact their quality of life?
  2. What would be the impact on future farmers? Would they feel confident or concerned about farming here in New York?
  3. The negative impact it would have on farmland value and farm net worth.
  4. The loss for non-farm workers who are dependent on farm products that create the need for their jobs.

For the next season we can operate as we did in 2020. I think we need to continue to weigh in on the impact any changes will have on the entire New York economy. As I said, yes, we won this battle, but the war is far from over.

Curse of Our Fathers

Harvest 2020 is now in the books. Time to review and reflect. For myself I have had the opportunity of sharing in the ritual of harvest. I never grew up in the old West, but I imagine harvest was similar to being on a cattle drive. Sounds fantastic in the beginning but sandwiched between the start and the finish are tired bones and long unglamorous moments, but for the very few who have had the opportunity it was priceless. There is an expression that to really understand an event you have to walk in those shoes. To those who never wore those ‘shoes’ you can only imagine.

So, my question is what motivates a person to desire the right to wear those shoes? Over the years I have jokingly said of Sons in the business it is because of the “Curse of our Fathers”. Over the decades we have had many generations of Fathers who have passed on this “curse”! I just tried to list the names of successful Family operations. I back spaced because I could not create a list without omitting a worthy family. The point is we have been strengthened and advanced because of the decades of family commitment to the New York fruit industry.

The vision of these generations needs to be recognized. The one driving constant was what we were doing today was only a first step to the improved future. This unselfish vision was once again illustrated by the re

commitment to our apple marketing order. This unselfish family positive vote opens so many new opportunities for research, marketing, legislative voice and more.

I think I have shared my point and approval of the marketing order being passed again. I really do not feel it is a “curse” but a very unique “blessing”. Enjoy the winter. It is noticeably short! Plan and dream of better harvests yet ahead. To those of you who have the opportunity to experience this “curse” enjoy your good fortune.

Allow me to share with you one of my favorite moments in life. Once all the crops are harvested, safely in storage. I prayed for a furious storm to rage over my house.  The louder and more powerful the better! I would lie there and just smile from ear to ear and say I withstood all that Mother Nature had to challenge me with! See you next spring old friend!

Interview with 100 Jamaicans

I am again in the middle of harvest. This usually gives me the opportunity to talk to growers, packers, and storage operators. I also have the opportunity to talk one on one with Jamaican employees here on H2A contracts. I want to do two things here share with you my collective observations of these men and second perhaps be a voice for them in this life changing discussion surrounding the Wage Board.

First, I am very impressed with the accurate knowledge these men have of the Overtime legislation. You may notice here that I do not refer to this as a collective bargaining/union discussion. To a man they reject the concept of unions and dues.

It is almost unanimous that these men wish to continue working here in New York State.  It has become an extremely critical way for them to support their families. The greatest share of these men have found annual employment with a singular employer. They refer to the farm they work on as their own. Many know the geography of these orchards as well or better than their employers. They understand the ebbs and flow of the industry. They know the pressure that frost, hail, drought, and market pricing places have on their employer as well as offering them a living wage.

To this end they know that the economics of these farms has its economic limits. They understand that it would be wonderful to receive overtime after 40 hours. However, they know that if this were to happen, they would be extremely limited in their hours. Their season is short. To not have the opportunity to work at least 60 hours would mean they would take a huge seasonal reduction in pay. They do not wish to seek new employment but feel it would be necessary if they were to earn the desired income, they need to support their families.

To this reality, they say they can function with the rules as they are presently in place. Any reduction in hours would force the majority to look to new out of State employment. They understand the present legislation and strongly hope that there are no new standards. They are preparing a self-written letter stating this opinion. They have asked me to give them reading materials to help prepare this letter. They will discuss it and plan to sign on each man. We will send this to the Wage Board as their voice on the topic. This is especially important that they have the opportunity to offer their opinion on this ruling.

I am extremely impressed with the level of knowledge this group has as to the importance of the Wage Board. Make no mistake they feel extremely nervous as to the decision coming from this body.

I wanted to share with each of you the feelings of these workers. So often we selfishly only state how it will impact our lives. Make no mistake about it, this decision impacts families here is New York State as well as in Jamaica.

Paul Baker

Executive Director