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.
It is hard to believe that this Virus could actually be a blessing in disguise. Humor me if you will and let us review some new perceptions that the US public may learned about agriculture.
To begin with, for the first time in most consumers shopping experience they were concerned about empty shelves in grocery stores. Most Americans never seriously ever questioned where the food was processed or, for that matter, where or how it was grown. In the beginning of this cycle they were mostly concerned about a shortage of toilet paper! Once they hoarded a safe supply, they began to notice that some food items were in short supply. Staples such as milk, meats and produce were suddenly in tighter supply. How could this be in America?
Everyone has heard the term “supply chain.” Again, I doubt many ever gave it much notice. The Corona virus however was having its way and impacting this chain. Packing facilities were not exempt from this pest impacting employees. When key numbers fell to this virus there simply was no alternative but to shut down and conform to new health guidelines. Replacement employees were not to be found. Was it really possible that the farmers were telling the truth? There was a limited supply of trained and willing employees to step in to fill this gap in the supply chain. Domestic citizens were receiving supplemental income and unemployment benefits. They were not willing to replace this workforce. Employers across this land were in short supply of workers. High unemployment yet no workers?
The national news reported that we were not short of milk or pork. What we were short of was key employees in the food chain. It only took a short time for people to realize how short this chain is between farm and their dinner plates. Farms were dumping milk and diverting animals to alternative landing spots.
For many this was the first time they had ever been out of a job. As weeks stretched into months
bank reserves dwindled. People were forced to look to new sources of food for their families. Not since the Carter administration had we seen long lines of cars awaiting not gas but food. Food banks reserves quickly evaporated. New programs had to be created to make diverse care packages for those in need.
New consumer preferences sprang up in our stores. People were now more concerned with value that was within their budget. Stores reduced the total number of items in favor of traditional staple food items. Durable food items such as apples, onions and potatoes suddenly became a wiser food purchase.
What I hope will come out of this pause in our normal food chain is an awareness that our food supply is not a certainty. It has needs and we all need to address these needs in a realistic manner. Our human resources in our food chains do have limitations. Those who select to work in this chain are not easily replaced. Just because we have high unemployment it does not necessarily mean people will flow into all jobs.
In conclusion, agriculture is a major player in small business. People too often lump farms in a separate group. In truth, they are perhaps the most important small business in our society. They create the food for our tables. When we hear news clips about the hard times that this virus has impacted on small business, think of the American Farms in this group. We all are important links in this nation supply chains.
Last Friday evening my foreman passed away in her sleep. She was going to be 12 this December. She was by my side as I wrote these messages to each of you. Her dedication and loyalty was a constant reminder of exactly what it takes to be a farmer. She never complained about today but instead looked forward to tomorrow. As they say in agriculture, hope springs eternally each year. To her it was the excitement of just the fresh air hitting her as we rode to our next destination. In short, she never complained and looked forward to the next new adventure.
Her passing made me pause. Nothing lasts forever. Everything worthwhile needs hope. My question today is, are we on the verge of an enormous shift in all of agriculture? I see the erosion of the traditional family farm. The family farm is still the base but economic necessity is making those that continue need the core of generations before. Recently we loss John Fowler. He was fifth generation. He did not get to where he was alone. It took dedication from many Fowler’s long gone.
Change is going to happen in everything we come in touch with today. Farming is not exempt. To build the base necessary to have a commercial farm today it almost has to come from inspiration from generations before you. I have often jokingly referred to farming as the “curse of our Fathers.” Most of the large farms of today are a result of generations learning their trade and expanding to adapt to change.
I said earlier that “everything worthwhile needs hope.” I am very concerned that not all those who are willing to take up the challenge of agriculture will always have that feeling, like Callie did, that tomorrow would be exciting and full of opportunity.
As a fruit farmer you collectively agree to have funds deducted from your account to invest in applied research. In the short run, funds could most likely be better used to buy that new tractor you desperately need. Research is a gamble, with no certainty to success. The only certainty you have is, if you do not have research you will stagnate and fall by the wayside. There would be no new orchard systems or exciting varieties to grow without it. Research is for the future. Research offers hope and new opportunity.
Callie reminded us all that no matter how good things are today they will not last forever. Change is on the horizon. Farming is not for everyone. In fact, it is for a very select few. Life depends on the constant renewal of food supplies. We must not allow the remaining few who are willing to accept the “curse of their Fathers” to ever lose hope.
Our challenge then is to somehow educate, enlighten and convince all those mouths we feed each day. We have no choice but to protect agriculture and all those who are willing to accept the challenge of feeding us.
Callie would hate to think that there never again would be a pickup truck window rumbling down a farm lane to ride in. For all the future “Callie’
s” let’s make certain we keep this industry full of hope. Time will record if we allowed this industry to pass away. Remember nothing last forever
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.
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.
Mindset of Agriculture Today While we Await the Outcome of Senate 2837
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.