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.

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.

November 3, 2020 Election Day

The fast-approaching elections will be upon us before we know it. As a farmer they may come upon you faster than other people. Once harvest begins few of you will have time to devote to anything but harvest and family.  It is with this in mind that I am addressing this message. The great thing about living in a democracy is that right or wrong those who gather the most votes win the right to direct public policy. The flip side of this is that not always does the candidate with the most votes have the ability to make wise decisions.

The last 18 months have been incredibly stressful for all of us in agriculture here in New York State. In my opinion, the passage of the Farm Labor Act last year will have the greatest impact on our state’s agriculture going forward. At the last moment before the Act was voted upon there was a provision for a Wage Board to be put into place.  This Wage Board would have sole power to determine the direction this Act would have moving forward. A series of public hearings were crafted to report the public’s opinion of this Act. There has been only one so far. The Covid Virus has derailed previous well intended plans. There are rumors that we will have hearings held online before the end of the calendar year. The fact that we may have something with such deep consequences as these hearings not held in a public forum is very disturbing.

I recently made several calls around the State to growers and those running for office. I was trying to

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

see if I might encourage some face to face meetings with the farms and those running for office. The idea in theory was good. However, both sides were reluctant to hold face to face meetings due to the Covid Virus. End result was a failure to trade opinions between the parties. To me this is a huge failure. How can those running for office understand those they will be representing if they cannot have a dialogue? The pressure to have public officials elected that understand the current issues and are also in touch is critical.

The pandemic has caused deep economic gaps in our economy. The lack of commerce will be felt in less sales tax revenue. Legislators will be scrambling to fill this short fall. I also fear that legislators may have become a bit too used to enacting policy without going down the traditional channels. It is imperative, as we recover from this issue, that we work together to heal our economy. This can only happen if we have trust and open discussion.

I understand your time is limited. I am asking you to make every effort to research the candidates to elect the ones you feel will listen and enact sound policy. I am not advocating for any one candidate. I am not advocating for any one party. I am advocating we return this November the absolute best representatives that truly have your best interest in mind.

The winds of change are all around us. Some changes are healthy. I am suggesting that sound change comes with a price. That price is the time you take to research and vote for the best people to monitor the changes that will come our way. Without your efforts, you may be very alarmed at what changes we may harvest. That would be the highest price to pay if we failed to vote and vote responsibly.

Lessons from the Past

 

If we are honest with ourselves, I think most of us in the short run are slow to accept changes. We do not like situations thrust upon us from outside forces. In retrospect, it is often these changes that have saved us. They have forced us to stop our daily grind and search outside of the box for new solutions to everyday needs. History will support me in that innovation is encouraged when there is an emergency. We are seeing this currently with how the Covid 19 Virus has inspired new discoveries in our health care delivery.

I fell that fruit production is also at one of these crossroads. If we are going to be able to supply a fresh product to our consumers we will have to do so at an affordable rate. We are price takers yes. My observation on this is a bit different. As production costs have risen so also have returns to the farm.  My observation of over 50 years is that too often the per unit return is always enough to cover net production costs but very little to go towards renewal or profit. This fact is why we continue to see the number of farms annually decline. Those that survive, in my opinion, have accepted the challenge of innovate or perish. Survival of the fittest. This occurs in natural selection as well as farming.

Labor has been and will always be a challenge for our industry. We have such short term needs for labor that it makes it impossible to expect local communities to supply the necessary labor. Migrant inflows of short-term labor, while increasingly expensive, has always been sourced. I cannot recall a single farm that failed to find some degree of labor during these times of need. So long as this availability persist, we will not quite reach the tipping point of seeking a new solution.

In fruit production I see three periods of short term labor intensive need.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Once the task is complete, we do not need the labor. Pruning, hand thinning and harvest are the three I have in mind. In my opinion we are currently at a crisis as to how to complete these tasks in a cost-efficient manner. To annually apply large numbers of increasingly expensive hand labor surely will reach a breaking point. My fear is, that as an industry, we have not reached a level where we accept this fact. The cotton industry, upon the close of the Civil Warm was saved by the cotton gin and the automation of planting and harvesting of cotton.

Our packing lines are in fact light years ahead of the cultural practices in our “modern” orchards. Many of the skills used in our packing lines need to be taken outside to our orchards. Use of cameras and infra light technology needs to be directed to our cultural needs. What is needed is the research push from the complacent production side of the fruit equation.

For the last two years the Horticultural Society has been in Albany planting the seed of such a change. We need to concentrate funds to direct technology to address the need for computer generated procedures on our trees. We believe that we may already have most of the technology to perform each of these before mentioned tasks. What has been missing is the catalyst from the growing industry that it Is ready to apply such technology. We have already been working with a high-tech company that is interested in such work. They are now only on the outside looking in. We need to encourage them to proceed and that upon completion we will be ready to apply this service.

Really what it always comes down to is that we seldom pursue the new technology until it is absolutely necessary. I again refer to what is happening in real time with the Covid 19 Virus. We must learn new skills to function in our orchards that will allow us to control our production costs. I think it is the correct time to encourage our efforts in a new, more progressive manner. Change can be a very positive driver under the correct leadership. We need to learn some lessons from our past.

Farm Worker Fair Labor Practice Act -Part Two

One year ago we all were trying to project what might happen in Albany with the new party balance. It really came as no surprise that we would be faced with a huge effort to alter the farm worker rules in our State. After months of the most united effort by NYS agriculture the Governor recently passed the Farm Worker Fair Labor Practice Act. It was hoped that if and when such an act would be passed we could each make long term plans based upon the act. This is not the case. The ink is not dry from the signature by the Governor and there are rumblings by the Senate and Assembly that they want more.

In August I currently know of two meetings to be held by agriculture to discuss first the current Act and second what we need to do to be prepared by the new demands. Unfortunately in my opinion this act has opened up a new energy by those who do not wish to understand agriculture to do even more. The newly created farm worker review board is of course one concern. The second is that by gaining passage of this act those in the legislature have gained new energy to push for more. We had hoped we would have time to absorb the new Act.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Questions are coming in faster than answers. Every farm now has to have in place a procedure to deal with when and if their employees wish to unionize.  What impact will it have on every farm in NYS if a farm is unionized and that farm is forced to meet new rules from labor? Will this then not set a precedent to be pushed upon all farms?  We need to really have frequent and open discussions with our help as to if they are approached by labor organizers how to respond. No doubt the picture that will be presented will be void of many of the realities of unionization.

In short, farms are very much in jeopardy moving forward. I can only hope that we can maintain our united collective voice in dealing with this new round of challenges to be flowing from Albany. I must admit I personally felt very defeated when I saw the details in the new Act. The fact is we will need to maintain our voice now more than ever. Not only are the roots of our crops here but so are those of our farms and families.  I personally understand if you have a feeling of frustration. I suggest you lick your wounds and prepare to meet the next round. To lie down now is to virtually turn the keys to your farm and the farms of the next generations over. I have to ask myself what would my ancestors have done? I know for a fact my parents would be sitting fire!

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.”

Grow NY Farm Rally

There will be two bus pickup available.  One in Batavia at Exit 48, Farm Credit East -pick up at 6:30 a.m.

The other will be in Waterloo at Exit 41, Petro Parking Lot – Pick up at 7:30 a.m.

*Other sites may be added if needed.

Please contact if you would like to participate, especially if you would like a bus ride.

Let us know if you would like to help but can’t make the rally.

 

Public Hearing on Farm Worker Fair Labor Practice Act Senate Bill 2837, SUNY Sullivan, Loch Sheldrake, NY

My name is Paul Baker. I grew up in Niagara County on a fruit and vegetable farm. I was the fifth generation to work on this farm. My Son Brett would follow me and be the last, sixth generation.  I have always lived with “farm workers.”  My father worked for over 25 years with the same migrant family from Florida. In the winter they harvested citrus in the Ocala area of Florida. When the citrus was harvested they traveled to our farm to harvest our crops. Each mid-November they returned to Florida to the citrus.

I grew up with these people. After work I played basketball with them in the barn. Once, when I was struggling with my high school French studies, my Dad’s foreman, a WWII vet, made me only converse with him in French. A language he learned while serving our country in the war. Later when the farms labor was from Jamaica my son would go each night to the Housing and enjoy music with the men, his friends.  I tell you this because in agriculture we have a very strong bond with our help. They really are an extended family. For 18 years we welcomed basically the same men to our farm to complete the growing cycle. The housing was always very close to our own. After my Father passed away my Mother was asked if she felt unsafe living so close to the camp? Her reply was” I feel much more at risk when they are not there.”

I tell you this multi-generational tale to try to illustrate the unique bond we have with our employees. To suggest that we would not have their best interest in mind is to not comprehend this bond. If we mistreated our employees, then why did they come back each year?

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

I have heard in the two previous hearings statements to the effect that farms could always pay more to their employees. This is not an economic issue but a moral one. Over the years we have had to find ways to offer increased wages. Cost of living continue to increase. History will support me when I tell you that agriculture has met this challenge through research  improvements in farming practices. Higher yielding orchards, improved root stocks, labor saving equipment have been ways we have been able to meet these increases in labor costs.

In principle I find many of the items in this bill misleading. To people who do not know our history you would be led to believe our employees do have basic protections such as workers compensation or unemployment. All of our housing is state and often federally inspected. Farm owners, for years, attend self-improvement seminars on compliance and ways to improve human resources.

I think it is time for both sides to try to find ways to continue this long positive history of farm employees in New York State. To do this, both sides must agree that at the conclusion of this effort we will have a strong base for agriculture in our State. Only then can both sides continue. Yes this is a moral issue. Unfortunately, even in houses of worship they find it necessary to pass the plate. Economics is a fact of life.

I think I speak for farms across this State. We are willing to discuss issues and find solutions to meet your request for the big questions of the day, those are at what level can we afford overtime and collective bargaining, so long as it has a no strike clause. I hear many want a mandatory day of rest included. I would offer that often this should be left to the wishes of the employees and the seasonal pressures of the moment.

I am here to tell you that the system is not broken. We do not have employees on strike or in the streets carrying protest banners. Can we improve conditions? Every human resource situation today can only reply, of course.