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.
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
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.
Recently I was asked to appear on a three-person panel to discuss modern agriculture in a heavily agriculture-based area. The people in attendance were from all walks of the community. It was not my typical audience where I traditionally am speaking to my peers. I am not certain which side learned more that day? The other two people on my side of the panel did an excellent job of speaking to the audience. They were neither too technical not so simplistic to serve no real message. The underlying message that I took from this day was that here in the heart of agriculture, land not inner city, we were totally a mystery to these interested people.
I suppose I expected a greater appreciation of agriculture here in farm land. I did not expect those who have lived their entire life with concrete verses soil under their feet to appreciate our challenges. The group was attentive but almost in shock when hearing the individual financial, compliance and marketing challenges that farms were up against. In the end, I got the feeling they saw us as a group who had just informed them that Santa Claus was a myth. They wanted the safety of knowing their food, which was grown just down the road, was safe and CHEAP. One man came up to me at the end and stated that he really did not care about our challenges. He had more than enough of his own. He wanted his food “perfect and cheaper.”
I personally dislike when people throw statistics at me to win their point. It is fair to state that today
Americans have very little knowledge of 2018 agriculture. They all have busy days and too many distractions to really care if we are being profitable or over legislated. What they see is that apples in the retail aisle are priced in dollars per pound not pennies. They only see perfect cosmetic fruit and must assume this is simply how Mother Nature delivers it to us. Since they are all consumers they feel they have the right to address an opinion on how we farm regardless if it has any reality to their desires. For example, they wish us to deliver this cosmetically perfect fruit to them totally organic and pesticide free. They also want us to do this with the minimum use of the ten fingers we seem to feel are critical to this delivery. Life should be so simple.
I personally had hopes that the millennials would bring a new awareness to the science of modern agriculture. I had hoped that they would not be so easily swayed when the topics of GMOs and the true safety of all our food supplies grown within our borders. This does not seem to be the reality. This group wants more organic and absolutely zero GMOs. They do not wish to understand how modern agriculture techniques can reduce pesticide and fertilizer usage. They do not want to know why we need to import our labor when we have US citizens on unemployment. In short, we seem to be a group that wishes to ignore progress and continue to farm as we have for centuries. Here their “perception is reality.”
I take from this experience that we are even more in need of consumer education. Since we are all consumers we should share a common respect for the process of producing that food supply. I was wrong to assume that there was a stark difference between the people living in a rural setting verses an urban one. In fact, people living in the rural see first-hand the expensive machines going by their homes that in many instances are worth more than their homes. Hard to feel compassion for those who can afford such machines.
I feel that marketing and new opportunities to address the public need to address this reality. We each fear what we do not understand. No one likes the first day of school or the first day on a new job. We each find ways to comfort ourselves as to what is happening outside of our world. We need to invest in finding ways to make their reality based upon truth more so than perception. We need to articulate our story and not allow all the messaging to flow from uninformed sources. We live in a world that if it appears on your phone it must be true. If we wish to be understood, we must be willing to invest in the message.