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.

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.

Testimony Given to Wage Board

On Monday, August 31st, along with a wide cast of concerned people, I offered testimony to the NYS Wage Board. It was very encouraging to hear the voices of so many people. In all the opinions offered by those in agriculture I felt they presented a very clear vision of what could happen. It was nice to hear voices from younger future farmers in this discussion. In all, I was very pleased to hear the effort put forward.

I am sharing the two testimonies I have offered this year. I can only hope that calm cool minds will see the wisdom in not making this transition any more costly. As many people stated, they accept the legislation, they are asking for time to transition under this act.

Apple Facts

Fruit farm A expects to harvest 120,000 bushels of apples this year. History has told them that they should expect, on average, that a person will harvest 100 bushels/day. So this farm will need 1200 man days to harvest this crop. The farm has 24 beds. This means each bed (man) should pick 5000 bushels. So this man has 50 days to accomplish this. In the past the men have averaged 60 hours per week. If we are forced to cut each man’s hours back to 40 hours per week than we will need more days to harvest or more men to accomplish the job.

Weather and fruit ripening dictate that we do not have more time. We must accomplish this task in the 50 days. So the only solution is that we need more men. If a man picks 100 bushels each day then he will harvest 400 bushels per week. So 120,000 bushels divided by 400 bushels will mean we need 300 man weeks if we hold the worker to 40 hours per week. So we have gone from 24 men harvesting 120,000 bushels in 50 days to now needing 30 men to pick the crop.

So we will need 6 more beds and pay transportation cost of $1300 per man, Visa of $190 per man an additional $150 per man travel for extra time and food from port to port. So Fruit Farm A will have to first construct housing for 6 more men. Second, the additional travel will be $1640 plus free housing while on  the farm per extra man. This is $9840 additional variable cost to get the same amount of work completed. His costs have risen by 19.5% to get the same amount of work done.  Plus the costs of new housing.

In short, this is a deal breaker. The original 24 men will not be happy only getting 40 hours per week. Realistically I expect this group to source employment in other regions. The idle time will no doubt become an issue. Buyers of this crop will not offer a premium for this fruit. They will source the highest quality for the lowest price.

In short, this fruit farm will be priced out of the market. His cost per bushel will be higher than other regions. He has no way to cover the extra labor cost. The employee will be forced to find employment in another state. Packing house jobs, storage, trucking and more will be lost.

There is a reason that for decades agriculture has been exempt from overtime. The seasonal glut needed makes it impossible to fill harvest jobs for such a short window of time. The perishable nature of this commodity is what makes farming different. The fact that we offer overtime at any level will not attract new employees to meet the  seasonal needs.

In conclusion, I think New York State agriculture can and will adjust to the 60 hour level. Many will

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

choose to drop out or convert to agriculture that is mechanized. To move this to a lower level will force a drastic change in our industry. Farmers do not have to farm in New York State. It will be difficult but if they wish to farm they can relocate. I fail to see what industry will rush to fill the void by this exodus. I am asking for a study to validate my claims. To rush to 40 hours without understanding the net effect will be irresponsible. There is no need to add additional burdens on this industry.

Testimony Presented to Wage Board in Syracuse, NY, March 13, 2020

Early in March I had to run an errand to the east side of Buffalo, NY. I was traveling on a major route about 8 AM. The traffic was only a fraction of the normal weekday. In truth, the roads back in the country had more traffic. This was a reminder to me that here in 2020 we are as a State totally committed to the 40 hour work week. This single regulation is the deciding driver to the length of the work week in the non-agricultural environment.

On the farm we do not have the luxury of saying it can wait till Monday and a fresh set of 40 hours. Livestock has to be fed. Animals are giving birth. Cows need to be milked. Fruit and vegetable crops need to be protected from frosts, insects, disease and ultimately harvested at the proper time. The 24-hour necessity of applying these skills makes it impossible to dictate one 40-hour period each seven days that can be able to do the proper job.

Farms of all types are dealing with live products. Just like a doctor cannot tell a pregnant mother to only deliver in his set 40 hour period of service. The current 60 hour standard will impose economic pressures on our farms and their employees. Commodity prices will not offer a bonus to farms who offer overtime wages. If a farm cannot maintain production costs below sales offerings it will go out of business. The loss of this singular farm unfortunately will, in reality, have little impact on total supply. However, if this story is repeated enough it will impact community values. What will have an immediate impact will be the employees who no longer have a job. Really how have we helped improve the quality of life for these employees?

Overtime came into play during the American depression. The unemployment rate was soaring. FDR saw long bread lines and people seeking some employment. He instituted the 40 hour work week. Any hours after 40 would mean the employer would have to pay 150 % of the agreed wage. FDR was quoted as saying no employer would be willing to pay this and remain competitive. The end result was that it forced employers to curtail hours and reach into the unemployed to offer employment. Same amount of work but now it was being shared by more people. In today’s agriculture we do not have a waiting work force wanting employment for many diverse reasons.

We are an import state to meet our seasonal workforce needs. Employees will have little interest in coming to New York State if they cannot get the maximum opportunity to earn wages in a very short window of time. Simply put, employment options in other states will be the benefactor of such legislation. Farms will be forced to divert to less labor intensive crops. Production will contract. Business and employment will decline. Again how are we helping anyone?

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 Labor Wage Board Hearings

Last June the New York State Legislature passed the Farm Laborers Fair Practice Act. It has many new regulations for the new rules of farm worker employment. The two most obvious rules were the establishment of a 60-hour overtime limit and the right for farm workers to join a union of their choice. At the very last hour during final debates a Wage Board was added to the bill. The singular purpose of this wage board is to determine if the 60-hour standard is fair and accurate. This board, upon review, may hold it at 60 or lower it to a lower number. It cannot remove it or raise the limit above 60. This wage board is to be made up of three representatives. One from NY Farm Bureau, one from the AFL-CIO and one from NYS Labor.

One of the unsettling aspects of the passage of this Act was that there was no set time for the industry to adjust to this new 60-hour standard. Other similar passages in other States have always allowed a 5-year or longer period of time. This was very obviously omitted from this Act. Therefore, the industry has no security that this 60-hour level will remain a standard. Lurking in everyone’s mind is the very real possibility that the newly established wage board will institute a lower level.

The Wage Board will meet five times in early spring. This will range from February 28 to April 23, 2020. These will be public hearings at which time people may have three minutes to make a statement as to the ruling in question. It will be absolutely essential for many voices from agriculture to take the time to express their concerns. Failure to do so will send a strong message that agriculture is in full support of a lower standard for overtime on our farms.

All concerned citizens will be afforded the opportunity to express their opinion. This means advocates for a 40-hour standard will be sharing the stage. We must counter this by offering concise logical reasons this simply has no economic room at this time on our farms.

I will be in attendance at the last 4 hearings. I personally will offer comments at two of the hearings. It is

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

so critical that despite your very busy work schedules you present at least at one of these hearings. We will only curtail future damage if we present a consistent argument. Below you will find some supporting reading for you on this. You must register on-line before the hearing. You will not be offered an opportunity to speak if you do not register. Below you will find the web address for you to register. www.ny.gov/content/flflpa-wage-board-hearings-sign

If you have any difficulty feel free to reach out to me for help.

You may struggle with what to say. Three minutes is really not very long. They stick to the three-minute time. Do not waist time with polite openings. Get directly to the issue. You will be asked to leave a written copy. The fact that you present will be as important as what you say. Your silence will be filled by voices for advocates for 40 hours. Can you really justify this? This is perhaps the most critical battle you will ever have to face. Farming in 2020 has no room for survival at 40 hours. The grocery stores will be fully stocked but not with food from New York farms.

Message From Brian Reeves – PLEASE PARTICIPATE IN THE WAGE BOARD HEARINGS THIS MARCH AND APRIL

 As you can see by the attached announcement, the NYSDOL has scheduled 5 hearings across the state for the newly appointed Wage Board.  It is imperative that farmers and farmworkers turn out and tell their stories.  If we are to have any chance of convincing Albany to keep the overtime threshold at 60-hours, we need to tell our story of how lowering the threshold will threaten the viability of our farms.  While our economic story is critical, we must also make sure that farmworkers turn out also and tell why they do not want their hours cut any more.  These hearings come at a bad time for us, many of us don’t have many of our workers hear yet and we will be getting very busy soon, but we must make the effort to show up and be heard.  I have attached some guidelines on how to have your workers testify and I believe Farm Bureau also has some tips on testifying.  Please reach out to me if you need any help.

 Brian Reeves 315-243-1660

 NYSDOL Announces Farm Labor Wage Board Hearings

The New York State Department of Labor (DOL) has announced that the wage board will hold five hearings across the state, beginning this Friday and going through April. The wage board was created by the recently enacted Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act and is statutorily required to hold its first hearing by March 1st to consider lowering the current 60-hour work week threshold for overtime. Under the Act, the Wage Board must hold at least three hearings at which the public will be afforded an opportunity to provide comments.  The board will hold five hearings in various parts of the state and consider the input it gathers from farmers and other stakeholders.

New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher, a NEDPA member from Madrid, NY holds one seat on the three-member wage board. The other two members include Brenda McDuffie, appointed by the DOL Commissioner, and Denis Hughes, representing AFL-CIO. McDuffie is the chair of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency and President and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League. Hughes has served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and is past President of NY AFL-CIO.

Public hearings are scheduled as follows: 

  •  Friday, February 28– 11am – Albany – New York State Museum Cultural Education Center, Clark Auditorium, 222 Madison Avenue, Albany, NY 12230
  • Friday, March 13– 11am – Syracuse – Onondaga Community College, Storer Auditorium,  4585 W. Seneca Turnpike, Syracuse, NY  13215
  • Monday, March 23– 11am– Binghamton – Binghamton University, Symposium Hall, Center of Excellence Building Innovative Technology Complex, 45 Murray Hill Road, Vestal, NY 13850
  •  Thursday, April 16– 11am – Long Island – Brookhaven Town Hall, 1 Independence Hill, Farmingville, NY 11738
  • Thursday, April 23– 11am – Batavia – Geneseo Community College, William Stuart Forum, 1 College Rd., Batavia, NY

    All attendees are encouraged to preregister. Those making public comment will be scheduled in the order of registration. Individuals can register at: http://www.labor.ny.gov/farmwageboard.

TALKING POINTS FOR FARM WORKERS AT THE WAGE BOARD HEARINGS

 1.Overtime after 60 hours

Most farm workers I have talked to have said they want to make as much money as they can to send back to their families.  At first, the payment of time-and-one-half sounds good until the farmer explains that they won’t be able to pay that much and will try to limit their hours to close to 60 per week.  Most farmworkers are not pleased with the reduction in hours per week, but often times 60 is not that much less than most weeks they have worked in the past so they can live with it.  But most workers have made it clear that if the hours decrease much more, they will go to other states which will freely allow them to work more hours and make more money per week.  Explaining this to the farm worker is critical so they can explain in the hearing they don’t want this restriction on work and will try to go where they can get more hours.

  1. Mandatory 1 day of rest per week which the worker can opt out of and if they opt out, all hours worked are paid at time-and-one-half

The vast majority of farms have determined that they can’t afford much overtime, so they require one 24-hour period off each week.  This automatically reduces the potential number of hours a worker will be paid for each week and again the workers are not happy about it.

  1. I often hear farmers talk about how much less money their workers can make working in Mexico.  Whenever labor advocates hear this they bristle at the comment and claim that this is the USA and the pay and/or housing should be much better than Mexico.  

A better way to approach this subject would be to have the farm worker talk about the opportunity that working in the US provides, and describe the decent house his family can afford in Mexico, and how he is able to provide a better living for his family because he has a chance to work on our farms in the US.

  1.  I would suggest having conversations with ALL of your workers (both domestic and immigrant) about the purpose of these hearings and if you have any doubts about the language comprehension, consider hiring a good translator to avoid any misunderstanding later. I hope these tips are helpful and should only be followed if it fits for your farm.  The more discussion you can have with your farm workers about the issues the more comfortable they will be talking about them when the time comes.  

 

New Season Ahead.  Are You Ready for What Lies Ahead?

Is it just me or is there a feeling of uncertainty about this crop? I think many growers are coming to the reality that too much of their acreage is no longer in peak demand. The shelves are seeing new names that have now so slowly replaced long standing favorites. While the apple shelf space is still impressive it cannot hold all varieties.

A few years ago, the Eastern crop had a record low crop due to poor weather. The apple shelves did not go bear. Fruit from outside the traditional reach found its way to our markets to fill this gap. Life has never been the same. New supple ties were made and new varieties became available to our consumers. We did not lose our apple consumer they simply had a new list to select from.

We need to accept that our consumer is not the consumer of our parents. That consumer was happy

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

to drive a Ford or Chevy. Today’s consumer wants to select from all the types of cars of the world. Our apple consumer is no different. Our challenge is to accept this reality and wisely move forward. To hold onto older varieties is similar to trying to sell yesterday’s newspaper.

So how do we meet this shift? It may sound like a broken record, but we must continue to invest in research. We need to invest in production and marketing research. We may know how to design the modern orchard but what good is it if we have the wrong variety. I believe we need to make the effort to partner with our State and Federal policy makers to invest in much needed research.

We all know the struggles we are currently having with shifts in public policy on farm labor. We cannot allow this debate to dampen our efforts to increase funding for research. If our labor is to cost us more we certainly need to be harvesting the most desirable crop.

I am confident that in many ways this year will see a huge shift in our orchards. We cannot take the attitude that we will grow what we want despite the consumer shift. We truly do farm today from the shopping cart back to the farm. Embrace change but first make every effort to research that change.

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.”

Hearing at Morrisville SUNY on Farm Labor

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.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

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.