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.
If you really stop to think of it every one of us is on a different life path. Yes, we may have many similarities with family and friends but none of us are exactly alike. The reason is because when presented with a “life altering” decision we each have different keys to making that decision.
There is no one perfect formula to how to manage your business. Every farm has select pressure points. In 2020 you will be asked to begin to make choices as to how to coexist with the new Farm Labor Act here in New York State. One choice you will not have is to decide to ignore it. It is the law so we must accept it for what it is and learn to function within its rules.
Most every person I have confronted is nervous as to how to deal with the pending possibility of having a labor union on their farm. At the Becker Forum this last January Brad Goehring, a wine grower from California, addressed the group. California has had many seasons of dealing with labor unions. His message was really quite simple. Your help really has no desire to join a labor union so long as you choose to be a good employer. Less than 10% of the farm labor in California is currently under union direction. Farm workers do not want to be told what they can and cannot do by a union. They most certainly do not wish to have to pay dues.
I feel very confident in stating that as an employer you value your work force. You have bu
ilt your team many times over decades. It is the single most important production piece in your portfolio. As needs and wages changed you found ways to meet these demands. In short you made choices that were in the best interest of your farm and everyone associated with it. This is what being a good employer does. You do not fear a union organizer coming to promise new things which they in truth have no control over. They can claim to say they will get workers higher wages but in truth they do not have that power. You on the other hand can act on your promises.
In 2020 we will need to illustrate to our legislators that we are choosing to comply with this new legislation. To try to undermine the basic tenants of the Act will only encourage new legislation that is not necessary. The Democratic controlled Senate has very little in common with production agriculture. From Niagara County to Albany there is only one Democratic Senator. Senator Rachel May in the 53rd district in the Syracuse area is the lone Senator. Senator Tim Kennedy from Erie County in the 63rd district in South Buffalo is the closest. To further illustrate the divide the Republican Senators in New York have in excess of $5 billion of farm assets in their collective districts. The majority of Democratic Senators have a grand total of $365 million in farm assets. We have an enormous educational challenge ahead of us if we are to garner the needed votes to approve the funding for all the various agricultural programs that flow through Albany.
So, we end by accepting that individually and collectively we have many choices to make in 2020. Individually I trust you will make the best choices for your farm and family. Collectively we need to invest in educating our legislators as to the mutual need for a strong and progressive agriculture in New York State. Unfortunately, we all cannot live on a farm in New York State. We all are consumers of the tremendous products and clean water that are a product of our choices.
In the last two issues of the Fruit Grower News the cover page has lead titles of “Labor Pains” and “Helping Hands.” In each month, the number one topic of concern is not over production but who will harvest this production. As the borders to the south become less porous and the birth rates in nations below the Rio Grande approach those equal to our own we are seeing less help appearing at our farms from north to south. Reality is hitting home that to meet the human resource needs of agriculture there is one route, H2A.
Many of the farms here in NYS have a long history of usage of this program. Many more are feeling the shortages and looking for the first time at a program they vowed openly to avoid. Their perception is correct about the shortages. In 2011 when we had 77,260 H2A workers in this country. In 2016 that number rose to 165,741. This works out to a 215% increase in 5 years. Everyone feels that 2017 will be higher still. Companies are moving to this program simply because they have no certainty under the traditional models that they can fill their needs.
I think an important reality for those of you in the fruit business is that only 6% of this number will be picking apples. That means almost every type of agriculture, from every geographic region, will be drawing on this program. It is actually amazing that the current USDA staffs have been able to keep up as well as they have, given the many federal freezes on hiring of new employees.
I have heard for decades farmers complain about the program. Is it perfect? Is it at times too slow? Does it cost you more than your traditional hiring? The answers to each of these questions is yes of course. I contend that until we find a collective national voice to give us the necessary guest worker system that we best try to work within this model. Imagine if those politicians we have been complaining to for decades about this program decided to drop it? Be careful what you wish for.