I just spent two full days taking two groups around Albany. The first day they were from the Berry Industry. On the second day, they were primarily apple growers, but they had other tree fruit interests. Each group had budget items to discuss. At every one of my 30 visits we closed with a Q and A about the possibility of new legislative action on the Farm Omnibus issues. Of all the possible issues, the possibility of overtime at any level but most of all 40 hours looms high.
I am not here to cast any negatives on any sector of our industry. The reality is this as I see it. Dairy is locked in a struggle to cover overhead while they continue to out produce demand. They have no legal right to hire foreign workers like the H2A. Overnight, fruit is seeing that its traditional top four varieties are now listed in the back of their consumer’s demand. The rapid decline of demand for Macs, Cortland, Empire and Red Delicious are leaving producers with over 50% of their acreage in a less desirable demand position. Dairy and fruit are the top two categories in New York. I need not list the issues that are present in the remaining crops. Are they important? Cornell studies say apples account for 1.2 billion dollars annually. Regardless of misconceptions by too many New Yorkers, agriculture is a major economic driver we cannot afford to lose.
One quick takeaway that I think is important to mention here. In both Albany and DC we see a huge
changing of senior leadership. Albany and DC are having to adjust to a large percentage of new legislators. They are loud and they intend to quickly make their mark. Educating these new legislators is a very new challenge. They arrive, in most instances, with strong convictions. Often times their sources of information are based on perceptions from social media verses facts. So we must defuse these already strong perceptions before we can to move ahead in any discussions.
Here are two examples of what we are facing. In the Senate Veteran Committee there are only two members with any military experience. In the Assembly Agriculture Committee similarly there are only two members with any real agriculture experience. We are seeing committees making policy for us all that have no real world understanding of their respective topics. I have echoed this to you all before. If you decide to not speak, many will fill your absence that have no understanding of your world.
Regardless of what you might think you have heard or hoped for this issue will appear shortly after they complete the arduous budget debates in early April. Perception becomes reality. If you have ever been to either the legislative chambers in Albany or DC you must first pass inspection for security reasons. Trust me when I tell you the ‘weapons of misconceptions’ that are sneaking threw are very dangerous. We must make every effort to continue to be in discussions prior to these legislative floor hearings. I believe, for the most, part people wish the best for each other. Too often however we all may rush to judgment before we truly comprehend the entire topic. We have time between now and the end of this legislative session. I urge you to get involved. It is nearly impossible to get rid of bad legislation. It is often time best served to head it off before it becomes reality.
We have each heard over the years about how New York State is a very difficult State to do business in. Equally, as property owners, we pay some of the highest rates in the nation. On the flip side our education systems from kindergarten to college rank among the finest. Unfortunately, this leads us to what I term “Reverse Darwinism.” In short, we see the most ambitious and educated having to flee out of State to find employment to match their goals. This leaves us with hard working families having to see their children leave to other areas. I personally have two daughters who now, for employment opportunities, live in North Carolina and Kansas.
On the national news this morning it was reported that 14 States are now enjoying the lowest unemployment in years. New York was not one of them. California and Texas however were. This tells me that other areas are finding ways to combine jobs and opportunities. Here in New York we just approved a State budget. Agriculture, the largest industry in the Up State by far, received a flat budget. All of agriculture is facing difficult times. Global competition is a reality not just a topic of conversation. Prices are simply not keeping up with costs of doing business. I was in Wyoming County earlier this month at a meeting with Congressman Collins and the under Secretary of Agriculture. Wyoming is the largest dairy county in New York State. The room was packed. It was reported that 17 dairy farms were for sale. The price of milk is averaging $4 a hundred weight below cost of production. Times are very tough for the largest farm sector in our State.
So why do I tell you all of this? Here in New York we do not seem to be able to not find ways to defuse good efforts to enhance our progress. While our budget was flat we did approve funding to help in areas of research and promotion. Could we have done more to stimulate and partner with privat
e business? Of course. The underlying cancer here is the cost of doing business here in New York verses outside the borders of our State. Despite the fact New York was not one of those 14 States with lower unemployment we have annually a very difficult time to find the human resources we need to staff the largest industry in upstate New York. As an industry we are forced to source labor from outside our area. Hence the rise of the legal federal program H2A. Federally and in EVERY OTHER STATE BUT NEW YORK such employers are exempt from having to pay unemployment on these workers because they are, by law, not eligible to ever be covered by it. Here in New York State we have passed a law to make these employers pay for unemployment on these employees that may never be eligible to draw on the fund. Depending on an employer’s rating this rate can be as high as 9%. To make matters even more ridiculous, now New York State Department of Labor is saying an employer has to include a value for the free housing they are required to provide under the federal law. This only increases the final value of funds an employer has to pay into this fund. Many of us are wondering why NYSDOL stopped at the value of free housing? We have to provide free transportation from their homes to work here and back to their homes as well. Maybe this will be added next.
In short, this is nothing short of a money grab to put funds in the general unemployment fund at the expense of the legal farm employers. In times such as we are experiencing this should be stopped and seen as a national disgrace.
Senator Betty Little and 11 other Senators have a bill (S 139) to remove this from being a law. Assemblyman William Magee has a similar bill (A 4480) in the Assembly to remove this as well. Unfortunately, in the Assembly this is not gaining any traction. This is the most scandalous piece of legislation I have ever come across. It needs to be removed. The fact is it will not unless we make some noise to protest this. Agriculture Affiliates and the New York State Horticulture Society have drafted just shy of 100 letters to the New York Legislators to ask them to act on this. If you agree with me that this is wrong than I ask you to address your opposition to your elected representatives. To simply sit by and allow this is wrong. As I already alluded to what will be the next way they can increase the base to collect more from our industry. If you do not mind paying for something you can never collect on than sit by and wait for the next new charges.