A Nightmare For Farming Communities

Among many critical issues facing New York farmers, not one is more alarming to family farmers than the move afoot in the state Legislature to mandate overtime pay for farmworkers.

The New York Farm Bureau is leading the charge against a plan euphemistically called the “Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.” For farmers, there’s nothing fair about it.

Farm Bureau Public Policy Director Jeff Williams said at a recent news conference, “If supporters of this bill don’t take the farm community’s concerns seriously, the face of New York agriculture as we know it will change. Rural New York matters. Local food production matters. We need to make sure farms have the opportunity to not only survive but thrive for the sake of their families and employees.”

Versions of the legislation (S.2837/A.2750), which I strongly oppose, go back as far as 2008. However, with the state Senate now under Democratic control, the farm community is on high alert this year, recognizing that an extreme action like this one could very well become the law of their land.

In short, the Act’s approval would decimate net farm income for every sector of our leading agricultural economy and put thousands of family farms out of business.

I share this alarm with many colleagues, including area Assemblyman Phil Palmesano. In recent correspondence to the state’s Democratic leaders, we called for statewide public hearings to give farmers, growers, agribusiness owners, farm community leaders, and all others the opportunity to testify against this action. We believe this testimony would finally dispel the falsehoods and myths surrounding the proposal.

In part, we wrote, “The misguided and misrepresented Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act poses an extreme action at a time of already severe economic struggle for New York State farmers. Worse, the Act’s consequences would produce a nightmare of a ripple effect across local communities in every region of this state and profoundly diminish the future of high quality, local food production.”

It would indeed be a nightmare of a ripple effect. Some of the scenarios are stunning. It’s already been shown that total farm labor costs in New York State are at least 63 percent of net cash farm income, compared to 36 percent nationally. Now, Farm Credit East estimates the new Act would increase farm labor costs by nearly $300 million or close to 20%, resulting in a drop in net farm income of 23%.  For vegetable growers, according to the Farm Credit East economic analysis, net farm income would decline by 43%. Fruit growers would face a 74% drop in net income. For greenhouse and nursery operations, income losses would approach 60%.

For New York State dairy farms barely making ends meet under current economic conditions (and keeping in mind that New York State has already lost nearly 20% of our dairy farms over the past five years), the Act would wipe out remaining net farm income.

One Southern Tier generational dairy farmer said at Farm Bureau’s recent news conference that the legislation would drive up her costs by more than $200,000 and put her family’s farm out of business.

She said, “We value our employees greatly. We house our employees and pay them everything they need free of charge. Having the payroll go up by that much will put us out of business. We haven’t paid ourselves in pretty much a year. We are trying to do what is right and paying our employees and paying our bills.”

In short, far from implementing fair labor practices, this action would in reality spark an enormous loss of family farms and the thousands of livelihoods these farms support across the industry and throughout hundreds of local economies statewide.

It is alarming and it cannot go forward.

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