BUFFALO, N.Y. — Agriculture has traditionally ranked as one of New York State's largest and most vital industries.
However, these are tough times down on the farm.
"Farms are facing high inflationary costs," said NY Farm Bureau President David Fisher, as the group unveiled its top priorities for the 2023 NY State legislative session.
"Costs are up across the board for energy, transportation, labor, fertilizer, and supplies."
And farmers say New York State is not making it easier.
"We can't keep making it more expensive to do business in this state," Fisher said.
Wage Mandates Drive Deep Concern
Labor costs are of particular concern.
New York's farm workers are already among the highest-paid in the nation, according to the National Agricultural Law Center.
They earn the state minimum wage, which will be rising again this year.
The difference is that, up till now, they were not eligible for overtime until after 60 hours a week.
However, that threshold will gradually drop to 40 hours per week over the next decade, after the state labor commissioner adopted the recommendation of a three-member wage board, despite a study included in the report which indicated such a move could increase labor costs by 42% while reducing farm income by 20%.
The vote was 2-1 and Fisher, a dairy farmer who voted against the proposal, was also the only member of the wage board tied directly to agriculture. The other members were the former president of the New York AFL-CIO and the former director of the Buffalo Urban League.
The decision may leave farmers to either reduce the number of hours afforded to workers to avoid overtime costs (creating concern that workers may then avoid New York farms because they could work more hours and actually end up making more money in other states) or switch to producing less labor-intensive crops, thereby reducing the number of farm jobs.
Or, they could just go out of business entirely.
To blunt the effects of the higher wage structure, the state would reimburse farmers for certain overtime costs, which means that taxpayers will foot the bill, eventually to the tune of 153 million dollars a year according to the state budget office.
Unlike some industries, farms can't necessarily pass increased costs to consumers.
Dairy farms, for example, have no ability to set their own milk prices, which means they can't recoup higher production costs.
"This is not the time to make things worse," Fisher said.
Other Relief Sought
Meanwhile, farmers are also concerned with the state's massive investment into the spirit, cidery, and brewing industry because they are still not allowed to directly ship their products to out-of-state consumers.
They'd like that to change.
"Right now, wineries can ship to consumers out of state but none of those other farm beverage products are allowed to be shipped out of state," said Jeff Williams, the New York farm Bureau's Public Policy Director. "We view this as a matter of parity with our brethren and sisters in the wine industry, and we're hoping to extend those privileges to all farm beverages."
It Ain't Easy Being Green
While farmers and foresters have made strides to reduce emissions, increase efficiencies, and sequester carbon, the Farm Bureau also has concerns about the state's plan to meet its lofty goals for zero emissions.
These include the continued blackening of green spaces through the installation of solar panels over once fertile fields and fallow meadows, and the state's push for electric, zero-emission agricultural vehicles when such equipment currently doesn't exist.
And even if such equipment were to be developed on a viable and affordable scale, there are still questions regarding how a farmer might charge their tractors and combines in the middle of a field.
Short of having a power grid in every region of the state that can handle the electrical demand that would be created from the state's plans, the Farm Bureau is suggesting that renewable natural gas and biofuels remain as part of any "climate-smart" plan.
More Chores at Hand
Also among the other items on the Farm Bureau's list of legislative priorities:
-Asking lawmakers to replenish the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. The Farm Bureau identifies this as a big issue for NYFB members who have been saddled with assessment charges on their quarterly contributions to the unemployment insurance fund.
New York State borrowed billions from the federal government during the pandemic to cover increased UI costs and is the only state that has not begun to make payments on the debt or interest, instead passing those costs on to employers.
-Maintaining funding for animal health, promotion, and research programs along with full funding for the Environmental Protection Fund, which helps farms implement best management practices for soil health and nutrient management programs that protect land and waterways.
-Adaptation of the Governor's proposal for a refundable investment tax credit to incentivize investment, especially coming off of challenging years of low commodity prices and then the pandemic. “We all benefit when we have a strong farming community,” said Fisher.
-Continued funding for the Nourish New York program, which redirects fresh, locally grown food into regional food banks and emergency food pantries while also helping farms offset the costs to produce, harvest, package, and transport healthy food.
- Pushing legislators to approve the governor’s effort to increase state procurement to 30% for New York farm products when purchasing food for its state agencies and institutions. However, the Farm Bureau also cautions against exclusionary or enforce value-based purchasing requirements that are not currently required by state or federal laws.
-The Farm Bureau says it's concerned about the Extended Producer Responsibility legislation, which if adopted would pass the cost and responsibility of recycling packaging away from the consumer and to the source of the product, in this case, farms and food processors who need things like milk containers, wine bottles and food packaging to sell what they produce. According to the Farm Bureau, this puts an extraordinary financial burden on the state’s farms and businesses and would eventually increase the cost of doing business and further drive-up consumer prices.