By Assemblyman Will Barclay
Last week, frost hit Upstate New York after buds sprouted on the trees.
Some fruit farmers set out smudge pots and wind machines to try and prevent the frost from settling on the plants.
Luckily, temperatures didn’t get that low and only remained just below the freezing point for a couple of hours in most cases.
Nevertheless, farmers did what they could to protect their crops.
On the same day farmers were bracing for a cold streak, the Assembly passed a bill that imposes factory-like mandates on family farms, and failed to recognize the unique industry heavily dependent on weather and harvest schedules.
The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act passed the Assembly 83-53. I voted against it. The bill imposes new labor mandates, regulations and financial burdens for farmers, without considering the environment or circumstances it takes to run a successful farm.
The bill’s primary sponsor is an Assembly member from Queens – where agricultural lands are nearly non-existent.
Most of the advocates for the bill are not farmworkers. Rather, the advocates are unions, students and downstate lawmakers.
The bill grants agricultural workers collective bargaining rights, disability and unemployment benefits, as well as imposing an 8-hour day for farmworkers and expands state sanitary codes to cover farms.
While these requirements may sound reasonable, anyone who has worked on a farm knows these requirements would put farmers out of business and discourage farmers from entering agricultural industry at all, thereby reducing locally grown produce.
The state has made strides in recent years to support the “buy local” movement, largely driven by the marketplace. This is a trend our state should continue.
In recent years, the state provided incentives for more fresh markets to become established through programs like FreshConnect.
New York invested $2 million in renewable energy grants for farmers in this year’s budget.
The state promotes locally grown products like yogurt, cheese and wine through Pride of New York and the budget also created a new program called Taste NY, which plans go further in terms of marketing and promoting home-grown produce.
The Farmworkers Fair Labor Act is counterintuitive to these initiatives and instead, creates a regulatory framework similar to factories.
With farming, harvest season may only come once a year.
During the debates, one legislator raised a good point.
If farmworkers are allowed to go on strike, they could do so during harvest month and that would mean the end of that crop and possibly the whole farm if the farmer loses his whole yield.
Weather determines crop output and harvest schedules.
If it rains for three days straight, little work will get done in the fields and farmworkers will often have to make up for lost time when the weather clears.
Also, mandating that farmers pay overtime may force farmers to cut hours or decrease pay in order to pay overtime.
Farmers are already regulated by state and federal agencies.
Further, farmers in our area who provide housing and employment for H-2A agricultural workers say the housing conditions they must provide for farmworkers are more stringent than those required of parents to raise a child.
Both the State Department of Health and Department of Labor have jurisdiction over farms.
In 2012, nearly 1,000 farms were inspected by the State Department of Labor.
They found 526 apparent violations of state or federal laws in 240 businesses.
Nearly all were resolved cooperatively between the farm and Department of Labor, without the need for citations or penalties.
Many farmworkers are seasonal workers and seek jobs that provide more than 40 hours per week because they realize they cannot work during the winter on many of these farms.
In a study done by Cornell in 2005, out of the 111 Hispanic dairy workers surveyed on 60 farms, most said they like to work at least 55 hours per week.
Labor statistics show that most seasonal workers spend more time on farms July through December and much less time during January through June.
In short, farmworkers work when there is work to do.
New York’s agricultural industry brings in $4.7 billion in cash receipts.
We need to do what we can to support this industry.
Their livelihood is solely dependent on the marketplace and the weather.
Adding significant labor costs has the potential to diminish the number of farms, both big and small, and discourage farming altogether.
I sincerely hope the Senate does not pass this bill and this ill-conceived plan goes no further than the Assembly.
If you have any questions or comments on this or any other state issue, or if you would like to be added to my mailing list or receive my newsletter, please contact my office.
My office can be reached by mail at 200 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling (315) 598-5185.
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