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Area Farmers Have Message For Hochul

Gov. Kathy Hochul hasn’t been to Chautauqua County as part of her tour of the state’s farms.

In late July, the governor launched a statewide listening tour on the future of farming in New York state. She billed the series of listening sessions as a way for the state to hear directly from farmers about their priorities in addressing climate, workforce, and economic challenges, and help inform the state’s federal priorities for agriculture, nutrition and environmental funding and policy changes.

Several area farmers told The Post-Journal what they would tell Hochul if the governor had made it to Chautauqua County for a listening session.

“We aren’t in any need of money from the state,” said Teri Whitney, who owns Bee Natural Honey Farms in French Creek with her husband Ben. “We go through our accounting firm for all our money needs. What we really need from the state would be supplies for the bottling and packaging that we do.”

REGULATIONS AND

GREEN ENERGY

For others, what they would tell Governor Hochul has a lot to do with some current government policies that are affecting agriculture.

“Things the state could do for farms: not lower the overtime rules to 40 hours and keep them where they are now at 60 hours,” said Kaitlyn Bentley of Peterson Farms. “It would put many farms at a huge disadvantage when they have to compete on a national scale with states that are not subject to these rules. There are already very high minimum wage rates we have to deal with and compete with when, for example, Pennsylvania only has to pay a little over half of what we do per hour.”

Additionally, Bentley thought that the state needed to take more time to talk to people in the agriculture industry before making decisions that could affect them in a negative way. This includes the use of agricultural land for green energy. Bentley suggested focusing on former industrial sites for solar arrays or develop panels that last longer so less farmland is used meeting the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

For Bentley, the regulations that the state has been putting on farms and agriculture is too much.

“Agriculture has changed and developed over hundreds of years to try to stay current and use best practices for energy and we create a huge carbon sink taking up carbon that would otherwise be put off into the atmosphere, but we are being treated like we are the problem and they need to regulate us to death,” Bentley said. “Many farms in this county and this country are multi-generational and they have done so by keeping up with best practices, giving back to the land, and creating solutions to problems no one else has ever had to think about. It would be nice if New York state would finally recognize that we need to be able to compete on a national and international stage and to not keep pushing New York farms to the brink with regulations or unrealistic expectations that take away our ability to be flexible enough to get through all the unexpected events that Mother Nature and the economy throws at us.”

A RELATIONSHIP WITH NO BALANCE

Ron Almeter, a member of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Agriculture Program Committee had many concerns about the land.

“One of the fundamental principles of farming is that the land is the means of production,” Almeter said. “It is fundamental to any business that the proprietor have management control over the means of production and have the discretion and fair and competitive market to put the means of production to best use. In the agricultural sector of the economy, there are many other stakeholders, civil servants administering regulatory programs, elected officials, zoning boards and other ‘advisory’ groups, who presume to know what the highest and best use of a farmer’s land ought to be. This regulatory climate in New York has severely constrained and degraded the farmer’s ability to utilize lands to the fullest advantage.”

Almeter said that farmers and landowners should be allowed to be the ones to decide about the best usage of their own land.

“There is, in many cases, a strong business case for taking land out of agricultural production and placing it into renewable energy production under long-term lease arrangements with renewable energy producers,” Almeter said. “Farmers and private land owners should have unfettered discretion to make such decisions about the highest and best use of their land, including uses that take the land out of agricultural use without penalty if the business case warrants such use.”

Almeter said that the most important role of the state government is to provide aid for farmers.

“This is an important and necessary role for government, particularly at the state level, to provide advice and assistance to farmers, ranchers, timber producers and other landowners in matters pertaining to sustainable land management, pollution and carbon footprint reduction, energy efficiency, pest management, and other technical aspects of agricultural production and farm management,” Almeter said. “The balance between providing advice and assistance versus imposing regulatory oversight seems to lean heavily toward regulatory overreach. Throughout the state, farms have decreased in numbers coincident with persistent increase in farm size. To be sure, efficient farmers reap benefits of operating efficiencies gained with larger equipment, bigger herds and efficient labor organizations. But with the consolidation of land and agricultural production in a smaller population of farmers, there is an opportunity cost; fewer opportunities for entry-level owner/operators, decrease in sources of agricultural inputs and supporting businesses, reduced marketing channels, downward pressure on farm laborer income and fewer jobs in the agricultural sector. …I’d like to see the State take a more active role in promoting agricultural producers at the front end of the food supply chain to the food and alcohol processing industry so that agricultural inputs reflect the full spectrum of New York farm producers, not just large scale producers with access to large volume commodity brokers.”

DISTURBING TENDENCIES

Land and energy is also one of the issues for other farmers.

“I would tell Governor Hochul that I am seeing a disturbing tendency for the New York state government to be embracing central planning in all aspects of our economy,” said Dan Steward, Certified Crop Advisor, Environmental Planner with the Western New York Crop Management Association and member of the Chautauqua County Farm Bureau Board of Directors. “The agricultural policies of the current administration are indicative of this trend. The Senate and Assembly agricultural committees of the state as well as the executive branch are led by elected officials who have virtually no practical experience with production agriculture. They have no clue or little concern as to how their policies are having a negative impact on New York State farmers either individually or as a whole.”

Steward continued, saying that the main two policies he was concerned about are the labor agreements and energy policy.

Recently, the state has suggested a mandate that farmers begin to provide overtime payment for their employees.

“With its labor wage board, the state is infringing on the agreement that is made between individuals, an exchange of labor for compensation,” Steward said. “An employee has chosen to provide their service to the employer at an agreed upon compensation. The employer has agreed to pay the employee at an agreed upon compensation. No one is forcing either party into this arrangement.”

Additionally, Steward said that employers make the best choices for their own farms and that he thought how that decision was made should not be because of something the government mandated.

“It is safe to assume that the employee has made that choice because it was the best choice for them,” Steward said. “The farmer has chosen to hire that worker because they have judged that they bring the best value to the position. It is a mutual agreement. Who knows better than individuals what that fair compensation is? Certainly not someone on the other side of the state who is not familiar with this job market or industry.”

Steward said that employees if they are not happy have the option of going somewhere else, while farmers cannot move their farm and have to make do with what and who they get.

“Employers have fewer options,” Steward said. “A farm cannot be moved, it is literally tied to the land. Farmers benefit from stable, hard-working, intelligent workers. They try to keep them happy. They do that by making their operation a nice place to live and work so the employee does not go elsewhere. The state should stay out of the labor market.”

As far as the state’s energy policy goes, one of Steward’s main concerns is the use of land and the free market. He believes that when the state is trying to incentivise people into using their land for what they think is best, it is no longer a free market.

“The Ag and Markets law acknowledges this; it only addresses the conversion of farmland when state incentives are involved,” Steward said. “The current administration under Richard Ball is effectively not enforcing this portion of the law even if they are usually following the protocols.”

Steward continued by saying that a lot of solar and wind energy uses are not feasible for agriculture use.

“This is only part of why I feel so strongly about the issue. Although I am not a climate change denier, I am skeptical of the magnitude of the problem and absolutely against our institutions’ response to the concern,” Steward said. “I think anyone with any curiosity who has impartially evaluated the feasibility of industrial solar and wind energy will come to the conclusion that they are not the answer. Additionally, if they have any experience with government incentives as we do, they will realize that the course of action being taken is not likely to achieve the outcomes desired at the cost they project. Why? Because the policies are written by special interest groups who then benefit from the legislation, grift, waste, unintended consequences, etc.”

Altogether, Steward said that solar power may end up with more negative impacts on farming than the government expected.

“In a nutshell, many of us in production agriculture intuitively believe that these projects are boondoggles that will benefit the few and negatively impact many while having virtually no effect on the climate,” Steward said. “Industrial solar would not be happening if it was not for government incentives. It will take viable farmland out of production and increase the cost to acquire land for those who want to continue or begin farming. To summarize, New York State would benefit from less government involvement in the agriculture sector.”

FEDERAL ISSUES

Others have concerns about the same policies as Steward, including dairy farmer, Dick Kimball, who is also the president of the Chautauqua County Farm Bureau.

The solar and climate change initiative is also a big issue for Kimball.

“For solar, the government is going in and taking out farmland that was originally being used for other things,” Kimball said. “The Farm Bureau is all for land owner rights, but they are being subsidized by the state. Now we have to compete with the state to get farmland. Farmland is not a renewable resource. It’s important to have.”

The government’s climate change initiative states that farm equipment will not be allowed to use natural gas by 2024. For Kimball, this does not seem feasible and causes a lot of concern.

“Farms use a lot of natural gas,” Kimball said. “I’m concerned that without it we will not have enough electricity to run our farms. I think there should be a farm equipment initiative, because all of the crops and especially the corn take a lot of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere when they grow. We should get credit for that.”

The overtime issue is also something that Kimball and the Chautauqua County Farm Bureau is watching.

“It’s not signed yet but we would encourage the governor not to sign it,” Kimball said. “It doesn’t make sense that the government is going to repay the money for this overtime requirement. It’s almost a little bit offensive. It seems like it’s saying we don’t take care of our people. We’ve had people that have worked here for over 12 years because they want to do the work. We have to compensate them, and we do that well already.”

Kimball was also concerned about pesticide restrictions, especially against Round-Up. He said that Round-Up is one of the most studied pesticides in existence and that if people do not trust that then there is no point in having the agencies that are dedicated to studying pesticides like Round-Up.

Overall, Kimball said he would tell Governor Hochul if she came to visit his farm that a lot of these issues are set to put farms in New York state at a disadvantage.

“We would like these to be seen as a federal issue, not state,” Kimball said. “Again, I think we also should get a grant or some sort of credit for the crops we plant. But, I am happy to see that the governor has supported agriculture in the budget, even though most of the things farmers are going to need help with are those that are being mandated by the state. Though, I do appreciate that they are willing to help.”

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