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Compromise Is Necessary On Farm Labor Legislation

Over the last five years, Chautauqua County has seen the number of farms decrease from 1,515 to 1,228.

That’s right, 19 percent of the farms in an area proud of its agriculture have disappeared. It could be worse. According to Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County, the total farmland in the county has only decreased five percent in the past five years and still totals 223,634 acres; a statistic driven by an increase in the average size of farms from 156 acres to 182 acres. Chautauqua County continues to have a large number of small- and sustenance-sized farms. In 2017, 45 percent of the county’s farms produced less than $10,000 in sales. The average net farm income for Chautauqua County farms, $52,683 per farm, was 23 percent greater than the state average.

The dairy and grape industries are still the driving forces of the county’s agriculture industry. The county’s 159 dairy farms produced $74,993,000 in market value of milk while its 342 fruit farms produced $42,556,000 in market value of products. Cornell Cooperative Extension officials note improved efficiencies as both areas saw the number of farms decrease by 21 percent, but increased market value by 2.5 percent for dairy and 12 percent for fruit. Direct to consumer sales are increasing, and showed a value of $3,501,000, an increase of 63 percent from 2012 for the county.

Agriculture is a big deal in this county, and that’s why each and every county resident should care about the current version of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act being discussed by the state Legislature. The bill includes allowing for collective bargaining with the ability for farmworkers to strike at any time, including at times throughout the growing and harvest seasons or when animals need to be cared for. It also would require overtime on farms, not only above a 40-hour work week, but also any hours beyond an eight-hour day.

Farm Credit East estimates this will increase labor costs, on average, by 17-percent or nearly $300 million statewide. Think about those sustenance-sized farms and their already slim net income of $52,683 a year. If the 19 percent decrease in the number of county farms surprised you, how much of a decrease can we expect to see in the next five years if the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act is enacted as currently written? How much of a drop will we see in the number of farm workers over that period?

The overtime rule is particularly onerous for farmers during planting or harvesting seasons where there may be one day where workers can work 10 or 12 hours and another where workers can only work four or five hours because of weather. For a week the hours may balance to a 40-hour week, but that 40 hours of work will cost farm operators a lot more under the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. The ability to unionize and strike at any time is similarly a problem — unions could bring farms to their knees with a strike during the critical harvest time of the year, when the time is short to get crops out of the field and stored.

We’re sure there are some farms that don’t treat their employees well. We don’t doubt some bad actors need to have some regulation to bring them up to an acceptable level of behavior. The behavior of a small group shouldn’t jeopardize the majority of farms who treat their workers well.

Democrats in the Assembly and Senate have heard the issues farmers have with the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. If they truly care about the concerns of good farmers, they will listen to what they have been told in recently held public hearings and change this law accordingly. If they don’t, Democrats will have proven that the long-held stereotype is true — they don’t care about small upstate counties like ours.

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