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State Senate also passes farm labor bill; Governor supports OT for farmworkers

Photo by Tom Rivers: These tractors are pictured on Densmore Street in Albion today after workers earlier were tending to a vegetable field.

Staff Reports Posted 19 June 2019 at 10:57 pm

ALBANY – The State Senate followed the State Assembly and has passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act to grant collective bargaining rights, workers’ compensation, and unemployment benefits to farm laborers.

This legislation, S.6578, sponsored by Senator Jessica Ramos, will address the standards of working conditions and include a measure to require overtime pay after 60 hours in one week. The Fair Labor Practices Act also provides unemployment insurance, 24 consecutive hours of rest each week, and a sanitary code for all farm and food processing labor camps intended to house farm laborers.

“The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act has lingered in this body for 20 years, with 7 sponsors on both sides of the aisle,” Ramos said. “I am proud today to be the 8th and last sponsor of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. I have traveled to seven counties in New York, visited 14 farms, talked to countless farmworkers, and held three hearings on this bill. There are 80,000 to 100,000 farmworkers that are the backbone of New York’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry. Today we are correcting a historic injustice, a remnant of Jim Crow era laws, to affirm that those farmworkers must be granted rights just as any other worker in New York.”

Ramos said farm laborers have historically been excluded from basic labor protections under the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement tonight, supporting the legislation.

“With the passage of this legislation, we will help ensure every farmworker receives the overtime pay and fair working conditions they deserve,” he said. “The constitutional principles of equality, fairness and due process should apply to all of us. I am proud that, with the help of my daughters’ years-long advocacy on this critical issue, we got it done.”

State Senator Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, serves on the Senate’s Agriculture Committee. He said the legislation will hurt many farms, and have a negative effect on farmworkers who will see their hours cut each workweek.

“Tonight’s passage of the Farmworker Labor Act is disappointing and further displays the disconnect between state Democrats and western New Yorkers,” Ortt said. “For months, I toured farms across western New York and spoke about this legislation with hundreds of workers, employees and community residents. Employers and employees alike pleaded that this bill would destroy small family farms.

“With New York State farm closure rates already triple the national average, this legislation will grow the closure rate and devastate the number one economic driver in New York. My chief concern when Democrats took over the entirety of state government was that upstate would be ignored. Incredibly, it has gone further than that and upstate is now being attacked by radical New York City regressives. Their willing accomplices include Democrats from the rest of the state, the Business Council, and the State Farm Bureau, who – sadly – should have all known better.”

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NY Assembly passes farm labor bill, allowing OT after 60 hours

Staff Reports Posted 19 June 2019 at 9:36 pm

Hawley, Norris fear legislation will hurt struggling ag industry

ALBANY – The State Assembly today passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act allowing overtime after 60 hours worked in a week.

The legislation also grants collective bargaining rights, a day of rest and expansion of workers’ compensation benefits, as well as other worker rights and protections to all farmworkers.

“Here in the Assembly Majority we pride ourselves on standing up for the rights of the hard working men and women across New York,” said Speaker Carl Heastie. “Farmworkers deserve proper protections for the physically taxing, sometimes dangerous work they do that fuels our agricultural sector and puts food on our tables. They are vital to keeping New York’s farms working and play a pivotal role in the health and well-being of our residents.”

Two Assembly members whose districts include parts of Orleans County opposed the legislation, calling it well-meaning but ultimately weakening the agricultural sector, which could result in fewer hours and less weekly pay for farmworkers.

State Assemblyman Steve Hawley, R-Batavia, is a former farmer and president of the Genesee County Farm Bureau. He now runs an insurance business.

“I know these new mandates will devastate New York’s family farms and disrupt the industry beyond repair – an industry that generates $4.8 billion in annual revenue,” he said in a statement. “Agriculture is a unique industry where production and success are contingent upon steady and reliable labor, and implementing more handcuffs on our farm owners and restricting the availability of that labor while increasing its costs will be devastating.”

Hawley said mandating time and a half overtime pay for any hours over 60 in a week “is just not practical.”

“Our farmers are constantly fighting flooding, drought and unpredictable weather patterns that often require unpredictable work hours, which is ultimately necessary to achieve success in the business,” Hawley said.

He called the legislation “authoritarian overreach” by New York City lawmakers, whose districts represents “virtually no family farms,” Hawley said.

“What’s more troubling is the establishment of a new board, headed by big-labor special interests, to further examine farm labor,” Hawley said. “The board wrongly excludes the Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets and will undoubtedly heap mandate upon mandate and cost upon cost upon our family farms.”

State Assemblyman Michael Norris, R-Lockport, issued this statement: “This legislation is another example of downstate’s progressive agenda being out of touch with the realities of upstate, particularly our agriculture industry. Farmworkers know that this work is seasonal and dependent on the weather. New York state farms are already struggling to make ends meet. The mandates that will be imposed by this bill will make matters even worse for farmers, cripple the agriculture industry and drive up the cost of food and products for everyone. I am outraged and voted no.”

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Hawley joins farmers in rally at state capitol

Posted 13 June 2019 at 2:53 pm

Press Release, State Assemblyman Steve Hawley

Provided photo: Assemblyman Steve Hawley meets with Maureen Torrey, center, of Elba and Shelley Stein of Le Roy, both from Grow-NY, at Wednesday’s New York Farm Bureau Rally in Albany.

Assemblyman Steve Hawley (R,C,I-Batavia) met with supporters at a rally in Albany on Wednesday organized by the New York Farm Bureau and Grow-NY regarding the concerns of allowing farm workers to unionize.

Hawley, the former owner and operator of Hawley Farms in Batavia, is a longtime member of the Assembly Agriculture Committee and has been outspoken on the damaging effects labor regulations would have on the family farming industry.

“I was proud to stand with dedicated farmers, activists and producers yesterday in Albany as we push back against labor regulations being advanced by New York City politicians,” Hawley said. “Our family farms are already struggling under suffocating minimum-wage mandates and low commodity prices, and to regulate an industry which thrives off the necessity to operate unique hours at different times would be devastating.”

Net farm income is down 50 percent from just a few years ago and farmers have little to no control over the prices they receive for what they produce, unlike most manufacturers who can set their own prices. According to a 2019 report from Farm Credit East, mandatory overtime would increase labor costs on farms by almost $300 million and decrease net farm income by almost 25 percent.

“We know what works best for our family farms and that is the ability to regulate their own labor to produce the best results,” Hawley said. “I will continue to stand in the way of harmful farm mandates as session nears its end next week.”

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Rural Democrats urge Democrat-led Legislature not to pass overtime pay for farmworkers

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 7 June 2019 at 11:57 am

Leaders of the Democratic Rural Conference of New York State on Thursday issued a resolution opposing overtime pay for farmworkers, saying it could harm an agricultural industry that is already in a “precarious situation,” according to a statement from Judith Hunter of Livingston County, who is chairwoman of the conference.

The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act is sponsored by State Sen. Jessica Ramos of Queens. The bill has been introduced in the Legislature before but was always stopped by Republicans who had the majority of the seats. This year the Senate is in Democrat control.

Hunter said the dairy industry is in a crisis and other sectors are struggling.

“Our rural economy depends on agriculture, and we are concerned that agriculture will be able to recover from its current difficulties stronger than ever,” she said.

Agriculture in New York State represents $4.2 billion and is “an integral part of our rural heritage and culture, directly and indirectly providing valuable jobs, supporting local business and are a critical component of our state’s economy,” the Rural Democrats said in a resolution.

“Any eventual legislation should protect our farmworkers, clearly, but it should also protect our farmers,” Hunter said. “They are unable to pass on higher production costs by charging higher prices, because those prices are set by market forces beyond their control. Already, dairy farmers find themselves getting less for their milk than it costs them to produce. New York agriculture also must be supported as it works to become more competitive, more sustainable, and more resilient in the face of climate change.”

Farmers at a roundtable in Batavia last month said the legislation requiring time-and-half after 8 hours in one day and 40 hours in a week would increase their costs from 17 to 25 percent. Some of the farmers, like fruit grower Jeff Toussaint of Knowlesville, said they would have to look at a different type of farming with far less labor costs. For Toussaint that could mean removing fruit trees and planting corn and soybeans.

The Rural Democrats are proposing the overtime threshold not begin until 60 hours are worked in a week.

The farmers at the Batavia roundtable, led by State Sen. Robert Ortt, said labor costs have been on the rise with the state’s minimum wage increases and the H2A rates, which are all set by the government. When those wages go up, farmers increase the wages for middle managers, herdsmen and others who are above the minimum wage.

The Rural Democrats said the state’s minimum wage ranks among the top five in the country, with the minimum wage in upstate currently $3.85 higher than federal minimum wage.

The state legislation calls for collective bargaining for farmworkers, but the Rural Democrats say there should be a no-strike provision.

The resolution will be sent to state legislative leaders, including Gov. Cuomo.

(Editor’s Note: Jeanne Crane, the Orleans County Democratic Party chairwoman, is a member of the board of directors for the Rural Democrats.)

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Annual opportunity to join Ag District starts next month

Photo by Tom Rivers: A tractor is pictured Tuesday in a field by Lakeshore Road in the Town of Carlton.

Posted 31 May 2019 at 12:38 pm

Press Release, Orleans County Department of Planning and Development

ALBION – Orleans County is accepting enrollment of additional parcels in certified agricultural districts during the month of June, pursuant to New York State Agricultural and Markets Law.

This annual 30-day window is for inclusion of property which is predominantly viable agricultural land. During this time period, land may only be added and not removed from an agricultural district. This opportunity does not replace enrollment in an existing agricultural district during the eight-year, formal review process, but allows a once-a-year opportunity for a property owner to request that the County Legislature add parcel(s) to Orleans County Consolidated Agricultural District No. 1 (District C-1).

At the conclusion of June, requests for inclusion in agricultural districts will be reviewed, in order, by the Orleans County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board, the Orleans County Legislature, and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. Enrollment forms are available from the Orleans County Department of Planning and Development. Completed and signed forms should be sent by June 30th to:

Timothy German

Orleans County Department of Planning and Development

14016 Route 31 West

Albion, NY 14411

The agricultural districting program provides eligible operations right-to-farm protection, among other benefits. Last year, 116 acres were added to District No. 1 during the annual enrollment process. Please note that requesting enrollment during this 30-day time period is not a guarantee that your property will be added to an existing agricultural district. Moreover, it will not automatically qualify your property for a reduced agricultural property tax assessment. For information on obtaining a reduced agricultural property tax assessment, please contact your local assessor.

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$16 billion approved to help farmers hurt in trade dispute

Staff Reports Posted 25 May 2019 at 9:10 am

File photo by Tom Rivers: A grain facility is pictured in Shelby. Orleans County is a big corn-grower with a lot of the crop going to the ethanol plant in Medina.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Agriculture will spend up to $16 billion to assist farmers hurt in a trade dispute with China, President Trump announced on Thursday.

This follows the $9,567,400 approved in 2018, soybean growers getting $7,259,400 or 76 percent of that total.

“China hasn’t played by the rules for a long time and President Trump is standing up to them, sending the clear message that the United States will no longer tolerate their unfair trade practices, which include non-tariff trade barriers and the theft of intellectual property,” said Sonny Perdue, secretary of the USDA. “President Trump has great affection for America’s farmers and ranchers, and he knows they are bearing the brunt of these trade disputes.”

American farmers have faced “unjustified retaliatory tariffs and years of non-tariff trade disruptions,” the USDA said. That has curtailed U.S. exports to China.

Trade damages from such retaliation and market distortions have impacted a host of U.S. commodities, including crops like soybeans, corn, wheat, cotton, rice, and sorghum; livestock products like milk and pork; and many fruits, nuts, and other crops.

High tariffs disrupt normal marketing patterns, raising costs by forcing commodities to find new markets. Additionally, American goods shipped to China have been slowed from reaching market by unusually strict or cumbersome entry procedures, which affect the quality and marketability of perishable crops. These boost marketing costs and unfairly affect our producers.

“Our team at USDA reflected on what worked well and gathered feedback on last year’s program to make this one even stronger and more effective for farmers,” Perdue said. “Our farmers work hard, are the most productive in the world, and we aim to match their enthusiasm and patriotism as we support them.”

USDA will use the following programs to assist farmers:

• Market Facilitation Program for 2019, authorized under the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter Act and administered by the Farm Service Agency, will provide $14.5 billion in direct payments to producers.

Producers of alfalfa hay, barley, canola, corn, crambe, dry peas, extra-long staple cotton, flaxseed, lentils, long grain and medium grain rice, mustard seed, dried beans, oats, peanuts, rapeseed, safflower, sesame seed, small and large chickpeas, sorghum, soybeans, sunflower seed, temperate japonica rice, upland cotton, and wheat will receive a payment based on a single county rate multiplied by a farm’s total plantings to those crops in aggregate in 2019. Those per acre payments are not dependent on which of those crops are planted in 2019, and therefore will not distort planting decisions. Moreover, total payment-eligible plantings cannot exceed total 2018 plantings.

• Dairy producers will receive a per hundredweight payment on production history and hog producers will receive a payment based on hog and pig inventory for a later-specified time frame.

• Tree nut producers, fresh sweet cherry producers, cranberry producers, and fresh grape producers will receive a payment based on 2019 acres of production.

These payments will help farmers to absorb some of the additional costs of managing disrupted markets, to deal with surplus commodities, and to expand and develop new markets at home and abroad.

Payments will be made in up to three tranches, with the second and third tranches evaluated as market conditions and trade opportunities dictate. The first tranche will begin in late July/early August as soon as practical after Farm Service Agency crop reporting is completed by July 15th. If conditions warrant, the second and third tranches will be made in November and early January.

• Additionally, CCC Charter Act authority will be used to implement a $1.4 billion Food Purchase and Distribution Program through the Agricultural Marketing Service to purchase surplus commodities affected by trade retaliation such as fruits, vegetables, some processed foods, beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and milk for distribution by the Food and Nutrition Service to food banks, schools, and other outlets serving low-income individuals.

Finally, the CCC will use its Charter Act authority for $100 million to be issued through the Agricultural Trade Promotion Program administered by the Foreign Agriculture Service to assist in developing new export markets on behalf of producers.

Further details regarding eligibility and payment rates will be released at a later date.

Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, issued this statement:

“The Trump Administration’s agricultural assistance package is welcome relief to an economic sector that has been battered by foreign competitors and retaliatory tariffs. We thank the President for living up to his commitment to stand by our farmers and ranchers. While farmers and ranchers would rather earn their income from the marketplace, they have been suffering during the agricultural downturn and trade war. This aid package will help us weather the storm as the Administration works to correct unfair trade practices that have hurt the U.S. economy for too long.

“We are grateful for the work that President Trump and Secretary Perdue have devoted to this issue. However, the real, long-term solution to our challenges in agriculture is good outcomes to current negotiations with China, Japan and the European Union, as well as congressional approval of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. America’s farmers and ranchers need fair and open access to markets.”

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Farmers push to get crops planted after many delays from rain

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 24 May 2019 at 2:24 pm

Photo by Tom Rivers: A farmer plants seeds on Wednesday in Carlton on Waterport-Carlton Road. That sunny day gave farmers a chance to get their big equipment out in the fields.

Farmers have been kept out of their fields for much of the spring due to frequent rain.

This week there have been some sunny days without rain and that has allowed farmers to get seed in the ground.

They are still way behind schedule.

“If the rain continues it’s going to be tough,” said Jim Panek of Panek Farms, which grows corn, soybeans and peas on about 10,000 acres.

The farm has planted about 3,000 acres so far. Panek had a big day on Wednesday, planting 1,150 acres.

Jim Panek said farmers could use several dry days in a row to make lots of headway in planting.

A string of dry days has been hard to come by this spring.

“We’re running out of time,” said Larry Meyer, director of the Farm Service Agency in Orleans and Monroe counties.

Farmers are pushing to get their crops planted by June 10. After that day, the yields begin to diminish.

Meyer said the amount of rainfall this spring is about the normal amount. What has been difficult for farmers is the number of days with rain.

“You never get enough days to dry out,” Meyer said. “We get one day where it looks good and then we get more rain. I’m sure there will be a lot of stuff that doesn’t get planted.”

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Governor, AG support court ruling allowing farmworkers to unionize

Posted 23 May 2019 at 3:36 pm

Press Release, Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and Attorney General Letitia A. James today applauded a decision by the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department in the case of Crispin Hernandez v. the State of New York and the New York Farm Bureau, declaring that farmworkers across the state have the right to organize and bargain collectively.

The courts ruled the exclusion of farmworkers from the State Employment Relations Act to be unconstitutional.

“This is a victory for some of the most vulnerable members of New York’s workforce,” Cuomo said. “From the beginning, we chose not to defend against this lawsuit because farmworkers never should have been denied the same basic rights as other workers and we believed this to not only be morally wrong, but also unconstitutional. My administration has proudly fought for working men and women across the board, from raising the minimum wage to strengthening worker protections in nail salons and the home health care industry – and we will never tolerate the abuse or exploitation of workers anywhere, period. I commend the court’s decision to correct this undeniable injustice and reaffirm New York’s principles of fairness and equality for all.”

Article 1, Section 17 of the New York Constitution guarantees to all “employees” in the State the fundamental right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. The State Employment Relations Act (SERA) establishes a comprehensive administrative framework to protect employees in their efforts to organize, regulate the collective bargaining process and provide a forum in which employees and employers can amicably and promptly resolve labor disputes. However, the SERA specifically excludes farmworkers from its coverage, leaving them with no viable means to vindicate their constitutional right.

“I applaud the court’s decision to affirm the right for farmworkers to organize in the state of New York,” said Attorney General Letitia James. “This ruling asserts that farmworkers are no longer considered second-class workers in the eyes of the law. My office will always fight for the hardworking people in this state, and their fundamental rights to organize, access workplace protections, and get paid fair pay for a fair day’s work.”

Represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), plaintiffs—a farmworker named Crispin Hernandez and two organizations devoted to protecting farmworkers’ rights, Workers’ Center of Central New York (WCCNY) and Worker Justice Center of New York (WJCNY)—brought this lawsuit in Albany County Supreme Court in May 2016, challenging the constitutionality of the SERA’s exclusion of farmworkers. The complaint alleged that Mr. Hernandez’s employer, Marks Farm LLC, terminated his employment in retaliation for exercising his constitutional right to organize by meeting with coworkers and advocates from WCCNY and WJCNY to discuss dangerous working conditions on the farm. But because the SERA excludes farmworkers, Mr. Hernandez was left with no protection under the law.

Although the State and the Governor were the named defendants in the action, they announced their intention to argue that the SERA’s exclusion of farmworkers violated farmworkers’ right to equal protection under the New York Constitution. An advocacy group representing agricultural employers, the Farm Bureau, then intervened to defend the constitutionality of the statute. The Farm Bureau filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, and Supreme Court Justice Richard J. McNally, Jr., granted the motion, rejecting plaintiffs’ constitutional claims. Plaintiffs and the State defendants then appealed to the Appellate Division, Third Department, and filed separate appeals briefs arguing that the SERA’s exclusion of farmworkers violated the New York Constitution.

In an opinion drafted by Justice Christine M. Clerk, the Third Department, by a 4 to 1 majority, reversed Supreme Court’s decision and held that the exclusion of farmworkers from the SERA was unconstitutional. The Court reasoned that farmworkers are “employees” within the plain meaning of the term and that nothing in the constitutional provision’s language or history suggests an intent to give that term a narrower meaning.

Additionally, the Court held that the right to organize and collectively bargain “is enshrined in the New York Bill of Rights” and has “fundamental status” under New York’s “longstanding tradition of protecting the rights of workers.” Based on this fundamental status, the Court held that “any statute impairing this right must withstand strict scrutiny,” meaning that it must be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest. The Court then concluded that “the farm laborer exclusion cannot conceivably withstand strict scrutiny” and thus “violates the NY Constitution.” Accordingly, the Court declared that the SERA’s exclusion of farmworkers “is unconstitutional as a matter of law.”

Judge Clark’s opinion was joined by Presiding Justice Elizabeth A. Garry, as well as Justices Michael C. Lynch and Eugene P. Devine. Justice Stan L. Pritzker filed a dissent.

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Collins introduces legislation to help dairy farms keep foreign workers

Posted 16 May 2019 at 4:06 pm

Press Release, Congressman Chris Collins

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congressman Chris Collins (NY-27) introduced legislation that would provide a short-term, one time fix, to help the non-seasonal agriculture workforce. The Helping Labor Personnel (HELP) Farms Act provides a solution for farmers across the nation, especially in the dairy industry, while Congress and the Department of Labor continues to modernize the H-2A program and allow visas be granted on an annual basis instead of seasonal.

“Under current law, the H-2A visa program does not help our struggling dairy farms, who live in constant fear of losing their workforce,” said Congressman Collins. “This legislation provides a temporary solution while Congress and the Department of Labor work together to find a bipartisan solution.”

This legislation requires the Secretary of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the Secretary of State and Secretary of Labor, to collect applications for temporary work authorization for non-seasonal agriculture workers. This non-seasonal agriculture workforce must be sponsored by a United States employer who he/she has worked with for at least two years. Upon approval of the application, the alien worker will be granted work authorization for two years along with his/her spouse and children. Additionally, protections are included for the sponsoring employer to ensure there are no consequences for employing an alien workforce due to an outdated and flawed H-2A visa program.

“There is not a single person representing dairy that does not understand we have a true crisis with the current system we have in place,” added Collins.

An alien worker who currently works in a non-seasonal agriculture occupation may be permitted to apply to this temporary work authorization program so long as they have not been convicted on felony charges of rape, kidnapping violent assault, sexual assault, or suspected of terrorism. Alien workers who are currently being detained may also be given the opportunity to apply for this program.

Click here to see a copy of the bill.

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Apple blossoms begin annual bloom

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 15 May 2019 at 2:40 pm

Photos by Tom Rivers

HOLLEY – The apple blossoms are starting to come out in orchards in Orleans County. These blossoms are on Rhode Island Greenings, an old-time apple variety, on Hurd Road.

The orchards will be a sea of white petals while the blossoms are blooming. The annual spring event has been delayed a little with the cool temperatures.

New York is the country’s second-leading apple producer behind Washington State. New York produces about 30 million bushels of apples annually, which is just ahead of the crop in Michigan.

Orleans County is one of New York’s leading apple-growing counties, behind only Wayne.

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