As the former owner and operator of our family farm, I know firsthand that running a farm or an agribusiness is a uniquely challenging undertaking, and if we fail to recognize how these businesses operate in the real world, it will be the death knell for family farms in New York state. I say this because recently many have called for farm worker overtime to be reduced from the 60-hour threshold established by the Farm Laborers “Fair” Labor Practices Act in 2019 to 40 hours.
As well-intentioned as this idea may sound, this demand comes from a lack of understanding regarding how farms and agribusinesses operate. If it were implemented, I fear the only farms that could afford to comply would be large, corporate-operated ones, as the family farms we know and love in our communities would be driven out of business.
To give insight as to why this could happen, simply put, agricultural work isn’t a 9-to-5 job. Farms operate on schedules that are at the mercy of Mother Nature. During the planting and harvest season, it’s often necessary to work from sunrise to sunset, while other seasonal periods could warrant fewer hours of work. This proposal fails to acknowledge this reality, as well as the broader consequences that could arise from decreasing this threshold. We don’t have the luxury of having 12 months of growing and harvesting seasons, we are not Florida or California!
If we begin to lose our farms, which already face many competitive disadvantages compared to out-of-state competitors, farm workers, in turn, will lose their jobs. When that happens, they may very well seek opportunities working for competitors in other states, creating a vicious cycle in which job openings and our farm workforce disappear in tandem, harming the very people the policy sought to help.
We should also bear in mind that our dairy farmers are beholden to price controls that limit their ability to increase their prices to recoup overhead costs. At the end of the day, all farmers are price-takers, meaning that they sell their goods at prices set by processors, distributors, and facilities. Farmers, here in New York, are often unable to meet the low costs sought by these purchasers. Even as things stand now, prices on our produce are so high that many New York City schools order apples from Washington state.
If the overtime thresholds were to be lowered at all, or to 40 hours, it’s likely it would no longer be profitable to produce many beloved crops here in New York. Our produce would then be less fresh, less plentiful, and more expensive. During a year in which we’ve seen unprecedented increases in food prices in stores, where profits don’t directly benefit farmers, the last thing we need is to deliver another gut-punch from Albany to families finding it increasingly difficult to nourish their loved ones. Additionally, farmers have seen the cost of feed, fuel, equipment, and other goods they need skyrocket due to inflation.
My hope is that the Farm Laborers Wage Board, along with Gov. Hochul, as a native of upstate New York, listens to the concerns of our upstate farmers on the many implications of this issue, instead of ignoring those concerns for the sake of appeasing partisan activists who lack insight into the day-to-day operations of a farm.
In rural upstate New York, agriculture is more than an economic sector, it’s a way of life. This proposal jeopardizes the existence of farms that have been pillars of our community for generations. To imagine our region without family farms is like imagining New York City without skyscrapers. My hope is that on this issue, if no other, our concerns will not fall on deaf ears.