Schumer calls foul on disparate trade compensation for farmers

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer says a federal program to help compensate farmers for negative trade impacts is stacked against New York farmers.

Schumer said Friday that Southern farmers are receiving 95 percent of the top awards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market Facilitation Program, while New Yorkers receive a fraction of what they’re eligible to receive. The program reimburses farms damaged by the variable trade market, but Schumer says an average size farm in Georgia would receive $41.10 more per acre than a similar farm in New York.

The senator shared a report showing that the rate of reimbursement also varies by county in New York, with the largely agricultural Wyoming County receiving just 19 percent of the allotted recovery amount, and more urban Monroe County getting 45 percent of its due.

“USDA is using a flawed formula that helps big, wealthy farms and billion-dollar foreign-owned companies, while our small and family farms in New York have been left in the dust,” Schumer said. “The USDA must stop picking winners and losers in such an unbalanced way, and instead ensure all of America’s and Upstate New York’s farmers get the help they need and deserve—not just a lucky few.”

Schumer is calling upon the USDA to fix the disparity. He said some of the reasons for unequal payments are:

  • USDA shuts out specialty crops, which many New York farmers raise, from direct assistance.
  • The agency doubled the payment limit for row crop payments from $125,000 to $250,000, helping concentrate payments on farming conglomerates.
  • Payments for dairy farmers were based on data six to eight years old rather than on current production numbers.

Attempts to reach a USDA spokesman for comment were unsuccessful.

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Labor-practices bill for farmworkers worries farmers

For years, advocates for farmworkers have lobbied to end exemptions to labor laws that exist on farms but with little success.

Since Democrats took control of the state Senate last fall, however, a new effort concerning farm interests introduced by Democratic legislators from Queens is gaining traction and bringing new hope to farmworker advocates.

After a series of hearings and informal meetings on the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act in April and May, another roundtable is scheduled for next week in Albany in anticipation of a vote.

Largely Republican Upstate legislators from rural districts stand against the bill, saying it would be devastating for farmers who are already hard-pressed to make a living in these times. Urban Democrats, who have traditionally stood in favor of labor protections, are supporting the bill.

“I’ve taken a very strong position in opposition to this bill because it hurts everybody,” said Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, a Republican whose district stretches from eastern Buffalo to western Rochester, including an agricultural swath through Genesee County. “It doesn’t pick winners or losers, farmers over farmworkers. It just hurts everybody who is involved in farming.”

While the two sides can argue about whether the bill’s requirements on unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation and a day of rest are needed given other state laws already in effect, they are most deeply divided on the issue of overtime.

The bill would require overtime after eight hours of work in a single day and after 40 hours in a week. Currently farm employers do not have to pay overtime to workers due to exemptions granted more than 70 years ago.

Opponents say the bill would require overtime in a way that no other job sector does, as overtime generally comes after a certain number of hours in a week are reached, not after a daily total.

Moreover, farmers and their supporter say they cannot afford to pay overtime, and if forced to do so will simply hire more workers to cover the extra hours at straight time to avoid having to pay time-and-a-half to their regular workers. A study on the subject by farm financer Farm Credit East estimated the total cost to New York’s farms would be $299 million annually.

Opponents argue that overtime requirements ultimately would hurt workers, many of whom are migrants who work as many hours as they can so they can send money back home to Mexico or other countries of origin.

Librada Paz, a former farmworker who lives in Brockport and is a nationally recognized advocate for farmworkers, said farmworkers who speak against the bill are doing so because their employers have said they’ll cut hours if they have to pay more after 40 hours.

“I’m kind of mad when farmers say ‘We’re not going to be able to do it,’ ” she said. Farms are businesses, she noted.  “Why don’t you want to have a business mentality? Workers want more hours and definitely workers want more pay.”

But farmers have never had to adjust before to the idea of paying overtime. Paz said she’s confident that they’ll find a way to follow the law if it passes.

Others don’t share her confidence that farmers will be able to meet that larger payroll.

Steve Ammerman, manager of public affairs and associate director of the New York Farm Bureau, said, “It’s not that they don’t want to pay employees more, it’s that economic conditions are tying their hands.”

“The agricultural economy has been underwater for the last four years,” added Shelley Stein, an employee and part of the family that owns the Stein dairy farm in LeRoy. If the law passes as written, she said, the farm would see a 23 percent increase in labor costs, adding $200,000 a year to the $550,000 it pays now.

Farmers can’t just raise prices to cover higher wages, she said, because they aren’t in control of the prices on the products – milk especially – they produce. A federal market order sets the price of milk paid to farmers.

“They don’t know what they’re going to get for the milk until a month after the milk leaves the farms” said Ammerman, “If farmers aren’t able to recoup labor costs, they’re not going to be able to stay in business.”

Some state estimates suggest 20 percent of New York’s dairy farmers have gone out of business in recent years because of economic pressures, including lower prices they’re paid for milk and increases in the minimum wage.

Further, wages are already higher in New York for farm laborers, farm experts said. Ammerman said the average wage farmworkers are paid is about $14 an hour, several dollars over minimum wage in New York. And Stein noted that the minimum wage of $11.10 is also several dollars above what neighboring states have set as the minimum, putting New York farmers at a disadvantage. Pennsylvania’s minimum is so low, farmers could pay a minimum-wage worker overtime and still not pay as much as a New York employer would pay in straight time to a minimum-wage earner, she said.

Stein noted that workers on her farm, ranging from high schoolers who want to put in a single day of work on the weekend to full-time laborers and mechanics to college-educated herd managers, range from minimum wage to $22 an hour.

“There is such a tight labor market right now that as an employer you really do work with your staff to afford them what they are asking for. That’s part of a negotiation process,” she said. She added that such negotiations already happening on farms negate the need for a collective bargaining provision in the bill.

Paz said when farmers say they’re already taking care of their workers, she wonders why they aren’t then willing to put those practices into law.

Several bill opponents, for instance, say a day of rest is already standard on most farms. But Paz said she knows of dairy farmworkers who work day in and out on a schedule that requires them to work four hours, go off duty for three, go back on duty for four and so on around the clock. That worker never gets the chance to fully rest from work, she said.

Ranzenhofer said, “I acknowledge that there could be isolated instances where someone has not been treated properly,” but he added that in 11 years in the Senate, during which he has visited numerous farms, he has never seen what he considered to be abusive treatment of farmworkers.

“Well over 99.9 percent of farmers treat people with dignity and fairness,” Ranzenhofer said.

Central and Western New York farmers and their advocates have been unhappy with the bill’s process as well as its content because while three hearings were held outside of Albany, the closest to this area was more than 120 miles away.

“This is really the breadbasket for New York State in terms of agriculture,” Ranzenhofer said, noting his desire to have a hearing in his district or the Finger Lakes.

As a result of complaints, a roundtable discussion with farm interests did eventually happen in Batavia. Ranzenhofer also worked with Senate colleague Jessica Ramos, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, to have another meeting in Batavia with farmers and farmworkers. Ramos is a Democratic state senator representing parts of New York City. She met with a dozen farmers and more than 300 farmworkers.

Ramos, who also chairs the Senate’s Labor Committee, did not return a call for comment on the issue, and Ranzenhofer said he still doesn’t know what she will end up doing with the bill. But he believes she came away with a more accurate view of how farmworkers are treated today and the economic realities of agriculture.

Meanwhile, talks of compromise on the bill are possible. Stein even suggested she’d be OK on an overtime provision for farms if it started at 65 hours, reflecting a workweek more normal in agriculture.

If compromises happen, they could happen soon.

“There are indications it could move out of committee next week,” Ammerman said on Tuesday. The Farm Bureau will continue to talk with sponsors of the bill and key members of the legislature about making changes, he said. “We don’t know what that will look like or what the language will be,” he said.

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State makes move to continue farm market sales to people receiving SNAP benefits

New York farmers, including those who sell at the Rochester City Public Market, will be able to continue selling to SNAP recipients after the state leap-frogged over a federal problem that could have halted farm market sales to people who receive public food assistance.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded a contract for processing the sales from recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to a brand-new company that didn’t have the necessary mobile technology for making the transactions. As a result, the company that used to process those sales across the country was in danger of going out of business.  On Friday, New York State and the Farmers Market Federation of New York announced they have reached an agreement to have Novo Dia Group process farm market sales with SNAP benefits in this state through the rest of the farm market season.

Nearly $3.4 million in sales have been made at farm markets across the state to New York’s SNAP recipients.

“New York will not stand idly by as the federal government’s ineptitude takes food out of the mouths of New Yorkers,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in a news release. “This is just another example of the Trump administration’s continued assault on the nation’s most needy. While the federal government doles out a contract to an untested company using outdated technology, we will continue to protect not only our most vulnerable residents, but our hard-working farmers.”

The state also suggested that New York’s solution could be a model for other states. Novo Dia had been serving 1,700 markets across the nation.

“We applaud Governor Cuomo’s quick action in shoring up Novo Dia Group for the remainder of the market season and making it possible for SNAP to be used at farmers’ markets,” said Diane Eggert, executive director of the market federation. “Losing access to SNAP through the Novo Dia Group would have been devastating to farmers’ markets. Low income consumers would lose access to fresh, healthy and locally grown foods, while our state’s farmers would have lost significant income that is critical to supporting our family farmers.”

Richard A. Ball, state commissioner of Agriculture and Markets, also praised the governor’s quick action and added: “The possibility of any kind of disruption of service for those who rely on the electronic benefits service is not acceptable, and we will continue to work with OTDA, the Farmers Market Federation of NY and Novo Dia toward a long-term solution for our communities.”

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Livestock producers needed for tasting event

The Meat and Greet Farmer and Chef Fair at Hobart and William Smith Colleges is looking for additional livestock producers to participate in the March 17 event in Geneva.

The colleges’ Finger Lakes Institute, Cornell Cooperative Extension and Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty sponsor the free fair that introduces farmers and chefs to members of the public so they can learn about how meat is produced and prepared in the area.

Chefs Samantha Buyskes of H.J. Stead Co., Taylor Higgins and Starr Andrews of Halsey’s Restaurant and Brud Holland of Fox Run Vineyards are all scheduled to give live cooking demonstrations featuring local meats.

The event will be the second annual fair of this type. Interested livestock producers can contact Sarah Meyer, Finger Lakes Institute food systems program manager, at (315) 781-4382 or [email protected]

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Farmers can nominate schools for grants

Farmers have until April 2 to help their local public schools earn a grant of $10,000 or $25,000.

The grants are provided by the Monsanto Fund, a charitable arm of the agricultural chemical company Monsanto Co., to boost science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through its America’s Farmers Grow Rural Education program.

One school in Rochelle, Ill., used a $25,000 grant to build a 3-D printer, and students spent the year learning about the technology before creating a prosthetic arm to replace a farmer’s limb lost in a farming accident.

The “grant gave my students a lesson that they will remember for a lifetime,” said Vic Worthington, an eighth grade science and technology teacher at Rochelle Middle School.

The nomination process involves a farmer calling (877 267-3332) or going online ( to provide basic information about a public school district. Then the grant program will contact the district for a complete award application by April 15.

To be eligible to nominate a school, the farmer must be at least 21 years old and work on a farm with 250 or more acres under cultivation. Eligible schools can be traditional public schools or public charter schools.

The program will provide a total of $2.3 million in grants, aiming to give out one $25,000 grant per state and one $10,000 grant for each agricultural district, depending on the number of competing proposals.

Previous grants of $10,000 have gone to Greece and Scottsville in Monroe County, and Kendall in Orleans County. Awards of $25,000 have gone to Albion and Medina, both in Orleans County.

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