Local farmers call Albany bill 'out of touch' with farmers and Mother Nature

Oswego County loves its farmers and their harvests, seen above at the annual Oswego farmers market, but local farmers say a proposed state bill could seriously hurt their businesses by forcing them to adhere to a set of labor standards from which farm workers have traditionally been excluded. 

OSWEGO COUNTY — Oswego County farmers are rallying against proposed regulations to farming and farm labor practices coming out of Albany, which they say could put small farms out of business. 

The proposed “Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act” would grant Oswego County farm laborers a suite of legal protections already enjoyed by workers in most other industries. According to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 845 farm laborers worked on Oswego County’s 612 farms in 2017.

Proponents of the bill say it will tackle a number of pressing farm labor issues: worker compensation and unemployment benefits, collective bargaining rights, a 40-hour work week cap, an eight-hour work day cap and overtime pay if working hours exceed these limits.

Local farmers, however, say the proposed regulations disregard the realities of agricultural cycles and would put New York farmers at a disadvantage compared to competitors in Canada and in other states.

Oswego County Farm Bureau President Eric Behling told The Palladium-Times many farms would struggle “to survive the legislation’s higher costs.” Behling pointed to a USDA statistic that the state lost roughly 9 percent of its farmers in the past five years — triple the national average — as an indicator that state regulations are driving farmers out of New York.

Farm Credit East reported an estimated $299 million increase to labor costs for farms in New York if overtime pay for work exceeding eight hours per day and 40 hours per week were mandated by the state.

Currently under consideration in the state Senate’s Agriculture Committee, the bill is sponsored by Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-Queens, with the support of 31 co-sponsors from her party. The state Legislature is expected to vote on the measure in the coming weeks.

Angela Cornell, professor in the Cornell University Law School, said the bill is “long overdue” to “right historical wrongs” by reversing1935 Jim Crow-era legislation that excluded farm workers, along with independent contractors and domestic workers, from New Deal labor reforms. 

“The bill has the ability to extend to these workers very basic rights,” Cornell said. “We have to take care of some of the most vulnerable workers among us.”

Cornell, who advocated for labor reforms at an April 23 Senate hearing, said without the ability to strike, farm workers have no real currency in collective bargaining with their employers since worker compensation is completely in control of employers.

“Without the ability to strike, they have nothing,” she said.

In its most recent newsletter, the Oswego County Farm Bureau urged members to lobby against the bill on the grounds that it would mount financial stress on small farms, potentially putting them out of business.

A unique schedule is why agriculture is historically excluded from providing overtime pay, Behling explained. Some long days are required, in part because of weather and a fickle growing season in the region. It is common sense, he said, if farms can’t afford overtime, farm workers will lose hours and thereby receive smaller paychecks, hurting those the bill is seeking to help.

“I think you’ve got to look at it in terms of farming and the very nature of it,” Behling said. “If somebody could strike, that would not be good. That’s part of the reason we’re so against it.”

Cornell said the farmers would need a phasing-in period to adopt these reforms, such as a 50-hour workweek limit for laborers that is gradually reduced to a 40-hour workweek. She said the bill should also introduce a 10-hour workday that could gradually transition to the bill’s proposed eight hour days.

The legislation in its current form does not include these compromise provisions, but they are being debated in public forums.

Another bill would ban the use of chlorpyrifos (CPF), also known by brand name Lorsban, which local farmers say is one of the most commonly used pesticides, although numerous studies have linked it to neurological stunting in children. These studies have prompted California lawmakers earlier this month to ban the alleged neurotoxin.

The Scientific Review Panel on Air Contaminants submitted a study to California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation which said CPF should be listed as a toxic air contaminant and recommends that the department take the necessary regulatory steps to list it as a toxic air contaminant pursuant to the state’s Food and Agricultural Code.

CPF, while itself non-toxic, becomes toxic to the nervous system when processed by human and animal bodies, which is how it kills insects.

A seven-year study published by Environmental Health Perspectives which examined the influence of prenatal CPF exposure in a sample of 265 children found that each standard deviation increase in exposure to CPF came with a 1.4 percent decline in IQ and a 2.8 percent decrease in working memory.

“These findings are important in light of con­tinued widespread use of CPF in agricultural settings and possible longer-term educational implications of early cognitive deficits,” the authors wrote in their conclusion.

Farms across New York depend on CPF, introduced in 1965 by the Dow Chemical Company, to protect their crops from pests with “no alternative for use” in many instances, according to the county Farm Bureau’s most recent newsletter.

“I like to tell people it’s a tool bar, and if you take away too many tools we can’t grow quality crops,” Behling said in an interview with The Palladium-Times.

Behling said CPF is gradually being used less and less at most farms following a more than 50-year era of use, with farmers beginning to use better insecticide compounds. But legislation should give farms time to “phase it out,” rather than getting caught in the “hooplah” of lawmakers competing to be first.

“I’ve seen this before, and I think it’ll be phased out,” Behling said. “It’s an older compound, and I think they’re reaching the end of it. I don’t think it’s such a situation where it can’t be replaced at some point down the road.”

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