The New York Farm Bureau has issued its top state priorities for the ongoing legislative session.
Many of the bureau's legislative goals this year focus on state budget funding for agriculture and ways New York can improve the business climate for farms in what it labels "this challenging farm economy." New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher: "According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the value of ag production for 2017, which is the latest numbers available, just over $5 billion. It remains more than a billion dollars below where it was five years ago, a testament to the lingering downturn that we've all heard about in our farm economy. Last year, net farm income remained low as well, about 50 percent of where we stood in the middle of this decade. It is important for lawmakers, many of whom are new to the Senate and Assembly this year, to understand not only the situation many farmers find themselves in, but also the positive impacts farms make to the rural economy and overall well-being of New York state."
Fisher praised New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's $5 million increase in aid to localities for agriculture, saying it will benefit research, promotion and marketing programs that support a wide range of commodities including dairy, wine, maple, apple and Christmas tree operations.
State Assembly Agriculture Committee member Carrie Woerner, a Saratoga County Democrat, says the bureau's priorities mirror reality for farm families. "With rising labor costs and downward pressure on commodity prices it is becoming harder and harder to maintain a farm operation in New York state. And so the priorities that the Farm Bureau has set really get to some meaningful changes that will help stabilize the finances for our farm families, particularly in the dairy industry.”
On the other side of the aisle, Fisher anticipates the new Senate Democratic majority will loosen the flow of ag funding. "New York Farm Bureau will firmly make the case that this appropriation is much needed so New York farms can access the latest research available and improve their ability to compete in the marketplace."
Democratic State Senator James Skoufis of the 39th District represents the Hudson Valley and sits on the Senate Agriculture committee: "We have to make sure that farms are treated as the priority industry that they are here in New York state. They are the local economic engines in many of our communities. We have to make sure that new farmers, young Farmers, have the support and the resources needed for these incredibly difficult acquisitions, whether their equipment, whether their land, very expensive and there's a role for the state to play in supporting new farmers, making sure that when we talk about all of these mandates and cost increases that our farmers are facing, that we also provide some tools to provide relief on the back end — so that could mean tax credits, minimum wage credits, applied towards housing, free housing that's often provided to farmworkers by their employers. There are many things the state ought to be looking at. Farmers are in a pinch, not getting a lot of help from the federal government, they're turning to New York state for some relief."
Fisher adds the Bureau also supports $300 million slated for the Environmental Protection Fund, including money to assist farms affected by extreme weather, and to improve soil health. He noted another legislative priority this year is for New York state to expand on the Farm Workforce Retention Tax Credit.
Jeff Williams is the Farm Bureau's Public Policy Director. "We also have a goal to change unemployment insurance tax that farmers are currently forced to pay for their H-2A workers. H-2A workers are foreign workers that come in through a contractual visa for a certain amount of time, whether it's to help with planting or harvesting, but they have to go back at a contractually obligated date. Legislation that we would like to see passed would be to remove that obligation for employers to pay that unemployment insurance tax on those workers because those workers return back to their countries and are unable to collect that unemployment benefit, and so that money currently just goes to New York state, which New York state then just keeps. New York is the only state in the nation that does this. It doesn't do any benefit to farmers and it doesn't do any benefit to workers that return home to their home country."
The Farm Bureau expects the market to grow stronger as the year progresses.