ALBANY — Battered by rising labor costs and cuts in the prices they get for milk and other commodities, New York farmers are earning far less money than they were just five years ago.
The New York Farm Bureau, the lobby group for the state’s agricultural community, said Wednesday that net farm income dropped to $568 billion in New York in 2016, the most recent year for which the statistic was available.
That’s only about a third of the total 2013 income, the organization’s leaders said.
“There is a lot of stress in the countryside,” acknowledged Farm Bureau President David Fisher.
Compounding the economic troubles of farmers, he said, has been the state-mandated increase in the minimum wage for labor, signed into law in 2016 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
While the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25, the state’s now stands at $10.40 an hour in upstate counties and will rise to $12.50 on Dec. 31, 2020.
One of the Farm Bureau’s priorities in the 2018 legislative session, according to Fisher and Public Policy Director Jeff Williams, is to press lawmakers to double the current $300-per-employee tax credit for farmers.
Under the bureau’s proposal, as more minimum-wage increases are phased in by the state, the credit would rise to $1,200 per worker in 2020.
Farm Bureau leaders emphasized that the tax credit covers just a fraction of the added outlays that farmers are making to deal with the jump in wages.
They noted that the increases imposed by Albany have caused wages to rise across the board. According to federal statistics, the average farm wage in New York now stands at about $13 an hour.
Meanwhile, farmers have seen a precipitous drop in milk prices over the past three to four years.
“If the state is going to force a higher wage on farms, they should be prepared to offer greater assistance to offset the costs,” Fisher said.
TOUGH TO COMPETE
Several farmers contacted in upstate regions confirmed that New York’s higher minimum wages, rising costs and depressed commodity prices have combined to increase the challenge for keeping operations viable.
“We’ve had a few farms go out because they just couldn’t compete anymore,” said Joseph Giroux, a Beekmantown dairy farmer and former Clinton County legislator.
The Northern New York Agriculture Development Program relies on state funding to support crop studies to help make North Country growers competitive, he said, but whether it ends up with any state support this year is in doubt.
Giroux said state Sens. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) and Pattie Ritchie (R-Watertown) are expected to go to bat for that funding.
In western New York, the state’s wage mandate has also bitten into the profitability of New Royal Orchards in Gasport, said orchard operator Alan Buhr.
“We’re all concerned with the effects of the minimum wage going up every year,” he said. “Our biggest expense is labor. It’s all hand work.”
In pastoral Otsego County, James Powers sold his dairy herd last year and now limits his efforts to beef cattle and keeping honeybees.
“When dairy is struggling, everyone is struggling,” said Powers, predicting more upstate farms will end up being taken over by “massive factory farms.”
“It’s been brutal the law few years, and it’s not looking any better this year,” added Powers, noting he is disappointed that state lawmakers seem less than eager to help rural regions profit from underground natural-gas deposits.
Beekmantown farmer Sam Dyer contended the higher minimum wage is an Albany money grab since the state will end up with more income taxes.
But the increase may well wipe out job opportunities for young people with an interest in trying out farm work, he said.
“There are farms that are just barely hanging on,” said Dyer, a former county legislator who was just elected Beekmantown town supervisor.
“They are losing everything they have worked their entire lives for and are coming out of it with nothing.”
Many farmers, he added, have become reluctant to invest in new equipment.
“We don’t know how we’re going to pay for it,” he said.
Farm Bureau leaders said they were disappointed that Cuomo’s proposed budget chops funding for apple promotion and honeybee research and does not sufficiently address money gaps at Cornell University, a long-time partner of upstate’s agricultural community.
They were pleased to see strong support for the state Environmental Defense Fund, which assists water-quality, conservation and farmland-protection programs.
Morris Peters, spokesman for the state Division of the Budget, noted the governor’s spending plan expands access to New York-grown products by support for the Taste NY and another promotion that provides certification that crops are grown in New York.
“With record levels of grant funding through the Environmental Protection Fund and the Agriculture and Markets local assistance budget, the state is investing more in agriculture than at any point in history,” Peters said.
“The executive budget continues funding for core agricultural programs and expands access to New York grown agricultural products through the Taste NY and NYS Grown and Certified programs.”
Farm Bureau leaders said they want to see more state focus on helping farmers cope with the spread of tick-borne diseases throughout the state, including Lyme disease.
They gave their approval to Cuomo’s move to expand the school-lunch reimbursement program for districts that purchase at least 30 percent of their food from New York sources and noted the lunch reimbursement rate would rise from 6 cents per meal to 25 cents.
Each year, Farm Bureau members swarm the Legislative Office Building and statehouse in Albany to present their budget concerns to lawmakers. This year’s lobby blitz will be held March 5 and 6.
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