ALBANY — Governor Cuomo has proposed gradually increasing the minimum wage to $15 by mid-2021 statewide. Lobbyists for corporate agriculture, like the New York Farm Bureau, claim this will hurt our farmers.
But the opposite is true: a $15 minimum will help local farms if the prices farmers receive go up too.
The prices paid to farmers for their products must be a fair share of the final consumer price, covering the farm’s full costs of production — including a decent living for farmers and a living wage for farm workers. If we truly want locally-grown food, we can’t ignore these needs. If we do, the trend to import more and more food from low-wage countries will continue, and our farms will rely yet more on guest workers from those countries.
That’s why my organization – the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, which represents independent, family-owned organic farmers across our state – supports the $15/hr minimum.
And this higher state minimum wage is quite manageable, partly because agricultural workers in New York already earn more than other low-wage workers. Average hourly wages for hired ag workers were, according to the USDA, $12.46 in 2015 and will rise to about $14.55 by 2021, adjusted for inflation.
The Governor’s proposal would allow Upstate employers five years to phase in the $15 minimum gradually, so family farmers can adjust. Smaller increments are needed than in industries like fast food.
Moreover, our members place a high priority on paying their workers fairly. We want farm work to be a respected, well-paid profession with decent benefits so local people want to take farm jobs.
Higher wage levels allow farms to attract and retain a stable, productive workforce. Obviously, low pay has the opposite effect.
What’s more, a $15 minimum wage means that farm customers will have significantly more money in their pockets to spend on quality locally-produced food products. Working people, including those in fast-food and similar jobs, should be able to afford healthful local food from their own earnings. Nobody should need SNAP benefits to put food on the table.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, workers benefiting from a $15 minimum wage will earn an average of $4,800 more each year by 2021. That spending power will drive business sales and growth for farms and related businesses.
The major challenges facing family farmers today are not wages and labor costs but rather structural problems with the U.S. food system. This system generates tremendous returns, but, faced with predatory pricing and other harmful practices, family farmers don’t get their fair share.
General Mills reported total net sales of $5.3 billion in 2015. That same year, some top competitors — Campbell Soup, ConAgra Foods, and Mead Johnson Nutrition — reported revenues of $2.2 billion, $2.7 billion, and $978 million, respectively, just for the last quarter.
Kroger’s return on equity in 2015 was 35.1%. For General Mills it was 28%; for Kellogg, 12.9%; and for Whole Foods, 13.67%. Farmers often see a return on equity only when they sell their land for a retirement nest egg.
Farm work in New York won’t get the respect and remuneration it deserves until ag prices go up. Shortchanging low-wage workers benefits no one, and if we fail to change course, we’ll only compound the many problems facing farms today. We’re now in a “race to the bottom,” with excessive worker turnover and depressed demand and sales.
But we can get on another, smoother track – and a $15 wage is the right start.
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