ALBANY — Hundreds of farmers, farmworkers, and independent researchers from Cornell University and Farm Credit East participated in virtual Farm Laborers Wage Board hearings in January. Participants submitted video and written testimony, and spoke publicly during hearings on January 4, 18, and 20 to explain why the overtime threshold for New York agriculture must stay at 60 hours. There was such a large turnout of registrations for testimony that the Farm Laborers Wage Board scheduled an additional hearing for Friday, January 28 at 2 p.m.
At the first three hearings, 66% of those who testified on January 4; 74% on January 18; and 77% on January 20 asked the Wage Board to keep the threshold at 60 hours.
Testimony was heard from farmers and farmworkers across New York State, including:
Greater Capital Region
Ray Dykeman – a dairy farmer in Fulton County. Click here to watch video testimony.
John Dickinson – a fifth generation dairy farmer in Washington County and chair of the Northeast Dairy Producers Association. Click here to watch video testimony.
Dale-Ila Riggs – a first generation berry farmer in Rensselaer County. Click here to watch video testimony.
Dale-Ila said, “Our farm has been devastated by the overtime threshold. It will be annihilated if it is reduced. We used to employ 10 people including one year-round manager. We were the fourth largest employer in Stephentown. Now we have zero employees. We plowed under our strawberries because we cannot pay $22.50 an hour and more for someone to harvest and weed them. I’ve removed raspberry plants. Our employees work five days a week for us. When not working for us, they work for people nearby doing gardening work. So they wind up working more hours per week. During those off-farm working hours, they’re not protected by workers comp, nor paying state or federal taxes. Meanwhile, I watched 40 percent of my blueberry crop fall to the ground and rot. How is New York going to ‘build back better’ when family-run farms can no longer operate? Do not lower the overtime threshold.”
Mira Miller – an organic farmer at Farm at Miller’s Crossing in Hudson. Click here to watch video testimony.
Nancy Ruiz – a farmworker at Evolutionary Organics in New Paltz. Click here to watch video testimony.
Sarah Dressel – a family farmer in New Paltz. Click here to watch video testimony.
Sarah said, “I found this receipt in my grandfather’s attic. It is dated 1953. My grandmother sold apples for $3.75 a box. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, that should be $37.22 today. A check stub from last February says we averaged $18 a box. We are making less than half of what our grandfather made in the 1950s. If change is what you want New York, you’re going to get it. Just be careful what you wish for.”
Paulette Satur – a grower and processor of baby leaf crops in Suffolk County. Click here to watch video testimony.
Robert Carpenter – director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. Click here to watch video testimony.
Robert said, “In the 2017 census, Long Island lost 5,000 acres of farmland, mostly to development. That trend should be scary for the wage board, our residents, and the government officials because that is a sign of things to come. The Wage Board should consider the facts of the testimony today and other economic factors. More study needs to be done on the economics and I urge the wage board to consider all of these things before making a final decision.”
Western New York
James Militello – a fifth generation grape grower at Militello Farms in Chautauqua County. Click here to watch video testimony.
Gabriel, Enez, and Valentine – farmworkers from Torrey Farms in Genesee County. Click here to watch their video testimony.
Natasha Sutherland – a ninth generation dairy farmer at Stein Farms in Genesee County. Click here to watch video testimony.
Jim Bittner – a first generation farmer at Bittner-Singer Orchards in Niagara County and interim executive director of the New York State Horticulture Society. Click here to watch video testimony.
Jim said, “Starting in 2020, I made a policy that no one is allowed to work more than 60 hours. Lowering the overtime threshold will only make matters worse. This past year, we left fresh peaches and sweet cherries in the field because I was going to lose money harvesting them while paying time and a half. The price we were offered by the markets and Feed America – this would not cover the cost of harvest or packing. We’re cutting those orchards down as I speak. Please keep it at 60 hours.”
Kelly Leatherman – a farmworker in Western New York. Click here to watch video testimony.
Kelly said, “I came to New York from Kentucky. My job is to make sure these cows are taken care of. I was made aware of exactly what that job was. I agreed to the hours I work and the rate I get paid. The same goes for the guys that work with me here. I don’t think any of you making these decisions were there on Jan. 1, 2020, when we had to sit down and have these conversations about what happens when we can only work 60 hours. And then show up the next day, short three guys because they decided to go somewhere else.”
Keith Kimball – a dairy farmer in Livingston County and vice chair of the Northeast Dairy Producers Association. Click here to watch video testimony.
Keith said, “I invite you out to my farm. Come meet my employees. Come talk to them. I’ll tell you right now, my employees are raising their employees well and they’re thriving because of our dairy. We’ve provided opportunity for them, and in turn, they’ve provided opportunity to us that we’re extremely grateful for. This 60-hour threshold was already negotiated and our employees are happy.”
Kerry Adams – a family dairy farmer in Ontario County. Click here to watch video testimony.
Kerry said, “I cannot get more for the product I sell because the price I receive is set through the federal milk pricing program. At the last hearing, you asked what constitutes as a small farm. Since there is no legal description, there is no way to determine the difference between a small and large farm. There is no difference, regardless of size, because we are all producing a wholesome, healthy, nutritious product. We are a unique industry because we’re dealing with living things. The two biggest impacts on our business are price and weather, and they are the two things we have no control over.”
Central New York
Karin Reeves – a fifth generation grower in Baldwinsville, Onondaga County. Click here to watch video testimony.
Karin said, “Since the 60-hour threshold was implemented, we’ve hired an additional 16 H2A workers to limit overtime. We’ve spent about $200,000 recruiting more workers and constructing more housing in order to have enough workers to get everything done. This level of expense is unsustainable if the overtime threshold was further lowered. Ultimately though, this is about our employees. They’re not asking for these changes. They make a great sacrifice to leave their families for 4-6 months every year and their goal is to work as many hours as they can. This is a quality-of-life issue for them. They decide to work extra hours here during the summer so they can enjoy a better quality of life during the off-season when they’re with their families. Please keep the threshold where it is today.”
Christina Kohler – a poultry farmer in Onondaga County and chair of New York Young Farmers & Ranchers. Click here to watch video testimony.
Christina said, “We have halted expansion plans on our fourth-generation farm. Cage free production is 3x as labor intensive as our current agricultural practices. Over the last two years we’ve seen increases in packaging and feed costs. We have considered robotics; however, our family farm has run a lean operation for generations and there aren’t other areas that we can make cuts at this time. We pay our employees more than minimum wage, provide Christmas bonuses, and other benefits. I would like to note that employee housing is nicer than the house that my husband and I live in. The younger generation has asked our parents and our cousin to put our farm up for sale. It’s not a cost or debt the younger generation is willing to take on.”
Mike McMahon – a fifth generation dairy farmer at EZ Acres in Cortland County. Click here to watch video testimony.
Mike said, “We work side-by-side with our employees and usually more hours than they do. Like most farms, we have continued to invest here in New York. For the past 10 years, I’ve also served as the chairman of the Cortland County Industrial Development Agency and I can tell you in Upstate NY, agriculture is critical to the rural economy. We have adapted to the 60-hour rule, but our bottom line is eroding. Our labor costs have risen 23% since 2019. With no change to the threshold, it will rise another 8%. Overtime over 40 hours would make that another 15%. How can any industry that must compete in a global market and cannot pass along increased costs be expected to absorb a 38% increase to its second largest expense? Keep regulations where they are and enforce them, but maintain the 60-hour threshold.”
Chuck Kutik – a honey bee farmer in Chenango County. Click here to watch video testimony.
Jesse Mulberry – a third generation apple farmer in Clinton County and chair of the New York State Apple Association. Click here to watch video testimony
Helen Giroux – a poultry, grain, and orchard farmer in Clinton County. Click here to watch the video testimony.
Casey Porter – a fourth generation dairy farmer at Porterdale Farms in Jefferson County. Click here to watch video testimony.
Domain Velasquez – a farmworker in Jefferson County. Click here to watch video testimony.
Domain said, “I’m an immigrant from Guatemala and I’m a herd manager. I received my citizenship in September of 2021. I purchased a home with my family in Sackets Harbor, NY. I am a supervisor of a team with 11 Hispanic employees, and I speak today as well with their permission. My team and I are very happy working in agriculture. All the people I manage want 60 hours per week. If overtime is reduced to 40 hours, the farm will be forced to cut hours and my people will leave for another state. Or if the farm cannot survive this, I will be forced to find another career, move my family, and sell my house. The business treats my team very well with good housing, bonuses, and a good wage. This new proposal for overtime will only complicate our lives. Please do not consider this to pass.”
Farm Credit East Report: Click here to watch video testimony presentation.
As explained in detail by industry professionals, experts, and researchers – New York’s agriculture industry, growing seasons, and climate cannot be compared to California or other states. But the unintended consequences of overtime and limiting hours seem to be universal. Speaking recently with Good Fruit Grower Magazine, nearly two dozen farmworkers shared how limited hours have affected their lives out on the West Coast.
And in Kern County, California, farmworkers and growers explained how they too are dissatisfied after overtime changes were implemented.
Learn more about the Grow NY Farms coalition by visiting www.grownyfarms.com
–Grow NY Farms coalition