SACKETS HARBOR — If north country farmers want their voices heard by state lawmakers in New York City, they must travel downstate and meet them in their districts, urged a New York Farm Bureau official Friday.
About 30 producers, agricultural experts and enthusiasts listened to John W. Wagner, deputy director of member relations for New York Farm Bureau, discuss policy issues during a luncheon at Old McDonald’s Farm. After sitting down to eat a sandwich and soup, they listened as Mr. Wagner describe the political landscape in Albany and Washington, as well as his organization’s advocacy agenda.
With the Democratic Party in control of the legislative and executive branches, and 97 percent of farms residing in senate districts represented by Republicans, Mr. Wagner said the playing field allows state representatives from metropolitan areas who “really have no idea what farming is all about,” to push for legislation that he believes would adversely affect farmers. Additional farm labor, pesticide, livestock treatment and environmental mandates are among the possible policies downstate lawmakers could try to implement, Mr. Wagner said.
“Your job is to educate, educate and educate more of these urban downstate legislators about what it is we do and the ways that we do them,” he said.
In order to help connect with downstate lawmakers, New York Farm Bureau sent 12 farmers to the city to meet with eight or nine state senators and assemblymen in October. Farm Bureau staff also meet with state Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-Jackson Heights, who represents part of Queens, to discuss policy concerns and issues with each other, including food deserts, or areas that lack access to fresh food, in the city.
While lobbying staff from Farm Bureau have meet with downstate lawmakers in New York City in years past, Mr. Wagner said the October meeting was the first in which farmer members travelled downstate as an organized group to connect with them. The organization plans to facilitate more meetings this year.
Mr. Wagner said meetings between upstate farmers and downstate politicians allows them to listen to each other and possibly tackle a few issues together.
“When you meet them on their own turf, they have more time with you,” he said. “I heard some meetings lasted more than an hour.”
Alan Reed, owner of Reed Haven Farms, Adams Center, said when he was more active with the Jefferson County Farm Bureau years ago, he would attend New York Farm Bureau’s lobby day in Albany to meet with downstate lawmakers. When asked whether he would travel to New York City to discuss policy concerns with them, Mr. Reed said “well sure.”
“That’s important,” he said. “Many of those (legislators) have never really been outside of the city environment. Many of them don’t have a good understanding of the rural lifestyle and agriculture operations.”
Mr. Wagner also discussed the state and federal policy priorities for the year during the luncheon.
Several goals pertained to farm labor, particularly the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. The act created a wage board, which has the power to hold hearings and offer recommendations for a lower cap on hours and other possible changes to the regulations. Mr. Wagner said the Farm Bureau wants the board to hold hearings in farm regions of the state and that no changes are made until two or three years after the act took effect, so officials could gather more statistics about how it affects farmers. New York Farm Bureau President David M. Fisher, a dairy farmer from Madrid, sits on the board.
“All farmers who have laborers on their farms who do work are concerned with several provisions with the farm labor bill,” including new overtime rules for laborers, said Mr. Reed, who has four workers at Reed Haven Farms. “A lot of your work time and hours are governed by weather.”
Other state policy priorities pertaining to farm labor include doubling the agricultural workforce retention tax credit, creating a refundable investment tax credit for producers and updating farm employee housing allowances. Other priorities for the group involving state legislation include ensuring lawmakers provide enough money to fill vacant positions with the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, opposing a prevailing wage for projects supported with public funds, challenging pesticide bans that circumvent the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Environmental Protection Agency and more.
“I have never seen a time that has been more critical to me to be a member of Jefferson County and New York Farm Bureau,” said Jay M. Matteson, agricultural coordinator for Jefferson County Economic Development. Mr. Matteson hosted the luncheon. “They are our voice in Albany, and we really need to be supporting them with our membership.”