Farm Progress

New York’s first industry — agriculture — should have been granted an exemption from state’s minimum-wage law. Cuomo must shoulder the blame.

John Vogel, Editor, American Agriculturist

August 19, 2016

3 Min Read

June’s editorial and related blog, "3 ways farmer can survive coming minimum wage hikes," tackled New York’s new minimum-wage hike. I pointed out why agriculture needs to start preparing for higher wages. But as always, nothing is simple when it comes to such a major forced change. You, our readers, made that clear in your follow-up letters, emails and personal remarks. And I thank you.

As reported earlier, New York’s minimum-wage law is a $9-per-hour fact this year. Long Island farmers will feel the first $10 hit outside of New York City in 2017. And the Empire State will inch toward $15 per hour by 2022.

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Many sectors of the agriculture industry do not have the technology, tools or margins to justify shifting away from paid “hands-on” labor. The nursery, potato and vegetable industries are perfect examples. And not all midsized dairies can afford to adapt labor-saving technologies such as robotic milking.

These are major underpinnings of New York’s ag economy. It’s hard to have “local fresh” anything without local workers. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the minimum-wage hike into law without an ag exemption and without an economic impact study on its effect on farms and local fresh-market food prices. Yes, the State Assembly had a hand in it, too. But Cuomo signed the legislation into law, so the blame rests on his shoulders.

Time to say ‘whoa’

During the recent Empire Farm Days, I suggested to New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton that “The [minimum-wage] battle isn’t over until the fight ends.” He glumly came back with: “It is.”

No doubt, Farm Bureau and many other organizations fought the legislation and lost. But New York’s citizens and its agriculture have too much to lose to give up the battle.

An economic impact study of the minimum-wage law on ag sector viability must be done. That would be the foundation for any proposed ag exemption or step-back. The law could be amended, for instance, to include housing or other nonwage benefits often paid to farm employees.

Ironically, the governor boasted this week of providing $18 million to the Southern Tier Agricultural Industry Enhancement Program, “empowering hundreds of farms to expand their businesses and increase environmental sustainability. At the same time, this funding will help secure the future success of the region for years to come.”

If Gov. Cuomo really wants to put his first industry first, he will welcome such an ag economic assessment study and legislative redress of the minimum-wage law. Much stranger things have happened in the world of politics.

Keep in mind, however, we live in a competitive world. The minimum wage in most of the European Union currently is $10 an hour or more, according to sources I checked with. Currently, nearby Canadian provinces are higher: Ontario’s is $11.40; Quebec’s is $10.75.

The bottom line is the financial bottom line. That was the point of my initial commentary. Successful businesses will find ways to absorb or adjust to higher labor costs. While farmland may not be moveable, farm businesses and whole industries do relocate and remain successful. And life goes on.

About the Author(s)

John Vogel

Editor, American Agriculturist

For more than 38 years, John Vogel has been a Farm Progress editor writing for farmers from the Dakota prairies to the Eastern shores. Since 1985, he's been the editor of American Agriculturist – successor of three other Northeast magazines.

Raised on a grain and beef farm, he double-majored in Animal Science and Ag Journalism at Iowa State. His passion for helping farmers and farm management skills led to his family farm's first 209-bushel corn yield average in 1989.

John's personal and professional missions are an integral part of American Agriculturist's mission: To anticipate and explore tomorrow's farming needs and encourage positive change to keep family, profit and pride in farming.

John co-founded Pennsylvania Farm Link, a non-profit dedicated to helping young farmers start farming. It was responsible for creating three innovative state-supported low-interest loan programs and two "Farms for the Future" conferences.

His publications have received countless awards, including the 2000 Folio "Gold Award" for editorial excellence, the 2001 and 2008 National Association of Ag Journalists' Mackiewicz Award, several American Agricultural Editors' "Oscars" plus many ag media awards from the New York State Agricultural Society.

Vogel is a three-time winner of the Northeast Farm Communicators' Farm Communicator of the Year award. He's a National 4-H Foundation Distinguished Alumni and an honorary member of Alpha Zeta, and board member of Christian Farmers Outreach.

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