A dramatic fall in farm income statewide has farmers on edge

When the New York Farm Bureau released its 2017 priorities last week, the state’s largest agricultural lobbying/trade organization painted a dire picture.

New numbers just released by National Agricultural Statistics Service show the value of farm production in New York dropped by $1 billion in 2015 to $5.33 billion, NYFB stated in announcing its annual lobbying agenda.

“That is a significant loss in farm income, and anecdotally Farm Bureau members are saying that farm income will likely drop even further when 2016 numbers are released,” NYFB stated.

Agriculture has been under additional economic pressures the past two years, with low commodity and milk prices and rising labor costs.

“The 16 percent drop in farm income highlights why it is imperative that New York Farm Bureau advocate for common-sense laws, regulations, and tax policies that support the state’s family farms,” said NYFB President David Fisher in a press conference last week with reporters.

The Farm Bureau's Board of Directors establishes priorities annually for the legislative session. What makes its way to the final wish list for lawmakers begins when members of the 52 county Farm Bureaus voice their opinions and vote on public policy resolutions at the county level. Those resolutions make their way to the State Annual Meeting each December, where farmer delegates cast their votes that determine the organization’s positions.

Top of the priorities list for 2017 is convincing lawmakers to enact for farmers a refundable investment tax credit. Because of the struggling farm economy and the weather-related crop losses many farmers experienced last year, farmers report being extremely short on cash flow. Many do not have the savings to reinvest back into their businesses. NYFB says the initiative would incentivize farm investment to compete in the global market.

“It is important for farms and the rural economy, that farmers stay on top of equipment needs, structural repairs and new technology in order to meet consumer demands and business needs,” said Fisher. “We cannot let our farm infrastructure take a hit during an economic downturn.”

Another priority: Doubling the minimum wage tax credit for farms, from $30 million to $60 million. The first step of the wage hike, which NYFB opposed, climbed at the beginning of the year on its way to $15 for farms on Long Island and $12.50 for upstate farmers. The tax credit policy resulted in a $250 tax credit per employee for this first year of the increase.

“That will cover only a small fraction of what it will cost family farms to implement the wage hike. The minimum wage increase will also push all wages up across the board, including for those who currently make well above the minimum,” according to NYFB.

The average farm wage in New York is around $12.40 an hour.

“Farms cannot just increase their prices to make up for that growing gap. They have to compete against farms in neighboring states and around the world. If the state is going to force a higher wage on farms, they should be prepared to offer greater assistance, especially when farm income is down 16 percent,” Fisher said.

Additional wish-list items include state funding for certain farm programs. NYFB applauds items in the governor’s budget plan such as strong funding for the Environmental Protection Fund, which will help farms with water quality, conservation and farmland protection programs. There is also money to support agricultural education and programs that will assist in job and skills training to meet future employment demands in agriculture.

NYFB wants to work with the Legislature and governor to restore funding for research and technical assistance and promotion that support the diversity of New York’s farms. The organization hopes the governor’s $2 billion plan to improve the state’s water infrastructure and water quality will include significant money for conservation projects on farms.

Fisher mentioned the “buy local movement” that continues to grow across the state, adding NYFB “believes New York residents should not be the only ones to turn to their farmers first” but the state “should do so as well.” Hence, the organization’s fourth priority is advocating for legislation that will provide a “procurement preference” for New York-grown food for state institutional purchasing. This would cover food served in state universities, prisons, and other state-run facilities.

“This will open up new markets for New York’s farmers. For only pennies more, the state can support its farmers and get more fresh, local food into the state system,” said Jeff Williams, NYFB’s public policy director.

Finally, the organization wants a state tax credit for donations of locally grown food by farmers to food banks. The governor has vetoed the bill twice. While he expressed support for the idea, his major objection was that the Legislature passed it outside of the budget, according to NYFB, which wants the governor to fund it this time around.

The tax credit would be for 25 percent of the wholesale value of the donated food and no more than $5,000 per farm. The impact to the overall budget would be small in comparison to the $152 billion spending plan. “We estimate it would be around $700,000. However, its impact will be far reaching,” stated NYFB.

“It will help farmers offset a portion of the costs of picking, packing and transporting the food to regional food banks. More importantly, it will allow more locally sourced food to be shared with those in need all over the state,” said Williams.

In 2016, farmers donated more than 13 million pounds of food to their regional food banks, which is more than 10 million meals. This is a new record for the state’s farmers. However, the “Farm to Food Bank” bill would incentivize even greater food donations and that record number would climb even higher, according to NYFB.