A new labor law could change the face of agriculture statewide including for farmers in Ontario County

Wednesday was the last day for planting this year’s cabbage crop at Hemdale Farms in Seneca Castle. Farm owner Dale Hemminger hopes it won’t be one of his last seasons for the crop that relies on a team of Mexican workers. Sold for sauerkraut, egg rolls and the salad market, cabbage is a mainstay of Hemdale’s dairy/greenhouse operation founded more than 70 years ago.

A new labor law giving farm workers, for the first time, the right to unionize, receive overtime pay and be guaranteed at least one day off per week is posing new challenges for farmers. Livestock need round-the-clock care, and flexible scheduling is necessary from planting to harvest due to timing and weather. New York Farm Bureau and like-minded organizations warn the state’s farming industry is already stressed and the new law could lead to more farm closures.

In one of his cabbage fields this past Wednesday, Hemminger introduced his seasonal crew who make the vegetable operation possible. Some of the men have been coming for years, and many support wives and children back in Mexico. Lucio translated for his fellow workers, who talked about their families who depend on the money they wire back home.

The men said they want to make as much money as possible. They are here to work.

Hemminger brings in his seasonal laborers each year through the H-2A guestworker program. The federal program allows agricultural employers to hire workers from other countries on temporary work permits for agricultural jobs that last ten months or less. Through H-2A, Hemminger is able to get a reliable, legal workforce. He pays for their transportation and housing. The federally set H-2A minimum wage is currently $13.25 an hour, higher than the state minimum wage for upstate of $11.10.

The new law stopped short of requiring overtime for working beyond a 40-hour week, as first proposed, instead setting a 60-hour threshold. It’s a compromise Hemminger said he can manage. But he and other farmers say it fails to account for the realities of farming. Last week, at crunch time for planting, Hemdale’s crew worked 75 hours. This coming week, it will drop to between 40 and 50 hours.

Hemminger, who recently invested in new housing for the crew, fears the new law may be followed by further restrictions. The law, called the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, calls for an appointed farm wage board with authority to lower the overtime threshold back to 40. If that happens, Hemminger said he would have to shutter his greenhouse business, abandoning his cabbage crop for corn and soybeans.

That is a step farmer Ken Trammel in Phelps recently made with his apple business. For more than two decades his family operated nearly 90 acres of apple orchards at Trammel Farms that relied on Mexican laborers. But with increased regulations and expenses mounting Trammel said he couldn’t do it anymore.

“It’s so frustrating with the labor situation,” he said. “You can’t get domestic labor when you need them.” So he gave up apples for corn and soybeans.

Several years ago, Hemminger installed robotic milking machines that eased the need for dairy laborers. But for the careful, hands-on work required in his vegetable operation, his Mexican workforce is it. Hemdale’s greenhouse manager Joe Clement said attempts to hire local labor have never panned out. Few locals respond to advertising and when hired, they either don’t show up or quit after a brief time on the job, said Clement.

At Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, owner/orchard manager Joe Nicholson Jr. said Red Jacket is fortunate to have the seasonal workers it needs, a mix of locals and those through H-2A. Red Jacket has an advantage in obtaining local labor, he said, because it operates vineyards as well as other fruit crops so it can provide work year-round as vineyards need tending throughout the entire year. While the 60-hour minimum-wage threshold is not a major concern, like Hemminger, Nicholson said he foresees further restrictions coming down the pike. That will hurt.

Farm advocacy group Grow NY Farms, which pushed for compromises when it appeared the law would pass the Democratic-majority Legislature, is now urging lawmakers and the governor to remedy certain provisions. One change sought in the law would require the wage board to include New York’s key agency expert on agricultural issues, the state Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Markets.

While pushback on the law came from organizations such as New York Farm Bureau, Grow NY Farms, Farm Credit East and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, it had its share of proponents. Those celebrating the law passed on June 19 include organizations such as Farmworker Justice and the New York Civil Liberties Union. June 19, also called Freedom Day, is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.

In a statement, NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said: “It is fitting that today, on Juneteenth, legislators are finally delivering a measure of justice to farmworkers more than 80 years after a Jim Crow-era law denied them basic rights granted to everyone else. The workers on whom we depend for the food on our tables must be treated humanely and with dignity, like any other hardworking New Yorker. That includes the right to organize, a day of rest, overtime pay, and more. Farmworkers have had to wait decades, and they shouldn’t have to wait a day longer for the governor to sign this historic reform.”