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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Is This Darrel's Time?

Times are tough on New York's dairy farms. Dairy farmers are going through another price crisis the type of which has been reappearing every few years since the massive farm crisis of the 1980's. The truth be told, dairy farmers have been living on the edge price wise since the Reagan Administration led the charge to remove the price of farm milk from the Parity Formula leading to where we are today, the price basically dependent on the vagaries of the price of cheese at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange with no relationship to the actual cost of production.
Now along comes a proposed state law that would require that farm workers receive time off every week, over time pay, and the right to collective bargaining. Given what I just stated that would be a bad idea, right? Wrong. It's way overdue to happen.
The cost of financial success for dairy farmers can't be put on the backs of those that work for them. The fact that the price of milk is far below the cost of production is not the fault of farm labor. In the mid 1980's I began what was to be a second unpaid career working to change farm policy so that dairy farmers were treated more fairly in the market place. I, and many others took our concerns to Albany and Washington D.C., lobbying and agitating for change. We worked hard for a system similar to that enjoyed by Canadian dairy farmers, a supply management system coupled with a price based on a cost of production formula. Canadian dairy farmers are doing well, by the way. All too often though, we were met with opposition from within our own ranks by farmers or farm organizations that caused enough division that caused us not to succeed and has prolonged the boom and bust, mostly bust, system that we have today. Among the farm organizations that opposed our efforts were some of the large cooperatives and the Farm Bureau, the same Farm Bureau that is opposing improving conditions for farm workers as being too costly to farmers.Those that opposed us often did so for ideological reasons often calling supply management socialism (sound familiar?) or sadly too often, outright greed thinking that if their neighbor went out of business they could expand their farms and they would be better off. This expansion concept has led to the growth of many large farms, farms often referred to as corporate farms that depend on cheap labor to survive as prices are too low for them also. These large farms are often pointed to as being "more efficient" than the more traditional family farm when in reality they are getting by on cheap labor.
What I'm saying is farmers have met the enemy, and he is us. We have failed to organize to the extent necessary to improve our prices. This is not the fault or responsibility of those that now work on these corporate farms.
By exploiting cheap labor, large farms have competed unfairly against true family run farms, putting more product in the market, lowering prices and putting farms out of business.
At the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, Senator Darrel Aubertine made the point that the purported cost of the bill would amount to about 11 cents per hundred pounds of milk and stated that that was more than many farmers would make this year. He's right. This is a disastrous year for dairy farmers, but again, this is not the fault or the responsibilty of the farm workers. The large farm operators made the decisions to operate like big industry and proclaim their superiority to family agriculture. If they want to be industry, they should play on the same field as industry when it comes to labor.
It must be pointed out that the right to collective bargaining would apply to farm workers on operations with sales over $650,000.00 per year which would rightly exempt many smaller dairy farms but would likewise rightly apply to the larger industrialized operations. The new changes are hardly luxurious,- one day off a week, overtime after 60 hours and the right to collective bargaining. How, in the 21st century, can this be controversial?
There are other reasons this bill should be supported. Most importantly, morally, farm workers should not be treated as a separate class of citizen nearly on a par with slave labor so that someone's bottom line is improved or someone else's wine and cheese party costs a little less. This is truly a moral issue in the realm of women's suffrage and the civil right's movement.
Farmer's need to address their price problem as a price problem- not a labor problem. It is decades past due for farmers to organize and demand new farm policy that gives them prices that allows them a fair return on investment, including the ability to pay competitive wages. I've long held that farmers should be working with labor rather than acting as antagonists. The corporate agriculture mentality won't allow for this as would smaller family agriculture, so in that case I side with the workers.
I know Darrel Aubertine and know he is a good man with a good heart. His type of farming was that of a family farm such as mine. Without putting words in his mouth I'm pretty sure his choice of farm policy would look a lot like mine. But right now Darrel is under pressure in an election year in what is seen as a swing Senate seat. In my opinion I bet he's darned uncomfortable supporting the Farm Bureau position. I'm pretty sure he's trying to figure out how to do what is right and still get re-elected. I hope it works but let me suggest to just do what's right and make your case. In my opinion what is right is passing the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act allowing farm workers to take a few steps away from the exploited position they've been in.
Will Rogers once said " Every politician should do one thing in their life just because it is right." Is this Darrel's time?