Comptroller’s Report on AG During Pandemic Overlooks Plight of Small, Family Farms

A Column by Assemblyman Chris Tague (R,C,I-Schoharie)

Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli recently released a report hailing the success and resilience of farms during the COVID-19 pandemic, which argued that farms and agri-businesses were more successful than businesses in other industries during that period. To do so, the report examined the state of agriculture in New York state from a birds’ eye view, pointing to the success of large farms over the last several years, even as small and family farms have continued to struggle to succeed.

While we are still waiting for updated figures from these last few years to be reported, between 2010 and 2020, the value of total agricultural production among small family farms dropped significantly as compared to large farms, as did their share of land usage. According to a New York State Farm Bureau survey, during the pandemic, farmers attested to having to dump milk, cut back milk and meat production, and endure losses equivalent to months worth of revenue, causing farmers in some cases, to have to lay off 90% of their employees, sell off entire herds of dairy cattle, and put plans for future expansion on hold. Given what we’re hearing from these farmers, we have no reason to believe this trend of small farm decline has not continued, if it hasn’t accelerated.

Small farmers also felt the brunt of the impact of stoppages that occurred at meat and dairy processing facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. While demand for meat products actually increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the small and very small USDA slaughterhouses small family farms rely on to process their animals were forced to close down due to COVID-19 infections. While the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic were unique, they brought an issue to light that is not new. The lack of availability of meat and dairy processing available to small, family farmers in New York state has worn on the industry for decades now and needs to be addressed both by incentivizing the opening of new processing facilities (A.6391) and by expanding agricultural education (A.10134) to help encourage more young people to enter the industry. I’ve introduced legislation that would address both of these issues and cannot overstate how much increased processing capabilities would help our state’s small farmers.

Based on what we’ve heard from the owners of small farms, these last few years are not ones that have been easy for them. When New Yorkers think of farming and agriculture, they aren’t thinking about large industrial farms, they think of the small family farms they see at farmer’s markets. This report’s description of the well-being of farming as most people understand it is incredibly misleading, and obscures the real threats facing the small, family farms people think of when they think about farming.

As we’ve seen these farms’ success diminish in recent years, they now face a tremendous threat in the reduction of the farm laborer overtime threshold. Forcing farmers to cut their hours will only drive the industry in our state toward the production of crops that are less laborious to produce. This would only hasten the rise of large farms, who can afford to invest in heavy, automated equipment, and the decline of small farms. Things are not as rosy for agriculture, particularly in relation to the well-being of small farms, as this report would let on, and it’s time that we get frank about the impact reducing the farm laborer overtime threshold would have on family farms that have been in our communities for generations.