by Troy Bishopp
Many times, inquiries come in to Country Folks from concerned farmers seeking an investigation into an agricultural matter. Just after the 2021 New York State elections and the Assembly and Senate committee appointments, a tip came in which mysteriously asked, “Do you really know who is on our ag committees and how the selection/appointment process is carried out?”
For those working in farm country, away from the grind of politics, the question may not be a high priority next to milking cows, tending to greenhouses or feeding livestock. The answers should be relatively easy to find, but the committee’s web presence needs help.
Questions abound: What do the Assembly and Senate ag committees actually do? What are the nomination logistics to be named to the ag committee? Is there a vetting process for members of the ag committee and their understanding of NY’s agricultural dynamics? Is the selection process in a transparent document for farmers to understand the process of who is chosen? Is there a vote on who the members will be?
Buried in an annual report from 2019, there is an explanation: “The Assembly Standing Committee on Agriculture is responsible for legislation that relates to the Agriculture and Markets Law, oversight of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and helping to craft the Department’s budget. The Committee collaborates closely with institutions of higher education and other organizations to foster agriculture research and development, works with farmers and their representatives to develop policies and programs to promote the State’s agricultural products, support the growth of agricultural, food and beverage businesses, ensure a safe food supply including healthy livestock, preserve the State’s farmland resources and protect welfare of companion animals.
“Agricultural-related legislation is often considered by other Assembly Committees, and the Committee provides input and counsel to those committees to make sure that agricultural interests are taken into account.” The committee supports requests for funding in the budget and advances legislation that is essential to the agricultural community. It also hosts hearings and public forums to gain knowledge on rural issues. According to their webpage, the NYS Senate Agriculture Committee’s mission is to “provide budget oversight and the efficacy for current state investments in agriculture and the food industry.”
Sources within NY Farm Bureau and committee staff say the selection process to advocate for NY agriculture and food policy come from member requests, internal appointments and “political considerations.” The caveat is, majority party rules.
“Regarding the selection of Assembly members for the committee; there are 23 members distributed proportionally by party (17 Democrats and six Republicans). This is due to the fact that out of the 150 Assembly members there are currently 104 Democrats and 46 Republicans. Individuals make committee requests and list them in order of their priorities. The Speaker and Minority Leader then make their respective appointments to the committee. Keeping a regional balance is a priority for me as we address issues from across the state,” said Ag Committee Chair Donna Lapardo.
The 2021 NYS Assembly Ag Committee is comprised of Lapardo and Assembly members Brian Barnwell, Didi Barrett, Ken Blankenbush, Marianne Buttenschon, Erik M. Dilan, Harvey Epstein, Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Christopher S. Friend, Aileen M. Gunther, Stephen Hawley, Billy Jones, Anna Kelles, Brian D. Miller, José Rivera, Linda B. Rosenthal, Angelo Santabarbara, Amanda Septimo, Al Stirpe, Chris Tague, Jaime R. Williams, Carrie Woerner and Stefani Zinerman.
“Committee members are selected by Senate leadership (Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins). Often, senators are placed on the Agriculture Committee when they represent districts that have a vested interest in agriculture, whether that is because they represent a farming district or they represent a region that fulfills the other half of the USDA mission of providing food to people,” commented Senate Ag Committee member Rachel May.
The 2021 NYS Senate Ag Committee is led by Committee Chair Michelle Hinchey and includes senators Alessandra Biaggi, George M. Borrello, Leroy Comrie, Pamela Helming, Daphne Jordan, Rachel May, Jessica Ramos and Jabari Brisport.
The whole question of committee selections, vetting and transparency surfaced from concerned dairy farmers who are circulating a 2018 YouTube video, “Running Vegans and Animal Rights Activists for Office” featuring then-Senate candidate Jabari Brisport. The newly-elected and new member of the Senate Ag Committee, Brisport (from the 25th State Senate district in Brooklyn) said in the video “The dairy industry is a failing industry” and “Let the dairy industry die the death it needs to die.”
It makes you wonder how the politician comes to the Senate Ag Committee and how his agendas might influence NY agriculture across the board.
Brisport’s many public declarations and rhetoric examples (on jabariforstatesenate.com) go like this: “Make New York State the most progressive state for animals in the country … We must institute legislation that establishes legal rights, safety and protections for wildlife, farm animals and domestic animals. Without proper protections, factory farmers are able to engage in and normalize inhumane methods of animal agriculture such as castration, confinement and debeaking. Humane labeling terms offer peace of mind, but they are not meaningfully defined or enforced, and suppliers often manipulate intentional loopholes in these loosely interpreted standards. It is wrong to subject animals to unnecessary harm and as a state senator I will pursue legislation that puts an end to these practices.”
He continued, “I will advocate redirecting state funding away from subsidies and toward a program for farmers seeking to exit the industry. A worldwide surplus of milk has driven down the price farmers receive to the point where dairy farmers are more at risk of suicide than any other agricultural worker … This will not only allow farmers to exit an ‘often immoral and unsafe system,’ but will also break the cycle which is creating surplus and contributing to needless deaths … I’ll advocate for the end of classroom poultry incubation projects, ban traveling rodeos from performing in New York and teaching humane education in schools.”
Brisport’s agenda has overshadowed the committee process in front of farmer constituents before any work or relationships have been fostered. Anonymous sources say, “He’s just one vote, and at the end of the day he also eats New York products and represents a large population of consumers. This is a time, an opportunity, where New York agriculture needs to step out of its comfort zone and educate about fact over fiction and not let one voice control the narrative of reality farming.”
Senate Ag Committee Chair Hinchey told Country Folks the committee selection is at the discretion of the Senate majority leadership. “I reached out and asked to chair the committee,” she said. I know and believe in how important our agriculture industry is.” She noted there are more than 1,000 farms across her district. “It’s important to get all our colleagues on board with seeing how important our agriculture community is.”
The Senate committee is comprised of primarily new members from rural, suburban and urban districts. “We’re really focused on educating everyone on the committee how agriculture works,” Hinchey said. That’s one of the goals of an upcoming virtual listening tour she’s spearheading, inviting ag businesses, workers, organizations and advocacy groups to share their thoughts and concerns. Those interested in participating should visit tinyurl.com/Aglisteningtour to register. The tour will take place virtually during the weeks of Feb. 15 and Feb. 22.
“Our agricultural community needs a seat at the policy table,” said Hinchey. “As Senate Agriculture chair, I believe that the best way to set our priorities for this legislative session is to hear directly from farmers, workers and agribusiness owners about the problems they face and what we can do at the state level to find practical solutions. We hope to bring together a diverse group of representatives from every corner of our agriculture industry and are looking forward to having a productive conversation.”
Speakers will be accommodated on a first registered, first served basis. Depending on interest, more sessions may be added later in the year to accommodate all who wish to speak.
“I’m really excited to work with everyone to expand our agricultural programs and markets,” Hinchey added.
As your Assembly and Senate Ag Committees convene in new listening sessions, ask what their goals are and become more aware of how they represent NY agriculture and consumer needs. A little transparency goes a long way to foster improved relationships for folks living off the land.
Assistant Editor Courtney Llewellyn contributed to the writing of this article.