Labor, health and relief are NYFB prioritiesby Enrico Villamaino

In preparation for upcoming meetings with members of its congressional delegation, the New York Farm Bureau laid out its federal public policy agenda. NYFB President David Fisher and Senior Associate Director of Public Policy and National Affairs Lauren Williams outlined the organization’s priorities issues during a Zoom presentation on Feb. 24.

According to Fisher, agriculture labor reform is of paramount importance to NYFB. “We are pleased to see President Biden’s immigration plan, named the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. It offers hope for farmworkers who are currently in this country to remain here with legal permanent resident status.” He added that the proposed bill fails to address the long-term needs of the country’s farmers, farmworkers and food supply, however. “This is an issue NYFB members have been discussing for years. We need a comprehensive approach that takes into account people who are already working on farms as well as the seasonal and year-round farm needs in the future.”

While calling the president’s proposal a good starting point, Fisher said much more needed to be addressed, in particular the H-2A guest worker program. “Workers need to be able to stay for more than just one growing season. It would be of great help to the state’s dairy farms, which are operating all year long. Smart reforms that address the 21st century needs of our state and country will provide more stability for our food system, our employees and our rural economy,” said Fisher.

Attention must also be paid to the ongoing needs of NY’s farmers related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fisher lamented that, despite CDC recommendations, NY’s vaccine rollout has to date not included people who work in agriculture. “This must change. We must protect the health and safety of these essential workers that our food supply relies on in this country. One of the obstacles has been the supply of the vaccine. We are encouraged as production ramps up and more is being made available, but our organization will continue to make the case with federal officials that more should be targeted to the farming community along with necessary personal protective equipment.”

Farmers impacted by yearlong shutdowns must also have improved access to federal assistance programs. The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) is currently under review by the new administration. Fisher hopes that process will be positive and swift and further applications will be accepted. “This is something we’ll be addressing with Senator [Charles] Schumer [D-NY] when we meet with our delegation in the coming week.”

The ability to process meat and poultry in NY must be expanded. “We saw last year what happened to the food chain when large meat processing facilities were forced to close because of COVID outbreaks. There is a lack of processing facilities here in New York, and one solution is assisting smaller processing facilities to transition to USDA federally inspected plants.” Fisher said such a measure would allow for a much larger and accessible pool of facilities where farmers can bring their livestock for processing, decreasing the backlog that exists.

Calling attention to a recent survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), Fisher pointed out how the pandemic has taken not just a physical toll on the farming community, but on its mental health as well. Two-thirds of farmworkers say the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health. Fisher wants to see an expansion of programs such as NY FarmNet, which provide free stress assistance programs to at-risk members of the state’s ag community. “We are making this a priority to expand programs that provide resources and address mental health challenges and opioid addiction in rural communities. Also, we support policies and legislation that provide stress assistance programs to farmers and increase farmer-facing training opportunities. We must work to increase awareness and reduce the stigma of rural mental health issues,” he said.

The new administration is still feeling its way out on trade, according to Williams. The White House agenda regarding selling farm goods and products around the world is taking shape. “We encourage the Biden Administration to continue to ‘build back’ with China and maintain the Phase 1 agreement and ensure it is fully implemented,” she said, adding that increasing sales to China is of supreme importance. NYFB continues to monitor the implementation of the USMCA Agreement, which includes provisions to assist the state’s fruit and vegetable growers. NYFB supports joining the comprehensive and progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, expanding opportunities with the EU and the UK. “There is much potential around the world for our farmers to sell the quality goods that they produce,” she said.

The challenges presented by climate change cannot be ignored, said Williams. “Environmental policy and addressing the effects of climate change is a top priority for many in Washington and the many farmers who know all too well the impacts of extreme weather conditions.” She stressed the importance of farmers having a seat at the table when discussing policy changes as well as receiving recognition and support for practices already happening on farms that are reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Climate smart farming practices can serve as carbon sinks – environments with the ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases.

AFBF recently found that U.S. carbon sinks that included forests and cropland offset 12% of American greenhouse gas emissions during 2018. Cropland productivity increased by nearly 50% since 1990, while net carbon emissions from farming remained consistent. This evidence indicates that farmers are producing more food while using fewer resources and utilizing eco-friendly practices. “Farms are part of the solution to addressing climate change. Through all of this, it is important to find the balance that will also protect our members’ ability to operate. We must have a viable food system in this country for our own prosperity as well,” she said.

Asked what one thing she wanted the congressional delegation to know, Williams said using unbiased, scientific data to craft policy. “We are ready to work with the administration on science-based, voluntary and market-driven programs,” she added.