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Farmers air concerns with Aubertine

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Senator Darrel Aubertine is holding informal meetings statewide to gather input for New York's agricultural policy. Aubertine chairs the Senate's agriculture committee. Aubertine says he's heard about oysters on Long Island, turf grass in the Hudson Valley, and cabbage and lettuce in western New York. At the latest meeting, Friday in Waddington, dairy topped the agenda. From labor to imports to environmental rules, dairy farmers feel they're under siege. David Sommerstein reports.

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About 15 dairy farmers and industry leaders told Darrel Aubertine they feel the odds are stacked against them. A year of milk prices below the cost of production is just the start of it, says Bob Gleason, a dairyman turned crop farmer from Malone.

For instance, dairy farmers are paying for these CAFO things that they're manditorying [sic], when as you know, the price of milk dropped down to 11 dollars from 20.

Gleason and others pointed at the manure management regulations called CAFO that can cost farmers tens of thousands of dollars to implement. Kevin Ackers decried property taxes that can be five times what they are in competing dairy states.

So that's the biggest challenge. I know for myself opportunities have arisen to buy neighboring farms that have gone out of business or have decided to do something else, and we decided not to do it, just for that reason, strictly the taxation.

Aubertine said he's introduced bills in the state Senate that would help dairy farmers. One would make it harder for dairy imports to out-compete American milk products. Another would eliminate hauling fees dairy farmers are charged for trucking their milk to the cheese or yogurt plant. Hauling fees take big bites out of the monthly milk check. Aubertine says the bill would redefine ownership of milk to belong to the processors once it's picked up from the farm.

When it passes through that valve and goes on to someone else's truck and is co-mingled with other farms' milk, it's lost its identity for all intents and purposes, processing has started, and that's what this bill is centered around.

The farmers praised Aubertine for those efforts. They slammed a bill in Albany that Aubertine opposes. It's a farm labor bill that, among other things, would force farmers to pay overtime when their workers exceed 40 hours a week. Seasonal pickers regularly work more than 50 hours a week. Farmers statewide say the bill threatens to sink their businesses.

New York Farm Bureau's Fred Perrin defended dairy farmers who employ Mexicans and Champlain Valley apple orchards that have hire Jamaicans to pick the crop for decades.

I personally have been shaken by the number of farmers who have said to me how really hurt they are, that they have been portrayed by the labor advocates as being people who are not good to their employees. I've had farmers say, I've sent Christmas gifts to people that were summer people. I've gone to weddings in Mexico, and then somebody goes and tells me I don't care about my laborers?

Aubertine said similar concerns surfaced at most of these meetings. But what the farmers want often clash with the powerful interests of processors and the views of city lawmakers who don't understand rural life.

Inherent in the farmers' platform is a contradiction that could endanger public goodwill. Farmers speak of agriculture as one of New York's biggest industries. Yet they bristle at the kind of environmental rules considered standard for most factories. And it's well known scores of immigrants are working illegally, without proper oversight, in the milk parlors and on the fields.

Many of the issues on the Ag agenda resonate far beyond Albany. Aubertine acknowledged they'll be hashed out in Congress and in the next Farm Bill.

But if implementing it at the state level encourages, I guess, for lack of a better term, the federal government to implement the same program, then I think that's the direction that we're headed in.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein in Waddington.

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