The tractors were shiny and new Saturday at the Western New York Farm Show. But the talk remained the same.
Burdensome regulations. Labor issues. Milk pricing. Land use. All eat into farmers’ ability to make profits and grow their businesses.
Farmers came to the Hamburg Fairgrounds to check out some of the latest technology and equipment. They traded stories and techniques, and some even tossed hay bales.
For agricultural engineer Larry Van Splunder, one of the biggest issues facing agriculture today is getting people to appreciate how much effort goes into farming.
“We really wish the general public was better educated about what it takes to get the food to the table,” Van Splunder said. “Americans don’t know how lucky they are.”
Modernized equipment, improved science and cutting-edge technology have helped to make agriculture more efficient. But each sector still has issues, farmers at the fairgrounds explained. Dairy farmers find it hard to make money with a fixed milk pricing scale that’s low right now because of a supply glut. Local livestock farmers struggle to find slaughterhouses, driving 100 miles or more to have their animals processed.
And labor can be hard to come by for crop farmers. Then, there’s also costs for fuel and fertilizer.
“It’s tough,” said Hermann Weber, a longtime Wyoming County livestock farmer who manned the beef producers' kiosk selling hot beef sundaes and chocolate milk.
Weber started his family-run poultry business, HLW Acres Poultry Processing, in Attica in the early 1990s when it became difficult to get his chickens to a slaughterhouse. Now, there’s more business than he can keep up with, especially with consumers wanting more locally sourced products.
“We do have a bottleneck,” Weber said. “More and more, people want to buy directly from the producer and they want to be able to see the people who produce it.”
But Weber is limited by state regulations to producing less than 20,000 birds per year, and he said he has grown his business about as far as he can. Expanding would open him up to a host of additional – and expensive – state and federal regulations. Already costs have increased, and so have the rules.
His state license was once $20. Now, it’s $200.
To hire more employees, he would have to pay workers' compensation. That’s got to be expensive at a business whose chief tool is a sharp knife, right?
“It’s very costly,” Weber said. “The rules are written for the big companies, not the little companies.”
And getting those workers wouldn't be easy. Finding help is a challenge across the agricultural industry. It’s estimated that three of every four workers who harvest crops come from countries outside of the United States.
“That’s a great issue for farming: trying to find people to do the work,” said Jim Guarino, an Alden-area hay farmer.
Guarino, a member of the Erie County Farm Bureau, hailed a recent state Supreme Court decision rejecting farm workers’ rights to collective bargaining. The suit by the New York Civil Liberties Union alleged farm workers are forced "to work in life-threatening, sweatshop-like conditions" with excessively long hours and minimal remuneration. Guarino said the claims were over-the-top and called the court decision a victory for New York’s farmers, averting potentially catastrophic consequences on farms.
"You can't just make it up and throw it out there and see if anything sticks," Guarino said. "You can't depend on an eight-hour day. There are no regular hours."
"The biggest thing in the country is labor," said Van Splunder, the agricultural engineer.
Although he grew up on a Cattaraugus County dairy farm, Van Splunder decided a long time ago the seven days per week, 365 days-a-year thing wasn't for him. He earned his agricultural engineering degree and pursued a career in agricultural sales that took him to 27 states and six European countries.
All of that experience taught him a big lesson, which he wrapped in an old joke.
“You want to know how to make a small fortune in farming?” Van Splunder quipped. “Start with a large fortune.”