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Editorial: Albany and Washington must act to protect New York's farmers

New York State farmers face more pressure than ever and state and federal leaders have the ability to do something about it.

One relatively easy way to help farmers is for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators to include the New York Farm to Food Bank Tax Credit bill in the final state budget.

The bill gives New York farmers a refundable tax credit up to $5,000 per year for donations of fresh produce made to emergency food programs. Last year, New York farmers donated 13 million pounds of food to food banks, translating into 10 million meals. This tax credit enhances and encourages such beneficence in the future.

Both the Assembly and Senate have included the bill in their respective budget proposals. The governor – who vetoed the bill in 2015 and 2016 on the basis that it should be taken up as a budget matter – now has the opportunity to approve it.

The Farm to Food Bank bill might qualify as an easy request, while getting to the next important step will take some will. That is, doubling the minimum wage employee tax credits for farms. It is worth considering.

Farmers make a compelling case that most already pay more than the state minimum wage. The privilege many of us enjoy by simply heading to the market and choosing the most attractive piece of fruit, or pulling off the shelf the freshest carton of milk often does not include the history of how the food got there and how hard these skilled laborers work, often with farm owners at their side.

Without minimum wage employee tax credit relief, farmers are likely to turn more quickly to robotics. Farmers already have difficulty getting people to pick apples, and the problem is made worse by the Trump administration’s crackdown on workers who are in the country illegally. The deportation from enhanced immigration enforcement actions, coupled with the assumption that there will be no new agricultural guest worker program and no new adjustment to legal status for current workers, will have a harmful impact on New York farms.

An analysis by Farm Credit East Knowledge Exchange Program, based on the USDA Census of Agriculture, estimates approximately 1,080 New York farms are “highly vulnerable,” meaning they could go out of business or have significantly reduced operations.

Along with this damaging effect, New York agricultural production would be significantly reduced. Thousands of on-farm jobs would be eliminated, affecting U.S. citizens and undocumented workers alike. Thousands more agriculturally related businesses would be hurt and state agricultural production would fall, resulting in reduced economic activity and more imported food.

Congress should pass reforms that address the point and allow for current, trained workers to remain on farms, and without the inhibiting atmosphere that makes many afraid to leave even for a short errand. Farmers advocate replacing the H2A program with a new guest worker visa program. Until then, farmers should work with Congress to minimize negative impacts of farm labor shortages.

Our elected leaders play a pivotal role in bringing fresh food to America’s tables.

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