From limits on foreign workers to encouraging women to consider agriculture as a career, farmers on Friday described a host of ways the government can affect one of New York’s biggest industries.
Roughly 50 people attended a forum at SUNY-Cobleskill with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Gillibrand, the first New Yorker in 40 years to serve on the U.S. Senate’s Agriculture Committee, held an hour-long listening session in the college’s Center for Environmental Science and Technology. Farmers had no shortage of input.
Carlisle sheep farmer Linda Cross suggested the government encourage more women to enter the agricultural field. SUNY-Cobleskill professor Zhongchun Jiang suggested expanding the focus on turf grass as a major industry.
Complicated issues like the way the federal government determines the price farmers get for their milk are important, said Peter Ten Eyck of Indian Ladder Farms. But he said it’s essential policy makers do their part to make sure farming is seen as a critical part of today’s society. Otherwise, Ten Eyck said, hungry people will be “waving money in the air and hoping somebody’s going to bring us something to eat.”
Though farm subsidies and milk prices have an impact in the billions of dollars, Cobleskill dairy farmer John Radliff said legislators don’t have to spend a lot of money to affect the lives of farmers. Radliff told Gillibrand a program lost in New York’s state funding crisis might have saved the life of his good friend David Huse, a Richmondville beef farmer who died in an accident last year.
Huse was riding on a tractor without a roll bar, he said. Radliff said he’s unsure if a roll bar would have saved Huse’s life, but New York cut funding for the rebate program that pays farmers 70 percent of the cost of the safety device.
Radliff said farmers and legislators can talk about the economy, regulations and profitability, “but when people are dying, families are hurting … that should be the most important thing we talk about.”
Gillibrand outlined several issues she is focusing on in the committee. They include exploring different ways to collect data to avoid fluctuating milk prices. The current system is “outdated,” she said.
A greater emphasis on conservation programs, funding for “Buy Local” and value added initiatives and making sure farmers have access to capital are all issues Gillibrand said she will focus on.
“We want to create a way for our farms to stay in business and to prosper,” she said.
At about 1 p.m. Gillibrand stopped at Fulton-Montgomery Community College to discuss unemployment issues related to military veterans, or at least she tried to. Business and political leaders from Fulton and Montgomery counties met her at the college and most of them wanted to talk about problems with the broader economy.
Jim Taylor, owner of the Gloversville-based Taylor Made Group, said his company, a manufacturer with facilities in several states, cut staff from 1,700 down to 500 two years ago and has only been able to raise employment to about 800 since then. He gave Gillibrand a list of impediments to manufacturing in New York state.
“This is ludicrous what’s going on. You want to come here and talk specifically about veterans. I’ve got news for you, that’s a minuscule problem,” he said. “We pay 18 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity, my plants in Indiana and Ohio are paying 7 and 8 cents. Our workers comp costs are huge here. After the new health care law was passed our rates went up by 16.5 percent. We paid $4 million for health insurance last year, we’ll pay $5 million next year. You want us to create jobs? Help us control the cost of government.”
George Kline, the owner of a vehicle dealership in Johnstown, echoed Taylor’s concerns about the rising cost of health insurance.
“The biggest thing we’ve faced is a massive increase in health-care costs. Over the last two straight years we’ve had 22 and 23 percent increases in our health-care costs and we’ve actually taken what was a very good health plan for us a few years ago and knocked it down three or four notches because we just can’t afford it,” Kline said.
Gillibrand, who voted in favor of the landmark health reform law passed last year, said most of its provisions won’t go into effect until 2014 and she doesn’t understand why rates are going up now. She said she suspects health insurance companies are trying to increase profits before the health care reform is fully implemented, and she said she wants a federal investigation into spiking health insurance rates.
“A lot of us are worried that these insurers are raising rates unfairly and that’s something we need to look at,” she said.
Gillibrand asked the business leaders if they had any ideas for how to increase hiring of military veterans. Kline said it would be useful if an official list were created that indicated who the veterans are.
“It isn’t as though we know who they are, unless they tell us,” he said.
The rate of unemployed veterans who’ve served since Sept. 11, 2001, has risen from 12.6 percent last year to about 15 percent, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics provided by Gillibrand. The federal government estimates as many as 325 Mohawk Valley veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are unemployed.
Some of the programs Gillibrand advocated include extending a tax credit program allowing companies to write off 40 percent of the first $6,000 they pay to veterans who’ve served within the last five years.
Gail Breen, the executive director of the Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie County Workforce Development Board, said her organization gives priority services to veterans.
“They have priority for all of our training services, whether it’s classroom training or on-the-job training, but what we’re finding with service people returning home is they have great training but no certifications. They need a piece of paper in their hands from the military that says ‘I was trained in electronics,’ ” Breen said.
Gillibrand said she thinks Breen’s idea is a good one and she will take the idea to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
Johnstown resident Ernie Mrazz, who said he’s an active member of the Democratic Party, said he is a Vietnam War veteran and he believes one of the most important things is for veterans to increase awareness of programs to help veterans.
“A lot of these programs were available when I got out 40 years ago, but we weren’t aware of them and a lot of the businesses weren’t aware of them. I think what she’s doing is helpful to get this dialogue going with the businesses.”