October 19, 2021

State senators hear concerns at Homer farm tour

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

State Sen. Peter Oberacker (R-Schenevus) meets a calf Tuesday at New Hope View Farm in Homer. Oberacker and Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt discuss farmers’ financial issues with the farm’s co-owner, Brooke Head.

Filing in one by one, 40 dairy cows line up for their second milking of the day.

A farmworker attaches the automated milking machines — waits — then detaches the machines and cleans the udders.

The next group of cows files in, over and over until all 1,400 cows are milked.

“The cows have to be milked three times a day,” said Brooke Head, co-owner of New Hope View Dairy Farm
in Homer. “They have to be fed, they have to be cared for, their pens have to be cleared out.”

New Hope View is one of the largest farms in Cortland County, but the combination of an agricultural labor shortage, overtime for employees working more than 60 hours a week and nearly seven years of low market demand for dairy is putting it in danger of going out of business, Head said.

State Sen. Peter Oberacker (R-Schenevus) and Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt visited the farm Tuesday to hear what small farms are going through.

“The No. 1 goal was to actually sit back and listen, and what I heard was frustration and concern,” Oberacker said after Head took the politicians on a tour through the milking parlor.

Last December, the state Farm Laborers Wage Board elected to delay for a year enacting a 40-hour workweek, and reconsidering it this December. But farmers could see that threshold coming in a couple of months.

“If we were to go to 40 hours a week for employees, there is no doubt in our mind that we would have to sell this business, assuming there’s even a market for a dairy farm,” Head said. “Nobody wants to live this life, because we can’t survive on it.”

Last month, Oberacker and Ortt asked Gov. Kathy Hochul to consider supporting legislation to delay the 40-hour workweek until at least 2024. The bills — S.2690 in the Senate and its Assembly companion, A.3822 — were introduced in January, but never came out of committee.

“If legislation was proposed to improve the workforce by overtime hours, but farmworkers are saying
they want more hours, then what is the motivation to institute that?” Oberacker said.

“Nobody can afford to buy a facility and pay employees $23 an hour, especially when we’re at the mercy of the market — that is out of our control,” Head said. “My husband works seven days a week, picking up the slack for the employees that we can’t afford to hire.”

In 2019, New Hope View’s payroll cost about $13,000 each week, increasing to $16,000 in 2020, Head said. By 2021, the farm had five fewer employees, but the payroll was $18,000 due to minimum wage increases and overtime costs.

“We have had to borrow $260,000 from our bank to pay our employees,” Head said. “That’s just how much money we’ve had to borrow because we’re at such a loss. We are projected to borrow anywhere between $100,000 and $150,000 more before the end of December.”

Other changes in the bill would require the wage board to consult with agriculture employers and laborers, the commissioner of Agriculture and Markets and agricultural experts at Cornell University, and have annual public hearings leading to the decision-making deadline.