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Legislators listen as farmers, agriculture leaders criticize labyrinth of state regulations

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Farmers and regulations don’t mix.

That was the message state legislators will take back to Albany after listening to testimony from farmers and agriculture leaders Thursday during a public forum at the Dulles State Office Building in Watertown. The forum was hosted by a bipartisan group of legislators led by state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. Sens. Patrick M. Gallivan, David J. Valesky and Kathleen A. Marchione joined Mrs. Ritchie on a panel that has set out to identify 1,000 job-killing regulations that can be eliminated by organizing 10 industry-specific reform hearings across the state.

Topics raised often by speakers are burdensome requirements for driving farm vehicles, long delays to acquire funding for programs and regulations for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. About two dozen people attended the afternoon forum.

Sackets Harbor dairy farmer Ronald C. Robbins, whose 950-cow farm employs 35 year-round and 25 seasonal workers, said that keeping track of state regulations has become a major headache. Though the farm has kept abreast of technological advancements in the industry, Mr. Robbins said, a swath of ever-changing state regulations has dampened its opportunities for success. He quickly rattled off names of five state agencies and six federal agencies that issue regulations.

This past winter, the U.S. Department of Transportation conducted an audit at Robbins Family Grain off County Route 145. This particular audit was a success, Mr. Robbins said, because the requirements were explained clearly and the farm was in compliance. But the farm soon ran into a major hurdle, when Mr. Robbins discovered that state requirements for transportation on farms are much more cumbersome.

“These blue-card regulations for workers to drive vehicles are so unworkable,” he said. “We can only drive 25 miles north and south, and if we make changes to our routes then that needs to be changed on the card. Regulations have taken up so much time here that we’re thinking about hiring someone full time to focus on regulatory compliance.”

Mr. Robbins also is dissatisfied with the process by which annual funding is approved by agencies in Albany. As a board member for the New York State Farm Viability Institute, which funds research to develop commodity crops in the north country, he has been frustrated by how long it takes state agencies to approve funding.

This spring, the state Legislature approved $1.7 million to fund the farmer-led nonprofit group. But because the funding won’t be received until later this fall, it couldn’t be used for research completed during the harvest season. Now, the non

nonprofit will be compelled to go through the legislative process again to reappropriate those unspent funds, he said, and will have to explain why the money wasn’t spent.

“Our board has gotten away from our mission of finding valuable programs to invest in, because we’re always dealing with this process,” Mr. Robbins said. “It’s frustrating because I’m the type of guy who wants to see things get done, and the industry won’t grow without education and research programs.”

Eric Behling, owner of Behling’s Orchards in the town of Mexico, said state regulations that have increased over the years have put the business at a disadvantage.

“Fresh apple cider is very popular here, but state law requires us to have an ultraviolet light that needs to be inspected every three years,” Mr. Behling said to illustrate. “The cost of these inspections has tripled, and there’s only one person available in the region to do it, in Massachusetts. But if I don’t do it, I’ll have to shut down my operation. When I’m sitting down and doing my paperwork for these regulations, that’s time I could spend better out in the farm.”

Jefferson County Agricultural Coordinator Jay M. Matteson said one culprit that has hurt farmers the most over the past 25 years is the state government. He told senators they should consider approving a 10-year moratorium on creating new dairy regulations or amending existing ones.

“If you want to make real changes to help the industry in New York state, you don’t need to change the CAFO threshold to do it,” Mr. Matteson said. “All you need is for farmers to know they have a stable regulatory environment so they can make investments without worrying about new regulations. You’ve set a high bar, but let’s not keep changing it.”

Legislators also should focus on how to force utilities such as National Grid to offer affordable three-phase power needed by farms to operate heavy equipment, Mr. Matteson said. He said they should oppose the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill that would grant mandatory overtime pay and collective bargaining rights to farmworkers. The bill has been criticized by farmers, who point out that workers could go on strike during peak harvest times, he said.

“Farmers I’ve spoken with have said they would hire only part-time employees to avoid having to pay overtime” if the bill passes, Mr. Matteson said.

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