Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to raise the state minimum wage worries farmers who rely on a relatively higher-paid workforce, unlike the fast-food workers and others in low-paying jobs who have been the focus of an aggressive campaign to fatten paychecks.
Farmers fear it would put even more pressure on payrolls being driven up by demand for the hard-to-fill jobs. A recent report showed New York farm workers in general are already making more that minimum.
Cuomo's proposal would gradually lift the hourly minimum from $9 to $15 by 2021.
Sarah Dressel, who returned home after graduating from Cornell University to help run her family's 300-acre apple farm in New Paltz, said a minimum wage increase would "completely decimate any profits that we have."
The farm generally pays its 30 year-round and 27 seasonal workers above minimum wage, though Dressel declined to say how much.
"It's very hard work. If someone can go fry french fries for eight hours, why would they come pick apples, and for longer hours?" Dressel said.
Ken Migliorelli grows 100 acres of fruit and 350 acres of vegetables in the Hudson Valley for sale in New York City's greenmarkets. He said he's transitioning some of his fields to grains, which bring less revenue than vegetables but require far less labor.
"If they raise the minimum wage to $15 and require time-and-a-half overtime pay for farmworkers, that'll put a lot of strain on growers," said Migliorelli, who employs about 30 production workers, a third of them full-time. "I don't want to be in a position where I need so much labor."
Farm Credit East, a lender for the agriculture industry in the Northeast, reports that farmhand pay in New York has been above the minimum wage for at least the past 10 years.
According to the Farm Credit's February 2016 analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data:
— New York farmworkers were paid an average of 50.2 percent more than the minimum over the decade. Farms paid $12.46 an hour last year, when the minimum wage was $8.75. It increased to $9 at the turn of the year.
— The increase proposed by Cuomo would cost an additional $387 million to $622 million in labor annually for farms across the state.
An Associated Press analysis of USDA census data showed that if the current trend continues to 2021, the wages for farmworkers would reach $15.26 an hour without a mandated increase in the minimum and $22.50 if the minimum grows. A lower estimate reflecting the cyclical nature of the agriculture industry and the possibility of a downturn would bring the wage to $13.58 by 2021.
Increasing wages would also increase payroll taxes and insurance, said Steve Ammerman, public affairs manager for the New York Farm Bureau. A case study released by the bureau showed total costs could increase anywhere from $29,000 for smaller farms to $850,000 for larger farms with more than 100 employees.
Gina Blakemore, who with her husband owns a dairy farm in Horseheads, said that she'd like to pay workers more, but that it's just not financially possible for their farm. She currently pays an average of $11 an hour, but wages vary depending on seniority and performance.
"We've always said we can never compensate our employees what they're worth," she said. "It's hard to pay them a living wage. I feel that we do, I hope that we do."
In the end, Blakemore predicts, they'd have to let two of their four employees go and start milking two times per day instead of three.
Reflecting current pressures on the industry, some farmers, like Pamela Schreiber, can't afford to pay workers right now. Because of production costs and taxes, she said, she can't afford to pay health insurance at her small organic farm in Westerlo. Instead, she hires interns one at a time who can live on the farm with free room and board.
"More support needs to be in place to help small family farms before they burden us with this wage increase . but it's a shame that I have to say that, because farmworkers work so hard," Schreiber said. "It's a sad paradox."
The Cuomo administration downplays the hardship the increased minimum wage will put on businesses in general, noting it's being gradually phased in.
"The administration is more than prepared to work with the agriculture industry to address the concerns they have," said Alphonso David, counsel to the governor. "The reason the minimum wage is being increased is because people are living in poverty."