NORTHUMBERLAND — Farmers talked taxes, trade, minimum wage, hemp and the future of farming on Monday as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited King Brothers Dairy Farm.
Perdue stressed the need for better communication and educating the public on the benefits of a wholesome, healthy food supply to expand markets during a question-and-answer session.
“Communication is key. ... We lost a whole generation of milk drinkers. Whole milk is actually good for you,” he said.
Perdue toured the King Brothers operation and was joined by three members of Congress: Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, Rep. John Faso, R-Kinderhook, and Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford.
He is in the process of visiting farms across the country to better understand the issues facing farmers on the local level. Perdue was appointed by President Donald Trump and took over the post in April.
Farm Bureau President David Fisher, speaking to a crowd of about 50 people, said immigration and trade top the list of concerns for farmers at the 35,000 farms across New York.
Farm Bureau Vice President Eric Ooms placed the blame on NAFTA and Canadian farmers driving down milk prices due to overproduction.
“We are swimming in milk in New York,” he said.
Dairy producers are unhappy Canadian farmers started selling milk proteins to domestic processors at a discount due to Class 7, a new pricing deal, which curbed American imports.
Rep. Stefanik said, “Modernizing NAFTA and making sure we strengthen it, and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater as we go into these trade talks, is so important.”
According to Perdue, President Trump wants an agreement.
“Class 7 and Canada are hindering prices. It is against the spirit of NAFTA,” Perdue said.
Jeff King, of King Brothers Dairy, said his sons will be entering college for agriculture and he hopes when they return they will want to take over the business.
The Kings attribute their success to a strong network of farmers, competition and farming groups such as 4-H and FFA.
“We are very fortunate,” King said.
Milk production on site offers a unique aspect to the business. His cows milk from the barns, and the milk is pasteurized and bottled right on site.
“It adds to the quality, freshness and taste,” King said.
Perdue certainly didn’t mind pausing for a second chocolate milk while taking questions.
He also addressed the plight of small farms.
“It is a matter of surviving. ... Most are just trying to hold on to what they have,” he said. “We are losing a lot of small dairy farms because that economy of scale.”
Small farms face land challenges, with the transition of suburbanization of communities, central agriculture production and environmental issues, Perdue said.
Rep. Tenney placed the blame on state government.
“We have some of the highest property taxes. Farmers rely on having large tracts of land. ... Some farmers mentioned the enormous minimum wage that has been imposed on farms in New York that is higher than the national wage and higher than our neighboring states and people that fall under a similar milk order determination.
“They are putting our farmers at a huge disadvantage,” Tenney said.
It is not all bad news.
Perdue said the Northeast is leading the way when it comes to production methods and technology and “farms are growing.”
A new product that lacks federal support is hemp. New York has already pledged support for more research with $10 million in grant funding.
State officials are hoping the federal regulation of hemp will be reclassified in an updated version of the Farm Bill.
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, is among those.
“Two billion dollars of hemp is imported annually into the United States,” she said.
Woerner said hemp is a good rotational crop to go along with corn and soybeans.
New York has joined a handful of other states in support of growing hemp for industrial uses, which range from pet food and animal bedding to paint and fabrics.
Nearly a hundred people attended a question-and-answer session last month at Washington County Fairgrounds.
Perdue did acknowledge the difficulties behind the cash crop.
“It is tough to regulate in nature, because there is an unregulated crop associated with it,” Perdue said.