Senate to act on 15 bills aimed at boosting agriculture industry

The state Senate on Wednesday is expecting to take up a package of 15 bills aimed at strengthening and preserving agriculture as one of the state’s leading industries.

More than 36,000 farms in New York generate about $4.7 billion in statewide economic activity each year. The bipartisan bills unveiled Wednesday would help support farm workforce retention and expansion and create new tax credits for preserving more farmland. Other bills would help farmers transition to organic certification, promote the use of local produce in schools and help prepare new farmers for successful careers.

Senator Patty Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, is chair of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee and sponsor of many of the bills going to the floor on Wednesday. Ritchie says her conference has helped restore $55 million in proposed agriculture funding cuts since 2011.

Among the legislation on the calendar for Wednesday — National Agriculture Day — is a bill that would double the existing Farm Workforce Retention Credit (S.2905). Sponsored by Ritchie, the bill would help farmers meet consumer demands with a strong and steady workforce. The bill increases the Farm Workforce Retention Credit to $500 per eligible employee this year, and $1,200 per employee when fully effective, saving farmers an estimated $60 million when fully implemented.

Another bill would help schools purchase local produce (S.1430), sponsored by Ritchie, that would allow school districts offering bids for food services to include language that favors local or regional farm producers. This bill aims to expand the market for local produce, encourage larger distributors to invest in smaller farms, and could help co-ops or farms without the resources to independently participate in a bidding process to access local school procurement programs.

A bill to create a “Future Agriculture Readiness Marketing” Camp (S.4660), sponsored by Ritchie, would give new farmers the knowledge and tools they need to promote their businesses. This legislation would establish the Future Agriculture Readiness Marketing, or F.A.R.M., Camp. The camp would be offered once yearly to a select group of successful farmers to expose them to several of the best agriculture programs in the state. An exclusive group of graduates from the program will also be granted additional aid in the form of grant funds to help them make their marketing plan a reality.

Another piece of legislation would increase access to farmland for new farmers. The bill (S.4900), sponsored by Ritchie, directs the State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Office of General Services to develop an inventory of state-owned real property that may be viable for farming. This would help younger farmers overcome frequent barriers that prevent them from gaining access to land and contribute to the aging of the farming population, such as the complex process of transferring ownership of farms and prohibitive capital costs.

Another bill would help conserve productive land. Bill S,2479, sponsored by Ritchie, would create a statewide blueprint for conserving productive land and maintaining the vitality of agricultural production in New York state. The measure would require the state to propose programs that encourage the growth of emerging trends and practices that might benefit small- to mid-sized farms.

The Senate is considering another bill to create farm savings account (S.3835), which is also sponsored by Senator Ritchie. Specifically, the bill would establish a tax-deferred farm savings account that will allow farmers to self-insure part of their risk to counteract strong cyclical downturns in the farm economy. Some of the methods used by farmers to help offset losses due to weather or other market forces include delaying the purchase of equipment and the repayment of loans. A farm savings account will offer farmers another management tool to help offset their costs.

Bill S.4021 would establish a young farmer advisory board designed to advise and make recommendations on policies and programs affecting agriculture. Young and beginning farmers play a fundamental role in preventing the threat posed by the gradual aging of famers and in the future success and growth of New York farms.

A bill (S.4721) sponsored by Ritchie would provide tax credits to help farmers transition to organic farming, reducing the uncertainty when attempting to achieve USDA Organic Certification by providing them with an expanded market for their products and greater financial security during the transition period. A companion bill (S.562), sponsored by Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, would create a real property tax exemption for the lands of a farm operation that are transitioning to organic.

In 2011, New York ranked third in the nation in the total amount of organic farms with 597, with the state’s certified organic farms selling a total of $107 million produced commodities. This credit would foster the growth of these farms and is similar to an existing tax exemption for the replanting of vineyards and orchards.

“Consumers place a higher premium on safe, fresh, and locally-grown organic fruits, vegetables, and other farm products,” Young said. “New York’s farms are rising to meet this demand, and establishing a property tax exemption to help farms transition to organic operations would provide financial stability and increase the likelihood for success.”

Senator Joe Griffo, R-Rome, sponsors a bill (S.4265) that would lift size restrictions on wine ice cream. Currently, the minimum packaging requirements is at least one pint. But the will would change the requirements to help farm-owned stores meet consumer demand for smaller containers for weddings, fundraisers, recreational tours and other events.

Sen. Rich Funke, R-Fairport, sponsors a bill to create the Healthy Options and Community Outreach Program (S.943) to increase public awareness and address the issue of “food deserts.” A new tax credit would go to small grocers and convenience store operators who commit to selling healthy food and drinks at their shops. Up to 100 percent of a project’s cost could be eligible for the tax credit if the owner expands or purchases coolers and shelving for the purposes of selling healthier food options.

“In my community, which is home to some of the most challenged neighborhoods in the country, access to healthy, affordable food continues to be a barrier for too many families,” Funke said. “Our common sense solution would help more small shops stock fresh produce on their shelves and break-up the food deserts that exist in too many neighborhoods across our state. Together, we can feed a healthier, stronger and more prosperous New York.”

A bill (S.4535) sponsored by Sen. Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua, encourages farmers — particularly those located in parts of the state with greater development pressure — to participate in farmland preservation efforts and remain stewards of their land for future generations. The bill changes the maximum acreage for agricultural assessment of farm woodlands from 50 acres to 100 acres, making more plots eligible for preservation.

Legislation aimed at helping timber harvesters (S.368), sponsored by Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, authorizes the Department of Environmental Conservation to execute contracts for timber or other forest products valued at under $50,000 without approval from the state comptroller. Currently, any contract to harvest more than $10,000 of timber on non-protected state lands must be approved by DEC and the State Comptroller’s office, which can be time consuming and jeopardize timber harvesting timeframes.

“The Department of Environmental Conservation would maintain oversight and ensure these jobs are done right,” Little said. “The point is to cut through the bureaucracy a bit faster by taking one agency out of the mix on small contracts.”

Promoting farm cideries is the goal of another bill (S.1078), sponsored by Sen. David Valesky, D-Oneida, would expand products sold by farm cideries and authorize such cideries to sell cider to other licensees for resale. Valesky sponsors a second bill (S.1240) that allows the New York State Thruway Authority to cut in half the normal toll for farmers who are in the process of transporting agricultural products. This measure would help give farmers some relief on high transportation costs for when they travel to ship goods to markets throughout the state.

“Our upstate farms provide fresh produce to so many markets downstate and providing a toll discount will help connect this state to locally grown food,” Valesky said. “We need to support our local farmers by expanding business opportunities, which is why I’m also proud to support expanding sales possibilities at our local farm cideries, so that our producers could sell each others’ products and also market fresh pastries to complement their beverages. This is a great way to support products made right here in New York.”

Finally, a bill (S.1333) sponsored by Senator Leroy Comrie, D-Queens, provides a mechanism for the state develop an agriculture and food awards program that would be provided to farmers, manufacturers and processors that produce exceptional products using locally-sourced ingredients, and also the businesses that make a special effort to market and promote them. These awards could also be presented to restaurants, food retailers, and schools and colleges that feature and promote New York farm foods.

“New York is world-famous for our agricultural products and our farmers deserve more recognition for that fact,” Comrie said.

Last week, the Senate passed a budget resolution that included $60 million in tax relief for farmers by doubling the existing Farm Workforce Retention Credit, as outlined in bill S.2905; $10 million to help make additional investments in county fair facilities so that New Yorkers can continue to learn about agriculture and farms in their area; and $3 million for drought relief in parts of Central and Western New York when lack of rain in 2016 caused severe crop losses.

The Senate’s budget also includes $1.8 million to expand access for 120,000 seniors to get free, fresh produce at area farmers markets; $500,000 to help farmers with questions about employment laws and regulations by providing access to Cornell-based specialists; and $450,000 to help farmers expand to new markets, especially those needing assistance to achieve organic certification;

The Senate’s budget also includes finding to create an expansion of Pathways in Technology (P-TECH) agriculture programs to create opportunities for high school students to achieve credits towards college study in agriculture.