Within the next few months, the United States is projected to import more agricultural products than it exports for the first time in history — a worrisome development for America’s family farmers, who say government meddling threatens their livelihoods and the nation’s food security.
“The United States has never had any trouble feeding itself and much of the world, too,” said upstate New York farmer Tim Stanton. “I guess the politicians just figure we’ll keep going no matter what they do to us.
“But, you know, there is a limit.”
Farmers all over New York and New Jersey say they are being pushed to those limits by President Biden’s attack on energy, Gov. Hochul’s labor betrayal, foreign competition and other woes. Here, five of them describe their challenges.
‘I cannot compete with that farmer in Georgia’
George Cassaday’s family has grown produce at Cassaday Farms, Monroeville, NJ, since they arrived from Ireland in 1895 — and he’s about to throw in the towel because of federal laws, inflation and fake virtue-signaling.
“I am committed to being a farmer. I love to farm,” he said. “But I’m at the point now where I can’t grow vegetables anymore.”
Despite the Garden State’s “Jersey Fresh” branding campaign, Cassaday said, New York-area supermarket chains use deceptive marketing practices to fool consumers while undercutting local farmers.
“There’s a lot of fraud in produce,” he said. “There is no definition of what ‘local’ is. Local can be 500 miles away; local can be anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. So they lie to the public. They fool you into thinking you’re buying all this local stuff, and it’s not local at all.”
Store chains, he said, bring in sweet potatoes from Georgia — where, under federal law, seasonal farm workers make just $11.99 per hour, compared to the $15.54 hourly wage mandated in New Jersey.
“For New Jersey farmers, that pay rate went up $1.50 last year, and it went up $1 the year before that,” Cassaday said. “What with labor, fuel and fertilizer, my input costs have probably gone up 50%.”
Meanwhile, buyers — equally squeezed by inflation — are offering farmers less and less.
“One area chain store paid me $17 a box for my sweet potatoes three years ago,” he recalled. “Last year they paid me $15, and this year they told me they’re paying $13.”
“Next year I can’t plant them,” he said. “I cannot compete with that farmer in Georgia.”
Yet supermarkets keep touting their “local produce.”
“Bulls–t,” said Cassaday, 55. “It’s going to come to the point where there will be no local growers left and all our produce will be imported.”
‘Farmers are bitter’
According to third-generation New York grower Tim Stanton, farmers “in general are pretty optimistic people. But these last couple of years have taken the wind out of our sails.”
Now, he said, “farmers are bitter.”
His farm, Stanton’s Feura Farm & Markets, in Feura Bush, is located 10 miles outside Albany, and where he grows a huge range of produce for retail sales at the family’s own markets.
“We’re a highly diversified farm,” said Stanton, 60. That means 100 acres of varied fruits and vegetables, 500 acres of hay for nearby horse stables, a 10-acre pick-your-own apple orchard, fall hay rides and corn mazes and even a 50-head herd of beef cattle.
“That’s our insurance policy, basically,” he said. “Every year something doesn’t do well, but other things do.”
But the Biden administration’s energy policies have become a heavy burden.
“Biden is trying to get rid of fossil fuels, and it’s killing us,” Stanton said. “Our packaging costs almost doubled, fuel costs are through the roof, and we paid $1,000 a ton this year for fertilizer that was $500 a ton in 2021.” Natural gas is a key ingredient in nitrogen fertilizers.
“So we get hit twice,” he said. “It’s putting a lot of pressure on all of us.”
All six of Stanton’s adult children have worked by their father’s side, but only one of them, his oldest son, plans to take on the family legacy. “The biggest thing he’s pessimistic about is, What will the government do to interfere with this operation? That’s a horrible thing to have hanging over your head.”
“Farming is a hard, hard business,” Stanton said. “My son and I work 100 hours easily every week.
“We love it, seeing things come from nothing, putting a seed in the ground and seeing a crop come up. But these days it really takes that passion. It’s not a fun life if you don’t want to be here.”
‘We’re just treading water’
Ask Natasha Stein-Sutherland about the 1,000 cows and 800 heifers on Stein Farm, her family dairy farm in Le Roy, NY, and she turns rapturous.
“My cows are wonderful,” she said. “They are so joyous and so fun. I don’t anthropomorphize them. But when we treat them fairly, when we give them the best we can, they produce so much for us. It’s so rewarding.”
She feeds her herd a mostly home-grown diet of corn, alfalfa, sorghum and triticale produced on her 2,400 acres near Rochester, NY, and each animal wears a Fitbit-like device to monitor their health and optimize production.
“Farmers know we’ve got to be leaner, smarter, faster,” she said. “It’s the only way we’re going to survive.”
But federal and state mismanagement threatens to destroy her family’s three-generation commitment.
“These people will write legislation without making any effort to understand how agriculture works,” the 38-year-old said. “Whenever they try to help, they’re just putting a band-aid on a gushing, wide-open artery.”
The Biden administration’s latest ad-hoc program, $1.3 billion in debt relief for farmers facing foreclosure, does nothing to help functioning operations.
“We are diving further and further into our equity to stay afloat,” Stein-Sutherland said. “We’re just treading water.”
Meanwhile, she added, both Democrats and Republicans cynically use migrant workers — who perform crucial roles on many American farms — as a political football.
“I lived that life myself for a year,” said Stein-Sutherland, who worked as a migrant dairy worker in New Zealand, after attending Cornell.
“There, it was a path that was available. Here there’s nothing. It’s insanity,” she said. “How disrespectful to a human being can you be? It bothers me viscerally.”
‘We abandoned some apples this year’
Jim Bittner is fighting a losing battle against globalization and inflation at Bittner-Singer Orchards, his 350-acre wholesale tree-fruit farm in Appleton, NY.
“I used to be the largest grower of processing peaches in New York, for fruit cocktail and diced peaches,” said Bittner, 64, whose orchards — apples, cherries, peaches, plums, and more — thrive in the rich soil of the Lake Ontario shoreline.
“But we lost that peach processing market to China,” he added. “We had to remove all that acreage. There was no home for it.” American fruit canneries across the US have closed in recent years after China’s low labor costs sent prices for imported canned fruit plummeting, according to industry experts.
“I have a young peach orchard coming into production right now that was planted for processing and we’re going to have to cut it down. It’s heartbreaking.”
It takes up to five years of planning, planting and nurturing before a young tree produces fruit.
“Where are we going to be in five years?” Bittner asked. “That’s why most farmers right now are pulling back, not making investments in new plantings. Economists will tell you that’s the beginning of the end of a farm.”
Bittner, who employs his two grown sons and 30 seasonal workers, said this year’s skyrocketing fuel and labor costs made the harvest a risky gamble.
“We sell our apples to a packer, who pays for packaging, labor, storage and trucking out of what they get from the grocery stores,” he said. “Next year, in February, March, April, I’ll get paid what’s left.”
The near-nonexistent return on investment is forcing tough choices.
“We abandoned some apples this year that we did not pick — just walked away from two different orchards,” Bittner said.
“Now we’re sitting back wondering, gee, instead of planting trees, should we be talking to the solar developer about leasing land out for solar panels?”
‘We’re shooting ourselves in the foot’
Brian Reeves, a fourth-generation farmer from a family that has been tending the same 1,000-acre property west of Syracuse, NY, for more than a century, said years of state Democratic policies have crippled his business.
“The Democrats are setting New York up to be, in their eyes, a moral leader in labor law. In reality, they’re setting us up to be an island,” he said.
He grows 350 acres of berries and vegetables — squash, tomatoes, sweet corn, peppers and more — each year for retailers like Wegmans and Walmart.
But Reeves’ operation is about to take a direct hit from Gov. Kathy Hochul. Next year, the Democrat’s Labor Department plans to phase in a lower overtime-pay threshold for farm workers: an unrealistic standard for weather-dependent jobs, farmers say, that could all but eliminate local crops from New York’s markets.
“We have figured out the right answer to lift up people and make sure they get paid for the hard work they do,” Hochul said in July before her re-election this week.
“Strawberries and blueberries are two of the most labor-intensive things we do,” Reeves said. “They’re very delicate.” His family’s organic berries are hand-picked by workers who come from Mexico on special H-2A visas each harvest season. But more and more foreign workers are refusing New York farm jobs and instead heading to states where they can rack up more hours.
“The long haul is our perspective. But it’s really tough to get good, long-look policy decisions when all the forces of politics and business are thinking, ‘When’s my next election?’ or ‘Where’s my next profit?’” said Reeves, 65.
“People say they want to buy local, eat local. But we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”