Rokosz Most: I understand you passed a bill passed that compels the Department of Agriculture to develop and maintain a directory of New York state farms and farm products. That seems pretty common sense but why that is important?
Michelle Hinchey: For me, the thought of having a farm database to make it easier to find where not only people, but also nonprofits, schools, different organizations in the community can purchase locally, I thought would be something that would be really helpful. And when we looked around, we realized that that database didn’t exist.
It was one of the first bills that I had thought of because you’re right, it feels like it should have already existed. But it didn’t… one of the ways that I have started to promote the agricultural sector is by expanding markets.
If we can give our New York farmers more places to sell their goods, it helps their bottom line. It’s not mandatory. There’s an opt-out for farms and farmers so they can choose to not be on the list if they don’t want to but for those that do, if you’re in the business of selling your goods, you probably want to promote it and especially over the last few years we saw through the pandemic, how broken our supply chains are, there’s been a return to local food.
More and more people coming up into our communities want to find a farmers’ market, or they want to find a local farm. They want to know that it’s clean, good food not being pumped with hormones and other types of chemicals, so having another place where farmers can go and people can search by location and type of goods I thought would be something that would be really helpful. And that’s in process now.
Most: The NYS Labor commissioner issued an order to change the limit of when overtime pay kicks in, from the current 60 hour work week to 40 hours for farm laborers. With farmers in New York having to pay their laborers more than say, farmers in Pennsylvania, how will their prices be able to stay competitive?
Hinchey: This is something actually that I don’t think a lot of farmers know. In the budget this year, basically we created a farm workforce, overtime tax credit, which covers 118 percent of additional overtime costs. I was just at a farmers’ market this weekend and had a conversation with a farmer in Greene County, and she was concerned that she would have to stop selling a lot of specialty crops. But now with the tax credit, she won’t. So any cost over the 40 hours and it covers any unemployment insurance, it covers workers comp, all of those additional costs. There is also an upfront payment available to help farmers with cash flow, and it’s out twice a year.
Farmers typically do their taxes quarterly. We fought for quarterly payments but we ended up getting it twice a year, which is still better than once a year. All of that to say, we know that our farmers are struggling. And especially our small and mid-sized family farms. Those in New York don’t often get the support from the federal government like the huge farms out in the Midwest or California.
And so we have to keep them in business, which is why this tax credit was so important to make sure that we can keep them, not just from an economic perspective, here in the state but because we need a local food supply. They’re doing really important work. And so it’s now important for government to step in and help. And if we are doing our jobs right over the next 10 years, but hopefully sooner, by expanding more markets and solidifying their economic base, they’ll be in good financial standing for a long time to come.
Most: Could you speak about the Nourish NY initiative? What it is, how it came about?
Hinchey: “Yes, this program is really important and one of the silver linings to come out of the pandemic.
I remember this distinctly. I’ll never forget it. I was watching the [governor Cuomo’s] addresses during the pandemic, as we all did every day at 11 a.m. and it was day 55, where he finally acknowledged that farmers were dumping milk and that produce was dying on the vine.
At the same time, we had seen for weeks, people lining up around food banks and food pantries wondering where their next meal was coming from. And the Nurture New York program, I think, from that moment, was born. It started off as just surplus goods, when there was that acknowledgment of dumping milk and produce dying on the vine, the state bought surplus goods from farmers because the restaurants had closed and then gave that food to food banks and food pantries across the state.
And what we did was expand that program. It was just a program out of Agriculture and Markets that was created in the pandemic legislation. We codified it into law by writing legislation, and we expanded it from being surplus goods to now just a just a permanent market for farmers. And the state will now continue to buy from farmers and give to food, food banks and food pantries across the state. And now, because it is a permanent state program, we will always be able to be fighting for funding in the budget for it.
It won’t just be at the whim of the executive. No matter who you are, where you come from, what your economic status, you deserve to eat locally sourced, healthy food. It’s just so critically important. Making sure everybody’s eating good food and has access to good food is really important.
Most: Talking to different farm owners the competitive price of produce that comes from surrounding markets seems to be a real concern. Tomatoes, for instance, that come from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where they pay their workers about half, or less than what New York mandates, will by default be cheaper.
Because of the commerce clause basically prohibits individual states from say slapping tariffs on the tomatoes of Pennsylvania, how do we protect New York’s farm products from being undercut?
Hinchey: As you stated with the commerce clause, we can’t always just incentivize New York agriculture because of interstate commerce law but we have a lot of state agencies that procure food and we should, as a state, be buying New York State food. We can’t go from zero to one hundred immediately because those supply chains don’t exist, right, at the scale for our farmers. They need to know what the demand is to be able to produce to be able to grow and that all takes time.
But I sponsored a bill that passed through the senate this year, but didn’t make it through the assembly, that’s a priority for next year, that requires all state agencies that buy food, you know Department of Corrections, to the Department of Health to OPWDD and the Office of Mental Health to buy, to phase in up to 20 percent and then increasing to 25 percent New York food and New York products.
That, to me, is a really important bill because it will provide direct supply chain demand for our farmers. It keeps our tax dollars local in a circular economy here in New York State. It’ll help our rural communities and our rural economies bolstering it, in that it creates dedicated, definite demand for our farmers. And it’ll remove a lot of the dependence on you know, the Wegmans of the world say you know, who are kind of shopping in bulk across the country and they can get something cheaper in Florida or New Jersey or Pennsylvania. But we will be buying locally here in New York and it removes some of that kind of scary dependence on the outside forces and makes New York the number one buyer.
We’ll have to pass it again this coming year again in the senate but the good thing is, because it’s already passed once, and it’s been vetted through the process with counsel, I can push to get it passed for us earlier in the year, which then puts more pressure on the assembly to get that done.
Most: Since governor Hochul signed MRTA (the Marijuana Legislation and Taxation Act) on March 31 into law there’s been new attention focused on farming cannabis in the state as a viable economic commodity. There’s a bill you sponsored which amends the agriculture and markets law in regards to industrial hemp…
Hinchey: So one of the reasons why I was really proud and excited to vote for the MRTA, one, was because I believe we’re behind the times, and I’m hopeful that there’ll be some federal changes as well. You know, I mean, president Biden pardoning low-level marijuana drug offenses is a big signal in that direction from the federal government.
But one of the other reasons why I was excited are the opportunities with industrial hemp. It is a commodity that has so much potential, if manufactured and processed correctly, and the technology exists, it can actually remove plastic from our world. It could take over that industry. There’s a company in France that makes car dashboards out of hemp. We should be doing that production here in the state of New York and in our rural communities.
There’s so much opportunity to, quite frankly, and not hyperbolically, save our planet, with investing in hemp production. Clothing, paper, building materials, it’s even known it can clean brownfields. It’s just a really miraculous plant. And so my thinking is to help kickstart this industry, because it’s not really happening anywhere right now at the scale that I believe it could or should be.
But I want to make sure that we are the leaders in it here in New York, we have the market share and we are pushing it forward and really leading in it. My way to kickstart that market is to require all cannabis packaging, which is often single-use plastics, to be made with hemp. It will kickstart the market as a biodegradable product.
Most: So I imagine the petroleum lobby sees this coming and doesn’t like it.
Hinchey: I’m sure they don’t. But we’ve already shown in New York that we don’t buckle to that kind of pressure. This is the right thing to do. We have to get off fossil fuels in all capacities. The amount of pressure in the State of New York to not ban fracking. Bringing it up saying when are we bringing fracking back? Not happening.
Most: There seems to be some overlap on land considered viable for farming that is also attractive to those looking to site solar panel installations, which makes sense since both crops and solar panels feed on sunlight. How can those competing interests be balanced fairly for farmers?
Hinchey: We know we need renewable energy. We needed it fifty years ago, in no way are the bills that we’re talking about trying to undermine the development and creation of renewable energy, because we need a planet to live on. At the same time, we need a food supply as well. And because of the current crisis, because of our lack of action, over the last, you know, multiple decades, we are going to continue to see even if we hit the goals here in New York for the CLCPA (Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act) tomorrow, even if we did that, we’re going to continue to see over the next 20 years, even 15 years, Florida underwater, California on fire and Midwest facing severe droughts.
That is nearly all of our agricultural land that feeds our country, and that means that food production is shifting back to the Northeast, making our region and really New York the breadbasket of our country, once again, as we were early in the founding of our country.
And so protecting our farmland is not just important business but it’s also a national security crisis. Protecting our farmland here in New York is critically important as it pertains to, arable land is under a lot of pressures from solar development because the easiest and cheapest place to build a solar development is on clear flat land. We don’t believe we should incentivize solar development on our farmland.
We’re not saying no solar development can happen on any farmland. There’s private property rights. There’s acres of farmland that are not farmable on farms, there’s lots of different situations. And if someone wants to sell their land, that’s a conversation. But it shouldn’t be promoted as the one of the number-one places to build it here in the State of New York because we need farmland in production, We have a lot of brownfields across our country, there’s parking lots, there’s tons of other places to build them.
Most: There was a bill which was passed last year dealing with soil health and climate resiliency. What does that mean and what does it do?
Hinchey: So that was a bill that we passed last year. And it was the first time that we updated the State Soil health laws since the dustbowl in the 1830s. Climate resilient farming are things like limited till or no till, cover cropping, basically the main part is helping to sequester carbon. Farmers are going to be directed to sequester 20% of the state’s carbon emissions. So this bill takes a bunch of steps forward to scale sustainable soil health practices, which will help increase carbon sequestration, both to meet the goals and improve water quality, and then promote resilience to extreme weather events.
And so that I think encapsulates perfectly for me, the challenges, agriculture has faced, but also the opportunities we have to really support our farmers and to create a game changing moment for agriculture here in New York. Farmers are already doing so much of the best practices, especially as it pertains to the environment both to meet the goals and improve water quality, and then promote resilience to extreme weather events. And so having this now allows us to actually support our farmers with the climate resilient farming, ecosystem management they’re already doing.
And because of this bill, we were able to get I believe it was 100 million more dollars in the EPF Environmental Protection Fund for climate-resilient farming, which is huge The reason I ran for office was to actually get stuff done, and pick up a bunch of the issues that I feel and I see have been left on the table in our rural communities for too long.
Fifty-two of the 53 bills that I passed to the legislature passed with wide bipartisan support, because we’re coming up with real tangible, thoughtful solutions that actually help our economies. We’ve just actually got to start talking about these things and getting some real solutions across the board for our upstate communities and that’s what I’ve been focused on with my chairmanship.
Most: Well, I think I’ve taken up enough of your time, I really appreciate you answering these questions and talking policy with me.
Hinchey: Thank you.