To better understand the experiences of farmers in the 23rd congressional district, Democratic challenger Tracy Mitrano talked with Michael Lausell, Schuyler County legislator and a raiser of beef cattle, and Marc Smith, a retired senior extension associate at Cornell University's Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, during her June 2 Tuesday Talks With Tracy.

“There’s a great deal of concern and pain that have occurred in this agricultural community,” Mitrano said. “Last year, in the western part of New York State, we had 11 suicides among dairy farmers.”

Lausell pointed out that Schuyler county has variation in its agriculture, including wineries, dairies, cattle farms and vegetable farms, and he discussed COVID-19’s impact on them.The pandemic has started to “disrupt” some of their operations. 

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“Farmers that had cattle ready to go, the slaughter house wasn’t taking them,” Lausell said. “It does seem like some of that may be coming down a little, but I’ve been struck by how much farmers have had to try to figure out another solution because they can’t sell to restaurants.”

Lausell listed examples of this adaption: farmers offering online ordering, pick-up services growing in popularity and slaughterhouses arranging deliveries.    

Smith, who grew up on a dairy farm in Livingston County, spoke on the agricultural significance of the 23rd congressional district to New York State as well as the adaptations agricultural businesses have made during the pandemic and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s response to COVID-19. 

“This district, the way it’s currently composed, depending on how you measure it, it’s the most important agricultural congressional district,” Smith said. “There are 13,000 farmers and almost 9,000 farms in your district, and I’m not sure if everybody knows that.”

Smith said he has confidence in the resilience of agricultural businesses. 

“Once they are able to fully open, they’ll be doing it in some very creative ways,” Smith said. 

Smith also said the supply chain for perishable food products such as milk, fruits and vegetables has been disrupted by the pandemic — hence, the spilling of milk and the lack of it on store shelves.

Smith said a main reason for this is the slow response of the USDA, which has the duty of buying up perishable products and redistributing them when regular chains are broken.  

Mitrano, Lausell and Smith also discussed dairy processors, minimum milk pricing, regional markets and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019. Mitrano brought up dairy processors, also known as co-ops, and the issues that come with monopolies created by co-ops. A dairy co-op is a business jointly managed by many people, mostly farm owners, who work together to produce and sell the products of all the farms under its ownership. 

“If all of the processors are pretty much organized around one or two major processors, then farmers don’t have a free market to compete and operate in,” Mitrano said. “They’re either in that processing vein or they lose their dairy farming business. We have had at least 250 dairy farms a year, since 2014, going out of business in this district.”

Mitrano blamed the suicide statistic she gave on the fact that farmers have lost their ability to function within the standards of their processors. 

“It does seem that farming is such an unpredictable business,” Lausell said.

Referring to COVID-19, Lausell noted, “These disruptions take a terrible toll on the farmers themselves.” 

Smith added that the taking of a farmer’s access to market as a result of the system of processors is a long-standing issue.

“The departure of farms from the industry can be caused by that,” Smith said. “Certainly, a big disruption like this, as Mike says, it takes you out, whether you’re in good stead with your buyer or not. I think that trend is inevitably going to continue.”

Smith responded to a viewer's question on the pros and cons of putting a minimum on milk pricing, saying some value exists but the danger lies in how much prices swing. 

“The messages that those prices send are, if it’s too high, it says, put lots more cows on and chase your neighbors out of business, until there’s too much milk and then the price goes down again,” Smith said. “I think what’s more important than setting floors is probably an ability to deal with those swings in prices.” 

A viewer asked the panelists about the possibility of regional markets that would give local produce growers a central spot for selling. 

Lausell answered that supermarkets occasionally try selling local produce, which doesn’t pan out due to competition with other supermarkets. He added that supermarkets cannot compete with local markets because of the freshness of their products.

“If we can encourage those kinds of businesses, that’s something that really should be supported,” Lausell said. 

Another viewer inquired about the panelists’ thoughts on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019, a bill that aims to assist agricultural workers in immigration. 

“What it comes down to is, what can you get through congress and signed by a president?” Smith asked. 

Mitrano stated that many farmers are tired of immigration tariffs. 

“We have to do better than the politics of no, the politics of we’re not even going to raise this issue because of some political construction about it,” Mitrano added. 

In his closing remarks, Smith said that to correct the many issues facing agricultural workers, the community needs people in Congress who listen to the people involved. 

“We have the tools available, it just takes a less partisan, less combative approach from our representatives and our leaders,” Smith said. 

Building on Smith's comments, Lausell noted that cooperation between farmers and local businesses also can assist the agricultural market. 

And Mitrano said, “We need to be able to support people like that — our small farmers that already exist."

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