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Long Island’s farmers worry about impact of minimum wage hike

Suffolk County farmer Tom Funfgeld of Calverton,

Suffolk County farmer Tom Funfgeld of Calverton, left, speaks with James Schmitt, right, New York State Department of Agriculture representative, in the trade show at the 35th Annual LI Agricultural Forum on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016 on the eastern campus of Suffolk County Community College. Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

New York State’s proposed minimum wage hike loomed large at an annual meeting of Long Island’s farmers that began Thursday morning.

The 35th annual Long Island Agricultural Forum kicked off with a talk by Kelly Young of the New York Farm Bureau, who said fighting a proposed $15 minimum wage was likely to be the advocacy group’s “biggest issue” in 2016.

Young said her organization has been working to explain to Albany lawmakers that farmers operate with slim margins and cannot easily pass added costs onto customers because crop prices rise and fall with the agricultural market.

More than 100 Long Island farmers, who contend with some of the highest land costs in the country, filled an auditorium at Suffolk County Community College’s Eastern Campus in Riverhead to hear the opening talks of the two-day trade conference, which began in 1982.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, in remarks at the forum Thursday morning, announced he would seek a private operator for a county-owned slaughterhouse at the Suffolk County Farm and Education Center in Yaphank.

Bellone said the move would open the facility to commercial meat processing and boost Long Island’s “small but growing” livestock industry.

“We are hoping that this is something that will not only modernize the facility but also help this growing sector of the agricultural economy here,” he said. “Frankly, I feel this facility could be put to better use, modernized and more efficient, with a private operator.”

Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), a North Fork farmer, said in a news release he has worked for years to make the facility accessible to local farmers.

“As it stands, farmers must transport livestock to New York City or out of state to be slaughtered,” he said. “This is an added expense most farmers can ill afford and serves as a deterrent to those who might consider meat production.”

Young, deputy director of public policy for the New York Farm Bureau, also discussed a proposal unveiled Wednesday in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget, to create a voluntary “New York State Certified High Quality” food label.

She said it would be “a certified, inspected label for New York food that shows consumers they are getting a high-quality product.” It could replace existing labels like “all natural” and “hormone free” that some say have little meaning, she said.

Young also praised the budget proposal for cutting taxes on small businesses, which she said would benefit farmers, and increasing money for farmland protection in the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

“Long Island is so unique and so special, and you guys are so great at value added production and what you do on a small amount of land and making it worthwhile,” she said. “You have a lot to be proud of.”

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