Ag at large: Farmers are Firm on the Front Lines

Recent wage regulations by the state has resulted in large penalties and obligations for agricultural companies. (Photo Courtesy of Envato Elements)

Farmers in California, the country’s highest ranking producer of agricultural goods, are busy fighting a battle that threatens to overcome them and the rest of the state’s population. Cities and citizens are sending them little, if any, in the way of reinforcements.

Even while they are busy planning, planting, protecting and producing nearly 400 commercial food and fiber crops every year – profitably in most cases – they must defend against the incessant advance of overbearing and paralyzing regulatory oversight and interference. Most of it comes from an unsympathetic and unresponsive state government, but the feds supply a share of the interference as well.

Many farmers believe that if they are further directed and subjected to the endless tallying and reporting of details and directives they will no longer be owner-operators of their own businesses, but mere caretakers carrying out decisions made by somebody else, someplace else.  The manner and mechanism of some of the directives often make it difficult to know where or how to search for clarification or certainty.

Recent tightening and detailing of wage and hour regulations by state enforcers have resulted in potentially astronomical penalties and accumulated obligations. An employer’s failure to pay employees for their short walk from the property gate to their actual work stations can escalate to unbelievable obligations and six-figure responsibilities in a very short time.

Several so-called safety and workplace regulations demand unreasonable expenditures by employers, and penalties for non-compliance can be devastating. Just the time required to complete and file compliance forms can be overwhelming, often necessitating additional clerical personnel.

For the state’s approximate 124,000 farmers and ranchers, operating on large patches of land among nearly 40 million other residents establishes a fearsome political imbalance. Whatever political preferences may exist, the farm community does not feel well-represented at the state capitol.

California’s farmers do not lean heavily on assistance programs, mostly offered by the federal government. Consequently they are further removed than farmers elsewhere from the long arm of government, whether it is offered as support or suppression. They enjoy a measure of independence from government oversight that some farmers elsewhere don’t.

A recent reminder to California farmers of the weakness and inefficiency of their state government has been the failure of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB). Established in 1976 to administer the act that authorized secret ballot elections for farm workers to decide if they wanted to be represented by a union or not, the board has dwindled from its designated five members to only two. That denies the board a quorum and the authority to operate.

Long suspected of favoring actions and charges by the United Farmworkers Union, the board erased any doubt about its allegiance by refusing to count ballots cast in a 2013 election to decide whether approximately 4,000 employees preferred union representation. When forced by four years of legal wrangling to count the ballots the board was both chagrined and ashamed to admit that its effort to hide a strong anti-union vote failed.

The department of this agency of three dozen well-paid attorneys and assistants has soured California farmers on bureaucracy’s commitment to – or even its recognition of – the viewpoint and commitment of the agricultural industry and of individual farmers.

The suspicion is growing among farmers that government, at least at the state level and specifically in California, is not responsive to the needs of farmers and agriculture. They wonder and worry that government so unresponsive can meet the needs of other citizens as well.

Don Curlee is your man when it comes to Agriculture. His Ag Alert column in our publication is sure to inform you on what you need to know when it comes to the agricultural industry.