The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently threatened, although they claim that it was never their intention, to step in to oversee and inspect small, family-run farms.
As per a memo, the organization seemed determined to extend its regulatory reach to farms with fewer than 10 employees, putting small farms with family workers squarely in their sights. However, Congress has specifically exempted such operations from OSHA oversight since 1976.
This week OSHA withdrew the document. According to the Bismarck Tribune, one of the more vocal opponents of the potential power grab, North Dakota Representative Kevin Cramer said, "The removal of the misguided memo is a good step, but farmers need reassurance they will not be targeted by more rogue regulation attempts in the future." Cramer added in a statement that he hopes "the agencies involved realize the seriousness of their mistake and its implications for our food supply and the people who work every day to produce it."
This is good news for small farms already struggling with financial and regulatory challenges, and already concerned with the safety of their families on their farms. Anyone who has dealt with OSHA has heard horror stories of them writing companies up because rogue employees forgot to wear the proper gloves or have the sleeves of their t-shirts chopped off too short or some other silliness. This is not just rumor. I have heard these stories from folks who have experienced such actions. Safety is important and sometimes it takes regulation to guarantee it, but sending teams of inspectors onto small farms to levy expensive fines over foolish things like shirt sleeves is downright unreasonable. I hope the memo is not followed by more of the same after the uproar dies down.
According to the newest Census of Agriculture, small farms, such as those that would have fallen under OSHA's proposed scrutiny, make up a large percentage of known farming entities. By the most recent data, 75 percent of all American farms grossed under $50,000 with only 4 percent grossing more than $1 million. More than half of the farms reporting to the census list ag as a second job and make their real living elsewhere.
Over the years between censuses, the total number of farms in the country declined by 95,000, and ever larger percentages of ag products are grown by the largest operations. For example, in 2012, 3 percent of the nation's farms produced more than 50 percent of our total milk. These were farms housing mor than 1,000 cows each. Not surprisingly, average farm size increased as well, to 434 acres.
The average age of the American farmer just keeps creeping upward too. The 2012 census found the nationwide average age to be 58.3, up 1.2 years from the previous census. This continues a 30-year trend.
In New York state however, there may be a divergence from the trend toward aging farmers. The Suffolk Times gleaned this from the census report: "According to the report, farmers under the age of 35 in New York state grew 14.4 percent over the five-year period, far above the modest national increase of 1.1 percent. In 2012, nearly 2,150 farmers under age 35 were running farms, including 185 under the age of 25. That compares to 159 farmers age 24 and below in 2007, and another 1,720 aged 25 to 34."
While some of these young entries work in traditional aspects of the craft, many are forging into niche markets, producing artisan cheeses, or growing hops, or goats, or llamas, or wine grapes. They are even running farms on roof tops in New York City.
Probably some of these young up-and-comers were involved in putting New York back into the No. 3 spot in dairy production as well, although increasing yogurt production has been offered in several publications as the probable reason. State dairy production has nearly tripled since 2007, despite an ever declining number of farms in the state. Our state edged out Idaho in total pounds of milk produced for the first time since 2009. Up until that year New York had held down third place since 1972.
Dairy accounts for more than half the income generated by ag in the state, making it the largest sector of the industry. It is also the No. 1 agricultural business in California, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, New Hampshire, Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin.
The governor is certainly happy about the news: "Milk production is fueling thousands of jobs across upstate New York, revitalizing communities and providing a variety of nutritious products for millions of consumers across the country. This year, we will continue working together to grow our thriving agricultural sector, and I congratulate New York's dairy industry on this achievement."
Sadly, although I share the delight in the good work done by the state's farmers, young and older, all too often increased production translates into lower prices at the farm gate. Hopefully, healthy export trends and the popularity of yogurt products will keep that from occurring.
And to the chagrin of some who had grown fond of it, the Milk Processor Education Program, MilkPEP, is sidelining the long popular "Got Milk" slogan in favor of a new program called "Milk Life." Rather than touting the fun of drinking milk using celebrities with milk mustaches, the new campaign will focus on the nutritional quality of dairy products, with an emphasis on their value for protein.
A video of one ad showed active people walking dogs and playing games or music, surrounded by fountains of flying milk, and even being saved by a milk parachute. A little on the weird side I thought, but then I don't watch much TV.
Time will tell how this advertising effort will play out, but I am willing to bet that it won't have the lasting impact displayed by "Got Milk." Although whether the slogan sold more dairy products or not is certainly debatable, it was undeniably memorable. It also spawned spin-offs from "Got Beer" to "Got just about anything else you could imagine."
Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS
is a regular columnist. She blogs