Ritchie unveils agricultural plan for 2016-17 State Senate budget

New York State Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan, center, and State Senator Patty Ritchie, left, learn about milking from farm owner Michael B. Kiechle, right, while at the Garden of Eden Farm. Photo by Amanda Morrison, Watertown Daily Times.

New York State Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan, center, and State Senator Patty Ritchie, left, learn about milking from farm owner Michael B. Kiechle, right, while at the Garden of Eden Farm. Photo by Amanda Morrison, Watertown Daily Times.

ALBANY — State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, highlighted Tuesday a renewed agricultural focus in the 2016-17 Senate budget aimed at continuing financial, research and employment support for New York state’s agriculture industry.

Dubbed “Planting Seeds,” the 2016 Senate Republican Plan to Grow New York Agriculture, the plan outlines a Senate effort to restore millions of dollars that were cut from 42 agricultural programs in this year’s executive budget. These restoration efforts have returned $32 million to state farm programs since 2011, according to the proposal.

Additionally, Senate Republicans will continue to address the taxation issues faced by businesses and agriculture. As part of the 2014 Young Farmer’s Initiative, New York’s estate tax was lowered to ease the transfer of farms from one generation to the next. Senate Republicans plan to boost the relief this year by expediting the estate tax reform, allowing farmers to claim the $5.45 million federal exclusion total by April 1.

Senate Republicans will also focus on raising the personal income tax exemption for small and mid-sized family farms from 5 percent to 20 percent.

Sometime soon, a second round of grant funding will be announced for Beginning Farmer grants, which were also included in the 2014 Young Farmer’s initiative. The grants, which range from $15,000 to $50,000, help farmers acquire the necessary resources and equipment for farming.

A funding increase to FarmNet, which provides business and transition services to farmers, will also be pursued along with added support for dairy farmers struggling with fluctuating prices.

With Cornell University providing vital agricultural research to protect consumers from disease, the plan highlights the state Senate’s effort to increase funding for the university so that it may continue its research. Improving research to prevent the spread of rabies from Canada and across the state will also be a priority.

Sen. Ritchie, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said one of the biggest challenges faced by farmers is acquiring a consistent workforce. She met with students from the FFA chapters in South Jefferson Central School District and Belleville Henderson Central School District Tuesday morning before the Planting Seeds plan was unveiled.

Often, Sen. Ritchie said, students belonging to these chapters have no prior family history in farming. However, Sen. Ritchie said, the FFA gets hurt by budget cuts.

“A lot of the time, the FFA programs are the first to be cut,” she said.

Providing additional support for the FFA is outlined in the Senate plan, along with extending the Beginning Farmer Student Loan Forgiveness Program for those pursuing an education in agriculture.

Senate Republicans also hope to create a North Country Ag Academy to provide more training for young farmers as well as a new agriculture program at SUNY Canton.

With a looming $15 minimum wage poised to make operations more difficult for farmers, some upstate farmers are resorting to robotic equipment to save on employment costs. The New York Farm Bureau has also said the wage could cost the industry $500 million.

While Senate Republican farm proposals aim to retain and attract farm workers, Sen. Ritchie said she’s concerned the new wage will have the opposite effect.

“I think farmers need to be involved in the discussion,” she said. “They need to be at the table and voice their concerns and be able to tell what the actual effect will be on their bottom line.”

By Brian Molongoski, Watertown Daily Times