Thursday, August 27, 2015

Generous teachers deserve tax credits

With a brand new school year upon us, parents need to reflect on – and be thankful for -- the generosity of teachers. The professionals with whom we entrust the intellectual and social development of our children give more than self, time and patience to get the job done in the best way possible – they also give a great deal of their money.

Since the dawning days of the Great Recession, almost everything has been at one time or another on the chopping block of school boards and administrators. Due to economic losses that had harmed their communities, the tax cap of law and a self-imposed tax cap (you can’t increase property taxes on financially-stressed families in today’s job market), schools had to strike from their budgets sports, the arts, teachers’ aides and more.

One of the necessary line items that has faced such cutbacks and constant scrutiny is “supplies”, the little things and big things that each classroom needs to operate and inspire. In order to achieve their personal and professional goals, and ensure that their pupils are not cheated of the educational experience they deserve, teachers find themselves digging deep to keep their room and students supplied. The average teacher spends a tad under $500 of his or her money to do that every year.

Although one might consider it a job-related expense, it’s much more than that. They are giving to the children as a whole and also to individual children and the children’s families (teachers often find themselves giving rudimentary personal supplies to the poorest of their students).  Such generosity needs to be properly rewarded with tax deductions, just as all donations are.

As reasonable as that sounds, it hasn’t been properly administered, if even at all, at the federal and state levels.

When it comes to their federal tax returns, kindergarten-through-grade-12 teachers are allowed to deduct up to $250 of what they paid for books, supplies, equipment, and other materials used in the classroom.

That deduction amount is much too small. It’s only half of the average annual expenditure. The deduction should not have a cap, or if it must be capped, it should be as high as $1,000. Remember, $500 is only the average, so there are many teachers spending far more than that, and it is not unreasonable to assume that in a poor rural or inner-city district, some teachers are spending close to $1,000 per year.

The $250 limit is not the only flaw with the federal tax break. It’s not permanent; the original law had a 10 year life. In every year since, it has received a one-year extension. It was one of more than 50 tax breaks that got an extension in December of last year with the Tax Increase Prevention Act. That allowed teachers to claim the expenditures on their 2014 filings. But, when it comes to 2015, it’s not guaranteed to be there. It really needs permanency and certainty.

As for state income taxes, teachers cannot claim supply purchases in New York. The Governor tried to address this earlier this year when he floated the idea of a $200 tax credit, but he tied it in with reforms concerning donation to private schools, which didn’t fly with legislators. Once again, $200 doesn’t come close to the real amount that’s spent, nor is it even in the territory of the proposal that has been offered by Assembly Republicans the past 3 years, which would provide up to $500 in annual tax credits.

It’s time that we afforded teachers some recognition and public reward for their generosity which they have always been doing without any expectation of tax credits or reimbursement. If you gave to a church or non-profit you would expect a deduction (some folks actually won’t give unless they are guaranteed a tax credit), so the charity of teachers to your children should be given its due, especially when one considers that a young teacher just starting out makes well under $40,000, has assumed thousands of dollars of college debt and is trying to do what he or she can to make our kids – and our community -- better.     

From the 31 August 2015 Lockport Union Sun & Journal

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Teasel – an interesting flower of Niagara County’s pastures

One of the more unusual-looking wildflowers of the Niagara Frontier is the common teasel. It is instantly recognizable and it may be a plant that is often overlooked due to its abundance.

It can be found in great numbers in fields, pastures, ditches and waste areas, where it towers over other plants, shooting 2 to 8 feet into the air. You’ll recognize it by the tall, skinny stem that is prickly, which supports an equally prickly cone-like head. That head holds dozens of densely-packed purple flowers, less than a quarter inch in length, that grow in bands, most often horizontally but sometimes vertically.

A very crafty plant 

Teasels may be prickly, but they're also useful. 
Teasel dries up in the early winter and dried plants can stand for well over a year. The interesting appearance and its dry but not brittle state makes the plant a favorite for florists and homeowners, who like to use the heads and stems to dress up centerpieces. A cursory search on craft-related websites like Pintrest and Etsy will find many flower-setting and craft projects involving teasel heads. Some folks go as far to spray paint them various colors to augment their vases while other souls have made small tabletop Christmas trees out of them, which I must say are rather cute.

A useful tool for the clothing industry 

The teasel is an invasive species, originally brought here from Europe for industrial purposes. Wool manufacturers attached the dried flower heads to spindles and used them to tease (hence the name) the wool. The spiny teasel heads would grab the wool without tearing it, raising the nap and making the wool (which is initially rough) softer and more comfortable.

Although an invasive species, it does not pose too much of a problem. In a normal agricultural setting it is easily removed by standard plowing because its taproots don’t go very deep into the ground. If they overtake a garden, it takes no effort to pull them out of the ground (just wear gloves because the spines can hurt a little).

Strange medicinal uses for teasels 

If you look at the head of a flowering teasel closely you will see little grubs living in it. Back in Elizabethan times, people actually believed that the grubs warded off a malaria-like fever, so people overcome with fever would fashion a necklace out of the grubs and wear it until the fever subsisted.

As if that’s not weird enough, folks once thought that the water that pools up in the cups where the leaves meet the stems was a useful beauty aid. They would wash their face with it to get rid of tired eyes or dump it on their hands to get rid of warts.

Niagara County’s only carnivorous plant 

When one thinks of carnivorous plants, Venus flytraps and pitcher plants come to mind. We have neither of those here in Niagara County and, until only recently, it was believed we didn’t have any carnivorous plants in the region.

We now know that the teasel is somewhat carnivorous. It was an idea kicked around, but never proved, in 1877 by Francis Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin, who shared his father’s keen natural intellect. He noticed insects had always collected in the pooled water at the terminal end of the leaves and he wondered if that was by design and not by accident.

No one had really pursued the concept until a study that was released by two Rhoehampton University professors in 2011. They found that teasels that held dead insects ingested the cadavers. That act didn’t improve overall biomass (as a pitcher plant’s habits would) but it increased seed biomass and seed output, making for a more productive plant.

The next time you see this weed, take a moment to appreciate it – like all plants on the Niagara Frontier, it has an interesting story to tell.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he’s thinking of getting crafty and making a teasel Christmas tree. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 27 August 2015 East Niagara Post

Thursday, August 20, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Chicory – coffee from your backyard

Drive along any rural road on the Niagara Frontier and you will find the summer and early fall landscape graced with the beautiful sky-blue flowers of the chicory. Often considered by some to be a weed (beauty is in the eye of the beholder), it is a strong-willed plant that can survive some of the driest soils of the year and abundantly at that – many local pastures are chock full of the flowers.

The chicory root serves as a decent substitute for coffee. (BOB CONFER /
It’s a sight best seen in the morning. Many flowers will pop up on one plant, but each flower lasts only one day. On the brightest days the fresh flowers will close by noon and wilt by day’s end. So, imagine if you will, how blue our fields would be if those flowers held out for a week or more as do the asters, the other bluish flowers of the dog days.

The plant, though, is hardy and has serious staying power. That can be a good thing, as chicory offers many uses beyond its eye-catching beauty. A native of the Old World, it was brought here for both drinking and eating.

Coffee from your backyard 

Centuries ago, chicory caught on as a substitute for coffee, a hot commodity that was impossible to enjoy in the volume that the world consumes it today. With slow-moving ships as the only way to move the coveted beans and agriculture of bygone days unable to yield what it does now, people had to find creative ways to stretch their beloved coffee supply.

The root of the chicory was the perfect product for that. By itself, it is a fair coffee substitute. It’s strong, although not as strong as the blackest coffees. It also has a biting, even nutty, flavor that some folks compare to hazelnut.

Mixed with coffee, though, one barely notices the chicory flavor and even today millions of pounds of dried chicory root are mixed with coffee. You might often consume it without even knowing it. The rumor mill has said before that Tim Horton’s coffee contains chicory (accounting for its addictive flavor), but that’s highly doubtful.

Chicory is caffeine-free and, as an additive, studies have shown that it tempers coffee’s stimulant effects. Two substances in chicory, lactucin and lactucoprin, are proven sedatives.

If you would like to make your own chicory coffee, it’s a pretty easy task. Dig up the roots, scrub them and slowly roast them in a partially-open oven. You must roast them until they are crisp and can break between your fingers, which will show the darker insides.  Once they are at that point you can grind them and store for later use, either straight up or mixed with your favorite coffee.

Chicory greens are healthy eating

The roots aren’t the only part of the plant that’s edible. The leaves have excellent value as well and are actually quite healthy: Every 100 grams of the leaves contains 86 milligrams of calcium, 40 milligrams of phosphorous, 0.9 milligrams of iron, 420 milligrams of potassium and 4,000 international units of Vitamin A.

If you’ve ever harvested dandelions, you know that the younger the leaves are the better they taste, as older leaves can be bitter. The same holds true for chicory.

If you pick them when they are old, you can eliminate the bitterness by boiling them, draining off the water, and then simmering in a second batch of water.

Young leaves, though, can be consumed in a salad. And, realize this: When you are paying big bucks for trendy greens like “radicchio” or “Treviso” you are buying a variety of chicory … yes, you aficionados of fine cuisine, you are eating, as some folks put it, a “weed.”

A plant of controversy 

Chicory led to what might have been one of the earliest pure food laws in the 1800s. In England, coffee distributors were doing the immoral act of selling coffee at coffee prices that was mostly composed of roasted chicory. When you start watering down foodstuff, especially coffee (don’t mess with people’s coffee!), and people find out, angry consumers equal an angry government. So, the Crown demanded that coffee producers start listing chicory content on their packages.

One shyster in Liverpool slyly got around this: He roasted chicory until it was dark brown, ground it and then formed it into ersatz coffee beans that he sold as pure coffee. Tricky.

Even here in the United States, chicory created a controversy of its own.

There was a scandal in Thomas Jefferson’s presidency when it was found out that he had been in communication with the Brits in 1809, a few years prior to the nasty War of 1812. After getting through the initial drama and fears of Jefferson being a turncoat, investigators had discovered that all he was doing was reaching out to the International Board of Agriculture in London to get chicory seeds for none other than George Washington.

Nowadays, though, nobody has to sneak around to get chicory. It’s everywhere, and probably in your own backyard. It might be time to give it a try and see what the hubbub was about. Make our Founding Fathers proud.

+Bob Confer  lives in rural Gasport where he’s thinking of brewing some chicory coffee this weekend. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 20 August 2015 East Niagara Post

Monday, August 17, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Jewelweed — Mother Nature's Preparation H

If you go for a hike in cool, shaded woods or around ponds and streams this time of year, you are likely to encounter the lovely jewelweed.

It sports an unmistakable orange flower that is shaped like a bugle or cornucopia. A closer examination will show reddish-brown speckles all over it.

The aptly named Jewelweed has cures poison ivy and calms itching and 
If you squeeze the flower at the height of its ripeness, its seeds will explode out of it. The small green seeds can fly up to five feet, courtesy of the built-in coils or springs. When that happens, you can even hear a loud “snap” come from the flower. That explosive nature is why the jewelweed goes by another name of touch-me-not. Despite that moniker, it’s not dangerous and the trick is something neat to show young kids.

The plant gets the name of jewelweed because of its somewhat waterproof leaves. They have on them minute hairs that trap air and cause water to bead up – looking like jewels.

You might also consider the plant to be a jewel because of its magical powers. It is widely known to be a cure for poison ivy. One can take its succulent, translucent stems and crush them, using the watery juices to wash their hands and legs after being exposed to poison ivy. Somehow, those juices will neutralize the ivy’s poison (known as urushiol). This has to be done relatively immediately, within a few hours of being exposed to the plants.

Urushiol can hold for a long time (even months!) on tents, tarps, toys, and your pets’ fur, so you can use crushed jewelweed to wash those items to make sure they are good for handling once again by your family. It’s a better alternative than washing all those things with Lava soap or Fels-Naptha.

Its powers don’t end there. Jewelweed contains 2-methoxy-1,4-naphthoquinone, an anti-inflammatory agent and fungicide. It’s the same substance that is an active ingredient in Preparation H. But, you can use jewelweed on a few more body parts than you can that famous cream.

Jewelweed juices can be used to calm itching that occurs from mosquito bites and stinging nettle. It has also been used to treat razor burn, acne, and heat rash.

Jewelweed is also one of the best natural remedies for Athlete’s Foot, as it as once calms the troublesome itch and kills the fungus that causes it. It has that same effect in the fight against dandruff.

In the 1800s some souls used it to fight hemorrhoids, making an ointment by boiling the plant with pig lard. In that case, you are probably better off buying the aforementioned Preparation H.

The jewelweed really is a jewel. With some plants, their curative powers are more anecdotal and mythical than they are realistic and effective. Not the case with this one, which has scientifically-proven powers.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he thinks nature’s version of Preparation H is an attractive wildflower. Follow him on twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 13 August 2015 East Niagara Post

Lack of fire, EMS volunteers puts public safety at risk

Every Monday, the Lockport Union Sun & Journal highlights a volunteer organization, what it does, and what it needs. It’s a nice touch, and a necessary one, as all of them are struggling to get the people they need to deliver the services that their clients need and expect. I see that in my volunteering as well – as president of the local Boy Scout council I have a difficult time filling critical board and operational positions.

These experiences are more than just anecdotal. The volunteer rate in New York is dead last in the country. Only 1 out of every 5 New Yorkers gives their time -- even just once a year -- to assist a non-profit or their church.

While that lack of civic-mindedness is a great frustration for our organizations, it’s not life or death. It is, though, when you consider that volunteer fire and emergency medical service companies have the same staffing problems that we do.

Policymakers will tell you that terrorism is the greatest threat to public safety in this country. It’s not. The lack of fire and EMS volunteers is. You might not know it, but we’re in the middle of a crisis and it seems like there is no end in sight.

If you regularly listen to the police scanner, you know what I am talking about.  Quite often, especially with EMS, the call to the initial provider goes unanswered. And, it’s become common for fire companies respond to what once was a call that they could handle on their own and they now find themselves calling for back-up from neighboring fire halls.

Consider two recent local calls that highlight these developments.

On the Fourth of July, a woman in her sixties fell down and was believed to have broken her arm. Dispatch put out of the call multiple times and the primary service organization never responded; there wasn’t enough manpower available. I can only imagine the pain the lady was in because it took almost a half hour from the first 911 phone call before she was properly attended to.

Also last month, a fire broke out in a farm field in Gasport on a weekday. In years gone by, there would have been enough firemen responding because shift workers who were employed by Harrison’s were available during the day. Now, there’s not. Only a half-dozen folks responded to the call. They also had to get creative and have Tri-Town block the roads with their ambulances, a task that would normally be done by fire police.

Stories like these have become normal occurrences, which does not bode well for public safety. There were ultimately happy endings to both, but imagine, if you will, if something truly catastrophic happened. What if a school bus careened out of control on an icy road? What if a train carrying ethanol derailed? What if a heavily-occupied apartment complex caught fire? What if, God forbid, an act of terror or violence occurred in one of our neighborhoods? 

There wouldn’t be enough people to respond with the immediacy needed. Property would be lost and, worse yet, so would lives.

The manpower just isn’t there anymore to handle such crises. From 1990 to 2010, the number of fire fighters in New York State dropped a whopping 24 percent. Over that same period, the number of calls across the state doubled.

How did we get to the point that all the firefighting and lifesaving – and more of it -- is on so few people? Many reasons have been kicked around: the aging-out of the rural population; two-income households which don’t give first responders the scheduling flexibility they once had; onerous training mandated by state and federal governments that requires too much money and too much time; the time constraints of keeping fire halls monetarily viable in an increasingly-competitive fundraising “market”; and the introversion of our culture created by the breaking of America’s real-life social structure and sense of community due to the alleged one created by social media.

Regardless of the cause, something needs to be done. Goodness knows the firefighters have been trying. Recruiting open houses have become a regular part of the spring across New York State. They’ve reached out through newspapers, radio, and TV. They’ve installed Explorer posts in their halls and schools.

But, all that will go for naught if the citizens aren’t interested in being good citizens. While I might want more people to help me out with Scouting, we need people to fight fires and save lives. Somehow, someway, volunteerism needs to become sexy again in America.

What will the wake-up call be? A catastrophe of epic proportions that kills innocent civilians and the few good souls who come to their need? Sadly, we already had that on 9/11 and it did almost nothing to inspire people to do good after the dust settled.

The wake-up call might have to be the consideration of paid companies that will kill the budgets of rural communities, hitting people where it hurts them the most – their pocketbooks and not their hearts.

From the 17 August 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The benefits and hazards of the Queen Anne’s Lace

Wildflowers of the summer and fall get a bad rap. Too often, people classify them as weeds which is a really unfortunate title for these plants, many of which are extremely beautiful and should be a welcome addition to any lawn or hedge.

One of those “weeds” – Queen Anne’s Lace -- is in full bloom now and adding a little bit of life and color to our landscape.

Identifying Queen Anne’s Lace

Everyone has seen Queen Anne’s Lace. It is a ubiquitous white wildflower, up to 3 feet tall, that is found in dry soils throughout the Niagara Frontier. You will see impressive stands of them on roadsides, along rail lines, in pastures, or in hedgerows.

If you look closely, you will see that what you thought was a large white, circular flower is really an umbel, or a collection of dozens of small flowers coming from a single stem. Collectively, they make for a lace-like appearance (hence the name) which I’ve always thought was best compared to a doily.

Some of them, but not all, will have a lone purple flower near the center of the umbel.

A close look will show you that the "flower" of Queen
Anne's Lace is really a collection of small flowers.
No one knows why that loner exists – some botanists blame a genetic flaw, while others say that it makes insects assume that there is a bug on the umbel, which in turn attracts predatory wasps to the plant, which in turn become incidental pollinators.

The myth behind that random flower is that Queen Anne, when she was sewing the lace, pricked herself with her needle and it’s a drop of her blood that darkened that flower (by the way, no one knows for sure if it was named after Queen Anne of Great Britain or Queen Anne of Denmark).

The stem of the plant has many fine hairs. That stem is very solid and strong as anyone who has ever attempted to pick Queen Anne’s Lace can attest. It takes a really good pull to snap them stem, and you are apt to uproot the whole plant in the process.

As the summer progresses and the flowers have done their deed, they wilt and curl up, becoming brown and cup-like; hence another common name: bird’s nest.      

Wild carrot 

The Queen Anne’s Lace is a non-native species. It was brought here from Europe because early settlers needed a foodstock and the prolific wildflower provided it. The Queen Anne’s Lace is a precursor of the cultivated carrot. It produces a root that smells and tastes just like the carrots you know and love. Unlike farmed carrots, the roots are very small (1 to 3 inches) and it takes quite a few to make a meal. The roots need to be picked when young. As they age, they become starchy, even woody and do not taste good at all.

Health hazards  

I strongly suggest against eating any wild carrots unless you are extremely familiar with it. Queen Anne’s Lace can be easily confused with its cousin, the poison hemlock, the same plant that infamously killed the Greek philosopher Socrates.

Death by consumption of poison hemlock is painful and labored – it causes muscular paralysis which ultimately prevents respiration from occurring, so the poisoned individual slowly, not quickly, suffocates. As few as a half dozen hemlock leaves will lead to death.

You also need to be careful when picking Queen Anne’s Lace if you are looking to make a centerpiece of the flowers.

The plant juices can cause phytophotodermatitis. If you’ve seen the scary local TV news reports about giant hogweed every summer for the past half dozen years, then you are familiar with what that is. The juices get on the person’s hands, which leads to hypersensitivity to ultraviolet light for approximately 24 hours; the skin, being unable to protect itself from the sun, blisters badly.

So, if you’re going to pick these flowers, wear gloves. And, encourage your kids to not touch the plants.   But, Queen Anne’s Lace is a beautiful plant that’s probably better left alone, admired and appreciated for the color (and interesting stories) that it brings to the Niagara Frontier.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where Queen Anne’s Lace sometimes fills vases in his home. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 30 July 2015 East Niagara Post

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The case of the skull-eating squirrels

Maybe in homage to settlements of the Old West — or maybe because I’m a little strange — some time ago, I had put a cow skull on my basement door.

This used to be a cow skull. Four years later, it's less than half a cow skull
thanks to grey squirrels. (BOB CONFER / CONTRIBUTOR)
Almost four years later, more than half the skull is gone.

It wasn’t destroyed by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. It wasn’t eaten by carrion beetles. It wasn’t worn away by sidewalk salt.

Instead, it was consumed by grey squirrels.

Most people think of squirrels as cute, docile little animals that eat nothing but seeds and nuts. That stereotype can quickly change when they see the bug-eyed creatures gnawing away on bone. There’s something strange, something morbid, about it.

Adding to that sight is the unforgettable sound. I’m sure you’ve heard squirrels chewing on walnut shells in the fall. That sound, loud in itself, is nothing like tooth on bone, especially on a hollow, resonant skull. That fingernails-on-chalkboard sound can be heard from almost one hundred feet away.

They aren’t doing it for kicks. They are doing it for survival. There is twofold benefit to consuming skulls.

First off, squirrels must do this to stave off metabolic bone disease. MBD is a common ailment for squirrels in captivity and squirrels that live in yards away from forests. What happens is they consume bird seed, walnuts, butternuts, hickory and even corn from adjacent farm fields – foods high in phosphorous and low in calcium. That creates a chemical imbalance whereby the squirrel is overcome with lethargy, seizures and fractured bones.

In the past 20 years I’ve seen a half dozen squirrels suffering from strange seizures, but none since the cow skull was made available for them. They get the calcium they need from eating the skull, so the sickness that previously affected squirrels in my yard is but a thing of the past.

Bone disease doesn’t normally happen to forest-dwelling squirrels as they get calcium from carcasses and bones found throughout the forest (things you normally don’t have laying on your lawn). It happens a lot to pet squirrels, which is why experienced squirrel owners feed their pets bones that would normally be given to dogs.

Another reason that squirrels chew on bone is to keep their teeth in check. I’m sure you’ve heard that if beavers don’t keep gnawing wood, their teeth will grow too long, piercing their lower lips or extending beyond their lower jaw, making it impossible to eat, thus starving from their lack of good self dental care.

The same holds true for squirrels. This is called malocclusion and, as with the beaver, it could cause the slow death of a squirrel. By gnawing on bone material, they can keep their teeth short and useful. This is why you might also see them chewing on the stone foundation of your home.

As you can see, having access to bones is crucial for the health, even life, of squirrels. So, if you have a family of them in your yard and you appreciate their cuteness, companionship and silly antics, do them a big favor and put some bones out for them. You don’t have to go overboard like I did with an animal skull, but if you can get access to some leg bones or soup bones it would go a long ways in ensuring their well-being.   

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where his cow skull has probably scared away many a visitor. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 06 August 2015 East Niagara Post

Farmers unfairly targeted by Cuomo Administration

You might remember Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to reform the nail salons in New York State this past spring. He and the legislature pushed a handful of laws that covered everything from licensing of salons to the chemicals that their workers use on a daily basis. “Worker exploitation” was the recurring theme with this. And, it’s something that he’s not easing up on and expanding to other industries.

In mid-July he formed a task force charged with rooting out worker exploitation. It is composed of 10 state agencies including the Department of State, Department of Labor and Department of Agriculture and Markets, which will work with an advisory committee to provide legislative, regulatory and administrative recommendations. This new endeavor will utilize more than 700 investigators to probe alleged labor abuses in various sectors of the economy.

The wording of the press releases and Cuomo’s speeches painted a grim picture by insinuating that the industries in question have a deep and wide-ranging culture of worker exploitation. Consider this accusatory statement of Cuomo’s: “Go look at a carwash. Go look at a laundry service. Go look at who comes in your home as a cleaning lady. Go talk to the nannies. It’s everywhere in society. Walk onto any construction site and see what’s going on.”

Such grandstanding and hyperbole is dangerous, as it is supposed make the average person believe that exploitation is a normal daily practice for any business that they might frequent, especially when the word “any” is utilized as it was by Cuomo (meaning every construction company is guilty of abuses).   

Among the industries being targeted by Cuomo is agriculture and it might be one of the prime targets. In most of the speeches and documents, farming comes in second on the list of targets (after nail salons), which highlights its value to inspectors. It’s likely due to the fact that so many migrant and guest workers are employed in farming and, therefore in Cuomo’s eyes, ripe for exploitation.

Agriculture is the wrong target for the task force (as are most industries, for that matter). If anything, farming should be held up as the standard of what employers should do for migrants and immigrants in and out of the workplace.

For starters, farming pays a good wage. A 2009 study found that dairy workers (who have year-round employment) earned an average of $10 in the Empire State. Seasonal workers earn more; a cursory look at want ads in the local paper will show pickers and harvesters being paid anywhere from $11.25 to $12 an hour for work that’s available 5 months out of the year on the Niagara Frontier. Many of those workers stay on, helping their employers trim and prune fruit trees. In all cases, the wage rates are far in excess of the state minimum of $8.75.

Beyond the wages, farm workers are also afforded substantial benefits. 35 percent of farms provide to their workers benefits valued from $1,000 to $4,999 per year while 27 percent provided benefits valued at $5,000 per year or more.

Among those benefits is transportation. Farmers will either pick up the workers at their temporary homes or allow them nearly unlimited personal use of the farm’s vehicles to tend to their daily needs – recreation, shopping, transporting their children, etc.

Farmers also provide rent-free housing to their workers. Cuomo’s exploitation task force might be quick to call them “labor camps”, but if they took a drive through rural Niagara County they would find anything but dirty labor camps. The seasonal and dairy workers in the area are given use of some nice well-maintained homes. Within 10 minutes of my house, there are a half-dozen such establishments, all of which provided provide good, clean environments for the workers and their families.

And, it’s those families that are also afforded benefits by farmers. Among those are the Agri-Business Child Development centers found throughout the state. A non-profit run by the New York State Federation of Growers' & Processors' Associations and funded by federal funds and donations from farm owners and farming organizations, ABCD provide high-quality education and social services to farm workers’ families.   

Taking into consideration the above, you can be certain the ag industry isn’t out there exploiting workers left and right. They are doing what they can to bring a good income and a good life to the people they work side-by-side with in the fields, orchards and barns. They are treating them with the utmost respect…something Cuomo doesn’t seem interested in affording farm families in New York State.

From the 10 August 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal