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The New England Farmers Union Fourth Annual Convention

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The New England Farmers Union (NEFU) held its fourth annual convention “Celebrating our Agricultural Diversity: People, Practices and Products” in Newport, RI. Nearly 100 members attended this convention in December 2013.

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Ken Ayars, Rhode Island Division of Agriculture Chief, thanked NEFU for its efforts on behalf of New England agriculture and warmly welcomed NEFU members to Rhode Island with its thriving agricultural sector.

NEFU President and New Hampshire organic farmer Roger Noonan opened the convention with an overview of 2013 accomplishments organized by NEFU’s founding principles of legislation, co-operation and education. In 2013, NEFU members and leaders worked to help the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) understand the potential impacts that the proposed food safety regulations could have on family farmers. Lobbying efforts continued on Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) efforts and the Farm Bill.

Partnerships were forged and continued with food co-ops, co-op service providers, community wind developer OwnEnergy and other regional agricultural organizations. Education was aimed at farmers, legislators and FDA officials. A long list of donors and foundations help fund these education and legislative lobbying efforts. The donor list is available in NEFU’s Annual Report here.

The theme of the convention was “Celebrating our Agricultural Diversity: People, Practices and Products.” Speakers included beginning farmer Ray Connor, who spoke about the work ahead of her as a new member of the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Advisory Committee.

Policy & Advocacy

The cornerstone of the NEFU Annual Convention is the grassroots policy work. Noonan thanked the Policy Committee (Beth Hodge, Chair; Tim O’Connell; Nathan L’Etoile; Penny Jordan and Steve Normanton) for their diligent reviewing the organizations Policy Book. Convention attendees reviewed proposed changes to the Policy Book section-by-section, sometimes word by word. The 2013 Policy Book (available here) will be used as a guide for critical lobbying efforts. Other policies are listed, which NEFU publicly supports. New topics include agricultural labor issues, stronger support for fisheries and education of agriculture teachers and new references to “urban” and “peri-urban” communities to reflect New England’s market and agricultural diversity.

NEFU members raised concerns about dwindling opportunities to educate agricultural teachers in New England. Today, only the University of Connecticut offers an Agricultural Educator program.

Agricultural Labor Laws

Allison Condra, lawyer and Clinical Fellow at the Harvard Food and Policy Clinic, led a lively presentation on agricultural labor law. The federal government regulates agricultural labor in a number of ways, including under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA), which addresses minimum wage and overtime pay. In addition to federal laws, states have their own labor laws and regulations of which farmers need to be aware. Under the FLSA, most farms are required to pay minimum wage to their employees, unless they fall into one of six narrow exemptions (for example, very small farms do not have to pay minimum wage). Further, farms are exempt from paying overtime as long as their employees are “employed in agriculture.”

Farmers should be aware of when their employees perform agricultural and non-agricultural tasks; when an employee performs a non-agricultural task, the employer is required to pay overtime for any hours the employee works over 40 hours that week. For example, if someone answers a customer call in the office, works on a newsletter or pays bills, they are not performing agricultural work.

Penalties for non-compliance may include back pay to eligible employees, fines and even jail time. Read more about agricultural law at the National Agricultural Law Center here.

Co-ops

Erbin Crowell and Bonnie Hudspeth of Neighboring Food Co-op Association described progress on the Healthy Food Access project, an initiative to work with co-ops to improve access to fresh and local food for lower income communities. The co-op concept is not new. Food co-operatives have been around for 110 years. Peer collaboration in promotion and advocacy helps all participating co-ops and their members.

Board Elections

NEFU’s members approved several new members to the NEFU Board of Directors. They are Nathan L’Etoile of Four Star Farms (a diversified farm featuring small grains in Northfield, MA); Beth Hodge of Echo Farm (a Certified Humane dairy in Hinsdale, NH); and Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm (a vegetable farm and farm stand in Cape Elizabeth, ME). Longtime Board Member Tim O’Connell of Butternut Farm in Milford, NH, was appointed Treasurer. Members also elected delegates to NFU’s convention in Santa Fe, NM, this March. They are Ned Porter, Allison Condra, and alternate, Cris Coffin.

Convention Sponsors

The event was sponsored by a broad array of organizations including Farm Fresh RI, New Urban Farmers, NOFA-NH, Farmers Cow, Organic Valley, Land for Good, King Arthur Flour, Cabot Creamery Co-operative, Stonyfield Organics, USDA NRCS, UConn College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Farm Credit East, USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Neighboring Food Co-op Association, Goat Power Land Clearing and Franklin Community Co-operative.

Mission

NEFU works to increase the economic viability of family farms and fishing operations, to foster the development of sustainable food production in New England, to invest in nutrition education and increase connections between farmers and consumers and to support the development of renewable energy resources for farm use, and from farm and forest sources.

Organization

The New England Farmers Union (NEFU) was formed in 2006. NEFU and the National Farmers Union have worked closely with the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association and Organic Valley dairy co-operative to educate Congress and other leaders in Washington, D.C., about New England’s agricultural and fisheries issues.

Contacts

Contact Roger Noonan, organic farmer and NEFU President, via email or call (603) 487-2540. Visit or write Middle Branch Farm, 280 Colburn Road, New Boston, New Hampshire 03070.

Contact Allison Condra, lawyer and Clinical Fellow at the Harvard Food and Policy Clinic via email or call (617-390-2556).

Learn more about the New England Farmers Union at newenglandfarmersunion.org or facebook.com/newenglandfarmersunion. Call (413) 625-3051 or write NEFU at 5 State Street, 3rd Floor, PO Box 226, Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts 01370.

A sijmilar story ran in the February 17, 2014 New England edition of Country Folks.

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