When Picking Apples on a Farm With 5,000 Rules, Watch Out for the Ladders
For eight weeks every fall, Indian Ladder Farms, a fifth-generation family operation near Albany, kicks into peak season.
The farm sells homemade apple pies, fresh cider and warm doughnuts. Schoolchildren arrive by the busload to learn about growing apples. And as customers pick fruit from trees, workers fill bins with apples, destined for the farm’s shop and grocery stores.
This fall, amid the rush of commerce — the apple harvest season accounts for about half of Indian Ladder’s annual revenue — federal investigators showed up. They wanted to check the farm’s compliance with migrant labor rules and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets pay and other requirements for workers.
Suddenly, the small office staff turned its focus away from making money to placating a government regulator.
The investigators arrived on a Friday in late September and interviewed the farm’s management and a group of laborers from Jamaica, who have special work visas. The investigators hand delivered a notice and said they would be back the following week, when they asked to have 22 types of records available. The request included vehicle registrations, insurance documents and time sheets — reams of paper in all.
Over the next several days, the Ten Eyck family, which owns the farm, along with the staff devoted about 40 hours to serving the investigators, who visited three times before closing the books.
“It is terribly disruptive,” said Peter G. Ten Eyck II, 79, who runs the farm along with a daughter and son. “And the dimension that doesn’t get mentioned is the psychological hit: They are there to find something wrong with you. And then they are going to fine you.”
This is life on the farm — and at businesses of all sorts. With thick rule books laying out food safety procedures, compliance costs in the tens of thousands of dollars and ever-changing standards from the government and industry groups, local produce growers are a textbook example of what many business owners describe as regulatory fatigue.
Over the past five decades, Mr. Ten Eyck said, there has been an unending layering of new rules and regulations on his farm of over 300 acres, as more government agencies have taken an interest in nearly every aspect of growing food, and those agencies already involved have become even more so.
Now, a new rule is going into effect that will significantly expand the oversight of one regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, at the farm. And aside from the government, major retailers like Costco and Walmart mandate extensive food-safety planning and audits for their suppliers, all at a cost.
“If it isn’t pest poisons and pesticides, then it is food safety,” said Mr. Ten Eyck, suggesting that one rule maker seemingly tries to outdo the last. “And they come in waves.”
On a back wall in the apple packinghouse, there are 13 clipboards with various logs — first-aid monitoring, pest control, visitor sign-in sheets and more — required for food safety audits. There are about another dozen thick binders and manuals in the farm office for navigating rules and regulations on such things as migrant and seasonal worker protections.
Researchers at the Mercatus Center, a conservative-leaning economic think tank at George Mason University, say apple orchards are facing a growing federal regulatory burden. Quantifying that burden is difficult, but using a computer algorithm that analyzes regulations through keyword searches, researchers from the center’s RegData Project estimated the federal regulatory code contains 12,000 restrictions and rules on orchards, up from about 9,500, or an increase of 26 percent, from a decade ago.
Many of those rules apply to other businesses as well, and some restrict the actions of government regulators, not the orchard owners. Using the Mercatus Center data, and screening for such exceptions, The New York Times identified at least 17 federal regulations with about 5,000 restrictions and rules that were relevant to orchards.
More than any president since Ronald Reagan, President Trump has publicly seized on frustration toward a regulatory pile-on and pledged to trim, consolidate and eliminate rules. “Much more regulation ‘busting’ to come,” he tweeted in August. Mr. Ten Eyck, a Republican, did not vote for Mr. Trump, but regulation streamlining is a winning message across the political spectrum when it comes to making life easier for small businesses, according to more than 20 interviews with business owners and others in the produce industry.
Industry by industry, small businesses have been lobbying governments — from town health departments to federal cabinet agencies — to simplify rules and eradicate redundancy.
Many farmers, including Mr. Ten Eyck, acknowledge that not all regulations are bad. They often have led to ample benefits, including a safer food supply and better working conditions. Last year, an official with the Environmental Protection Agency was welcomed at Indian Ladder Farms, where she promoted new standards to protect farmworkers.
The grievances relate largely to the sheer amount of time and money that it takes to comply, and what farmers see as a disconnect between them — the rule followers — and the rule makers, who Mr. Ten Eyck describes as “people looking at a computer screen dreaming up stuff.”
“The intentions are not bad,” he said. “It is just that one layer after another gets to be — trying to top the people before them.”
Mr. Trump’s regulatory rollback extends well beyond small business, and many of the moves affecting big business have been met with stiff resistance, particularly among environmentalists and public health advocates who say the administration is hastily — and in some cases, secretly — re-engineering carefully developed and necessary rules to benefit Republican donors and industry allies. By the administration’s own count, most recently updated on Dec. 14, the Trump administration has issued 67 deregulatory actions, including the rollback of regulations and guidances, and has delayed 700 rules.
The rollback has not been felt on farms like Indian Ladder, which lies at the foot of the Helderberg escarpment, between the Adirondacks and the Catskills. But there is a need, farmers say.
“So many of the farmers I’ve spoken with tell me that stricter and stricter regulations have put many of their neighbors and friends out of business, and in doing so cost them their homes, land and livelihoods,” said Baylen Linnekin, a libertarian-leaning expert in food law and policy, in an email. “For many farmers, rolling back regulations is the only way they can survive.”