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Candidates, Officials Talk Future of Farming at Ag Progress Days

by on August 15, 2018 8:00 PM

With campaigns heating up for a host of federal and state election races this fall, the government and industry luncheon at Penn State's Ag Progress Days on Wednesday drew plenty of candidates and elected officials.

Virtually every candidate who will appear on a ballot in Centre County was in attendance at Rock Springs, an opportunity to hear about Penn State research and outreach and the agricultural industry in Pennsylvania.

A few high-profile candidates -- those for governor and U.S. Senate -- joined Penn State President Eric Barron, College of Agricultural Sciences Dean Richard Roush and Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding in delivering remarks.

Wolf and Wagner Share Plans for Pa. Agriculture

For Gov. Tom Wolf, who will be seeking his second term this fall, it was an opportunity to unveil a six-point plan for strengthening agriculture in the commonwealth, a strategic effort to bolster the current industry and develop opportunities to encourage "the best and brightest" to pursue future careers in farming.

Among those strategic recommendations are rebuilding and expanding infrastructure. Wolf pointed to progress made, and the work still to do, on roads, bridges and airports, but also the need to expand high-speed internet access to rural communities.

"Rebuilding infrastructure is not just about steel, concrete and asphalt," he said. "We need high-speed broadband also... The lack of broadband access is one of the biggest disadvantages for our rural communities. It’s a disadvantage for the 21st century agricultural system."

Wolf said 800,000 Pennsylvanians, mostly in rural areas, lack access to high-speed internet. He said his goal is to make that access available to every part of the state by the end of his second term.

Helping establish business ownership succession plans for farms is another priority. Both infrastructure improvements and steady ownership are important to another of the plan's points: to create a bigger network of processing facilities within the state.

The lack of processors in the state, "restrains us when it comes to market access. It increases transportation costs and ultimately it leads to less revenue for farmers. That needs to change," Wolf said.

Processors are especially needed for dairy farmers, who are in crisis as they face low prices and slipping demand. Processing milk into other dairy products in-state is one potential solution. Wolf said officials have so far reached out to three dozen processing companies.

Regulatory reform and a more favorable environment for agriculture business is also on the list. Wolf said farmers who want to stay in the industry or grow "feel stymied by permitting and zoning requirements." Wolf also said he wants to continue to strengthen workforce development and education to prepare more future workers to lead in the industry. 

The final point is a new plan revealed by Wolf on Wednesday to establish Pennsylvania as "the premier state in the country in organic production and organic certification."

Currently, Pennsylvania is No. 2 behind California for organic sales.

"Demand for organic food has skyrocketed and our production here in Pennsylvania is starting to catch up," he said. "We can do more. We can do that by leveraging our strong reputation in the marketplace for quality, purity and for taste. I want to build on the Pennsylvania brand in the market place."

The organic plan is in part a branding effort, but also will work to develop and connect in-state producers of commodities like organic grain feed with the organic livestock industry, which often ships in those products from out-of-state. It also will provide financial support for transitioning to organic certification. Special funds will be set aside for dairy producers and processors.

Scott Wagner speaks at Ag Progress Days.

Wolf's Republican opponent in November, waste management magnate and former state senator Scott Wagner, took direct aim at state government, saying it has hindered Pennsylvania's farmers.

"Pennsylvania’s ag industry needs to be treated as customers not as criminals," Wagner said. "[Department of Environmental Protection], permitting delays and red tape have made it impossible, and continue to make it impossible, to grow. They continue to be adversarial and it needs to change.

Wagner said that in his four and a half years in the senate, he found that "Harrisburg does not respect the agriculture industry."

"We need to change the process of permitting and assemble a team who understands the needs of the industry and will expedite and cut the red tape," he said. "And trust me folks, there's a lot of red tape."

Wagner touched on some of the same points as Wolf. He noted the importance of infrastructure improvements for agriculture and said it is vital that "projects are completed on-time and on-budget."

On the technological side, he said swaths of rural communities lack sufficient cell coverage. "How about we call the Verizon people, get them to meet with the governor and get the problem solved. We don’t need more hearings and task forces," Wagner said.

He advocated for restoring funds that were cut earlier this decade for the Department of Agriculture, Penn State Cooperative Extension and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Wagner also said he wants to expand career and technical education programs.

In what received perhaps his loudest round of applause, Wagner said if he has the opportunity as governor he would “mandate that whole milk be put back in our schools and state facilities..."

"Our dairy crisis wouldn’t exist if Harrisburg didn’t hinder expansion at every opportunity," Wagner said. "We should be encouraging expansion not hindering it. We need to invest in opportunities for our next generation of farmers.”

Casey and Barletta discuss federal policy

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey gave an update on the new federal farm bill, the broad legislation passed every four years to set agricultural and food policy. The senate and house have both passed their own versions, with the next step to reconcile the two for a final vote.

Casey said the senate farm bill has been a bipartisan effort that will provide "a strong safety net for producers" while advancing priorities such as conservation, research, nutrition and promotion programs. He also said the bill will aim to address challenges of dairy farmers.

Working with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Casey said he helped secure permanent funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture organic research.

"This should directly benefit Pennsylvania’s mushroom industry, and the last time I checked Pennsylvania is number one in mushrooms," Casey said.

He added that in a bipartisan effort with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Iowa's Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, the bill will ensure the Conservation Reserve Program's rental rates "don’t outcompete farmers seeking access to land so that we can better prioritize conservation and research practices to improve water quality." The program pays farmers a rental rate to remove environmentally sensitive land from production and to plant species that will improve environmental quality.

Working with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Casey said he also developed a farm-to-food bank provision to incentivize farmers to donate their products that would otherwise be discarded directly to food banks.

"The senate farm bill is not perfect," Casey said. "There are provisions in the senate bill you might rather be the house provisions. I understand that. I think we can continue to work together to improve this bill. I urge you to push both parties in both houses to get the conference committee work done so we can have not just a farm bill, not just a bipartisan farm bill, but an on-time farm bill."

U.S. Sen Bob Casey speaks at Ag Progress Days.

Casey's opponent for senate in the general election, Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Hazleton), said agriculture is not just an economic and health issue, but a security issue as well.

"This is a national security issue," Barletta said. "If we can’t grow our own food, this country is in trouble. But we’ve been making it harder and harder for many of you to continue in the industry."

Like Wagner at the state level, Barletta said that for farmers to be able to flourish, he believes it's important that the federal government make processes easier and to cut through the red tape.

"Sometimes a mud puddle is just a mud puddle," he said. "It's not a federal navigable waterway."

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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