Kutztown Rotary Club hosted its 81st Annual Farmers’ Night, inviting the agricultural community, including farmers, for a family style dinner served by Grangers at Kutztown Grange Hall on Feb. 6.

“This tradition goes back many years and it was a way for Rotarians to express their gratitude for the agricultural community and also celebrate your contributions to our area,” said Kutztown Rotary Club President Amy Sheller. “We have a really nice program planned for tonight with some great speakers but above all we have good food and fellowship.”

Kutztown Rotarian Robert Hobaugh said the Kutztown area is a farming community and the dinner celebrates everyone involved in agriculture.

“If you’ve got something to do with agriculture, we want you to know that we appreciate what you do,” said Hobaugh. “You help make the quality of life for our community… It’s an economic engine that creates growth for us so we want you to know we appreciate that.”

During the dinner, the Rotary Club recognized Berks County’s 2018 Outstanding Farm Family, William and Lolly Lesher of Way-Har Farm in Bernville, “for their commitment to agriculture and the community.”

Way-Har was founded in 1952 by William Lesher’s grandfather Arthur. They now have 250 milking cows and grow all of the nutritional needs for the animals on the farm. They also process and package their own milk and ice cream.

“The Leshers’ enthusiasm and passion for agriculture show as they engage the community and offer tours of their farm and operation and work with volunteer agriculture organizations. Their legacy carries on as their four children, ages 16 to 28, continue the farming tradition both on the family farm and beyond,” said Sheller.

Also noting their contributions to the community, Sheller said Lolly serves on the Hamburg Area School Board and the Kutztown Fair Board, as well as dairy committees. William serves on the Upper Tulpehocken Township Planning Commission and is president of the Holstein Club.

“They are truly an asset to our community and Kutztown Rotary Club is proud to honor and celebrate the Lesher family,” said Sheller.

“We just get up every day and try to get through the day like most people,” said William. “We just keep on going and it looks like the next generation is going to follow so we’re pretty excited about that.”

The Leshers were also part of the new Pennsylvania Pursue Your Scoops Ice Cream Trail created by visitPa and the Pa Department of Agriculture to offer a farm to scoop experience at 12 regional farm creameries. Lolly Lesher helped organize and get the ice cream trail kicked off.

“It just went gang busters. We’re going to start going state-wide with that program this year,” said Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Cheryl Cook, who was the event’s featured speaker. “I’m really happy that (Lolly Lesher) is here tonight and is going to be recognized.”

Cook hopes to spread the message about how important agriculture is to Pennsylvania’s economy and how important it is to rural communities and to the future. Agriculture as a business is facing some challenging times, she said.

“There is a lot of risk associated with agriculture in everything from the weather to international trade and marketing opportunities. We have farmers who are struggling with retaliatory measures being taken with response to steel tariffs and aluminum tariffs. We have farmers particularly in dairy experiencing now for four or five years in a row of really lousy market prices,” said Cook during an interview with Berks-Mont Newspapers.

“What we’re seeing really applies to more than just farms. Agriculture businesses in general are concerned about family succession planning,” said Cook. “Everything from feed dealers to seed dealers to equipment dealers, these are all family run businesses. Everywhere we look everybody’s looking for the next generation … so succession planning is something we see across the board and we’re working on that.”

Cook said the Pa Department of Ag is also trying to improve the regulatory environment at the state level so that it is easier for small businesses to operate, including farms but looking at all agriculture related businesses.

She also hopes to share a message of hope.

“We’ve been through some challenging times in agriculture between the lousy weather we had last year and the lousy market prices in dairy and some other commodities but there’s still a lot of things to be excited and optimistic about so I try to bring optimism with me everywhere I go, too. We have some really great examples of creativity.”

This was Cook’s first time coming to Farmers’ Night and she was happy to attend.

“Berks County has the largest program in farmland preservation of any of the 58 counties that have a farmland preservation program. Always pleased to be where there is such an obvious demonstrated put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is commitment to agriculture.”

Sen. Judy Schwank also spoke, saying that the timing for Farmers’ Night could not be better. Gov. Tom Wolf had just released his proposed state budget the previous day.

“This is probably the most significant investment I’ve seen in agriculture in my role as a state senator and even when I was a county commissioner and a dean. Gov. Wolf has been impressed, I think, by some of the issues that we in agriculture face,” said Schwank, noting that there are investments on everything from agriculture excellence to best practices management to Spotted Lanternfly.

“I think you’re going to be impressed by this. I think you’ll be applauding or at least I hope you will be because it is very significant but I don’t want to release all of the details,” said Schwank, wanting to wait until the Governor released all details related to the state budget.

Rotary also recognized youth involved agriculture. They honored Students of the Month Brandywine Heights student Nicolas Fay, 4-H Club member; Kutztown student Megan Dieter, Kutztown FFA historian; and Oley Valley student, Oliver Prout, vice president of the Oley Valley FFA chapter.

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Lisa Mitchell is an editor for Berks-Mont Newspapers, covering news and events in the Northeast Berks County area.

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