Senate Democratic Policy Committee: Growing Future Farmers
By Roxanne Richardson For Journal Register News Service
A concern for current economic conditions in agriculture led to a Senate roundtable discussion on farm profitability last week, bringing legislature and farmers together.
The Senate Democratic Policy Committee hosted a roundtable discussion at the Fleetwood Grange Hall on Sept. 20 with various representatives from the agricultural community to discuss farm profitability.
Representatives came from Delaware Valley College, Berks County Conservation, F.M. Brown's Sons. Inc., Scattered Acres Dairy Farms, PennAg Industries Association, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, Crop Insurance Agents Association of Pennsylvania, and senators from Pennsylvania.
Senator Judy Schwank, the Democratic chair of the Senate Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee, called for this meeting out of concern for current economic conditions in agriculture.
'This particular year with the severe drought in the Midwest, the historically low dairy prices, which dairy is a huge part of our ag economy, have created maybe a perfect storm. A time where we really need to bring policy makers to the table here with farmers and what those that work with them have to say about where the industry is going and what we can anticipate in so far as food prices go, too. Those two things are linked,' said Schwank.
Schwank wants policy makers to keep in mind how they could have a huge impact on farmers.
'The whole reason that we're here today is to get a perspective,' said Senator Lisa M. Boscala, 'from some farmers, insurance industry, to understand what's going on, what the challenges are that we're facing in the agriculture industry, what farmers are dealing with, the pricing mechanisms that are in place, and with this new generation of farmers, how do we keep new technologies, how does the state work in hand with the farming community to make sure that they are getting the latest equipment and things that would help them.'
Boscala said there hadn't been a hearing like this in years. She said there was no way they could pass legislation or help farmers if they don't understand from them directly what's going on.
'I think it's imperative that we do everything we can at the state government level to help our farming community prosper,' said Boscalag.
Schwank said indirectly we are impacted by the Midwest drought. Much of Pennsylvania's agriculture is feeding animals so that a significant decrease in the yield of corn and soybean from the breadbasket of the United States impacts us.
About 40 percent of the agriculture is dairy; about $5.7 billion in cash receipts for agriculture in PA. It keeps our entire economy moving, said Schwank, who pointed out huge agri-business concerns within a one-mile radius of Fleetwood beginning with F.M. Brown's Sons. Inc. and its feed mill operations in Fleetwood. Brown's provides the flour for the snack products everyone enjoys. There is a growing concern for Kutztown Produce Auction in bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to the communities. According to Schwank, 60 percent of our agriculture is centered in Southeast Pennsylvania.
'Our business is a six-generation business that involves a feed manufacturing, involves flour milling, involves seed sales, involves fuel-oil sales, involves feed obviously, and we also have a farm,' said Dr. Carl Hess, treasurer, F.M. Brown's Sons, Inc.
Brown's business is not only impacted by the rising cost of wheat flour, but in future business with farmers. He said the average age of his clients was 55 to 57. Ten years ago, there were 25 youth showing at the Oley Fair, but this year, there were only 10.
Teams from other states were vying for a $1,000 scholarship in a Junior Dairy Management Contest in Harrisburg; there were only three 4-H teams from Pennsylvania. Brown asked how many of the contestants were looking to agriculture for a future and only half raised their hands. He said that number would have been closer to 90 percent 20 years ago.
'It's pointing to the fact that here in Pennsylvania we are not encouraging our young people to look at agriculture as a future,' said Brown. 'We're seeing this problem and part of it comes back to capital and how does a young man develop the capital that he needs to buy into a business like this.'
Paul Hartman, Scattered Acres Dairy Farm, said the huge issue in maintaining profitability in agriculture, was the preservation of farm land and making sure that farmers have land to farm. Hartman noticed the decline of youth in agriculture and attributes this to technology and higher paying jobs. He said it is a huge investment to go into farming with limited return.
'We can talk about profits, but at the end of the day it's about margin. How do you protect that margin?' asked Russell C. Redding, dean of Agriculture & Environmental Sciences, Delaware Valley College.
Redding felt there was something from the commonwealth perspective given our dynamics around agriculture and said that the waiver for provisions needed to be looked at. Redding felt these are extraordinary times.
'I say to all the freshman, if I were 17 or 18 again and looked at this world that's going to add two billion people to the planet, that's equivalent of two India's, and to do that with less land, less water, less energy, that is a phenomenal place to be in because they're going to be the group that has to figure that out. That's a great spot to be. These are extraordinary times both from profit standpoint in some cases and the squeeze on margins,' said Redding.
According to Redding, every single agriculture science program in Pennsylvania has to go through recertification.
'This is a very sophisticated business and I'm not so sure the agriculture science programs in high school reflect it,' said Redding.
The trends are being looked at so the curriculum could be adjusted to reflect that opportunity. This will be done over the course of three years. He wants to keep those focused and on that track that they do want to be there.
Boscala tossed the idea of a loan forgiveness program, but Redding felt there was a real need of skilled labor and not so much a two or four year program, but more of a certificate. It was also the question of how to attract more individuals into the dairy industry.
Joel Rotz, government affairs director, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said the big picture of the dairy industry, total production, has been treading water and that there is a steady decline in dairy farm numbers.
'We've lost 2,000 dairy farms over the last 10 years, but production has basically stayed about the same,' said Rotz. 'So what that tells us is that dairy farmers are milking more cows to pay higher bills. The question is, are they able to continue to tread water with the conditions we see down?'
Rotz said the ban of antibiotics had put Pennsylvania at a huge competitive disadvantage in the livestock industry, but commended the elimination of the inheritance tax for farming families. He couldn't think of a better way to preserve family farms.
'The best way to preserve farmland and to preserve farmers is to have profitable farmers,' said Mark Goodhart, president, Crop Insurance Agents Association of Pennsylvania.
He said we need to implement risk management plans as the way to begin taking the risk out of the huge capital investment.
'Crop insurance is not user-friendly to new and beginning farmers,' said Goodhart. 'Not every young farmer already has their foot in the door. They want to have that foot in the door and we need to be there with risk management tools to provide that for them.'
Christian Herr, vice president, PennAg Industries Association, said animal health was their top priority.
'23 million laying hens, 90 million broilers, tens of millions of hogs, they all rely on the laboratory system that we have in Pennsylvania and the funding that you provided as a legislature and that has been cut and cut and cut to the point where it's at a level where if we had a foot and mouth disease or avian influenza, one of those serious animal diseases, we would be in deep trouble,' said Herr.
Glenn Seidel, vice chair, Berks County Conservation District, said agriculture isn't about food anymore; it's about energy. He also said the United States supplies half of the world's grain.
Senator Andy Dinniman, said that a lot of people don't know we export internationally. Farming equipment is a major piece of Pennsylvania's exports.
'We import a lot of grapes from Chile and other agricultural products and the folks from Chile always say, 'After we unload the boat, we don't want them to go back empty,'' said Dinniman. 'So I'm always thinking how we can find ways to fill those ships back up and I'm thinking more farm products.'
Sheila Miller, first agriculture coordinator for the county, farmer, former state legislator, and a member of the State Farmland Preservation Board, said the Clean and Green does not encourage farmers to be entrepreneurs because there is language in it that says you cannot process and still have the Clean and Green benefits.
'You can't process yogurt, you can't make cheese, without-at least in Berks County-of fearing that the assessor and the county assessment office is going to roll back and assess penalties and roll-back taxes on your farm,' said Miller.
Miller said the investment made in agriculture helps many Pennsylvanians and encouraged the committee to look at reinstating crop insurance support for the farmers as well as other budget items that support Pennsylvania's agriculture.
Attendee, Gloria Day, member of the board of directors for the Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association, also represented the Governors Invasive Species Council. Day wanted to address that the nursery industry has many parallel issues in legislation. She didn't want the committee to forget a $6.5 million business when looking at the issues.