Fall fair season and Farm Show week are prominent occasions when public attention is captivated by the bounty and prowess of Pennsylvania agriculture. These spikes in enthusiasm are great for sustaining the reputation of farming, but do not mean the role and perils of farming are understood and appreciated by all.
There are few states where ag heritage has as much economic and emotional traction. State takeover of local roads was aimed at getting farmers out of the mud. Agriculture is rooted in all 67 counties. Read about the debate over where to locate the Farm Show, and be surprised to discover an early frontrunner was that crop powerhouse of Philadelphia. By most accounts, the organizations representing elements of the farming community retain their traditional presence and persuasiveness. Our showcase commitment takes the form of farmland preservation programs, well established and well administered.
Agriculture is one of the few areas of policy that rarely becomes a partisan battleground, so farmers do not get whipsawed in the political arena. Which is a good thing, because there are plenty of naturally occurring problems.
Today’s farmers face challenges compounded in extent and intensity. More erratic weather. More destructive storms. More damaging plant diseases, such as Rapid Apple Decline. More invasive plants and destructive insects, such as spotted lanternfly. More economic competition. More difficulty in passing down the farmstead or starting up operations. More regulations piling up, which often resemble regulators piling on. More dependence on expensive technology. Less predictable and foreseeable federal farm policies. These challenges combine into considerable concern for the future of farming.
A classic quote from President Dwight Eisenhower pertained to agriculture: “Farming is easy when your plow is a pencil and the nearest cornfield is a thousand miles away.” This was a jab at the 9-5 bureaucrats and desk jockeys who thought they had a better handle on farm policy than those who worked the fields and barns from dawn until dusk.
Those who know little about farming blithely recommend that farmers just change crops. Hemp is a trendy suggestion. When you listen to farmers talk about how much they have invested in building their current operations and solidifying reliable markets, it is easy to see abrupt shifts are only easy in the imaginations of folks whose brush with farming comes with eating corn on the cob.
For decades, a devoted group of rural lawmakers has sought structural and strategic ways to support agriculture and the wider enterprise of agribusiness. The bellwether has been the state budget. One of the first things many legislators look for in the governor’s speech is appropriate mention of agriculture. Then they scour the document to see how agriculture fares in funding, especially highly useful programs such as ag research and extension services.
Whether agriculture is truly the state’s leading industry, as frequently contended, is really beside the point. Ag is surely number one in the hearts and minds of many residents. There is the rich heritage, Pennsylvania is conducive to a wide range of crops, livestock, fruit trees, the eyes and the nose detect the seasons and smells of agriculture, and the economic contribution is immense.
Yet, warning signs are apparent. The woes of the dairy industry have been especially front and center in recent years. When a stronghold such as Lancaster County sees a drop in the number of farms raising cows, trouble is afoot. While the federal agriculture secretary is delivering eulogies for small dairy farms, state officials are spreading the word about the ways in which small and medium-sized operations are making adjustments. The Center for Dairy Excellence is active. Pennsylvania-specific solutions coming from the Legislative Budget & Finance Committee add useful ingredients to the mix. The health biases against milk are seen as flawed. The nutritional value of milk is greater than the risks. The path forward for dairy may not be an expressway, but neither is it an overgrown farm lane.
Lancaster County is a trailblazer and leader in farmland preservation, and similar programs have taken root in counties large and small. This assures that land will be available for a very long time. It does not guarantee markets or sustainable returns. Or that the handoff of farms from one generation to the next will continue indefinitely. In the current economy, assistance must run on dual tracks – keeping existing growers in operation, and attracting the farmers of tomorrow.
For many years, those concerned about the future of agriculture emphasized deep-rooted approaches such as promoting Pennsylvania products, improving access to ag training and technology programs, cutting back on overly restrictive regulations, and providing incentives for practices that would preserve soil and water. None of those programs is antiquated. They need buttressed. In recent months, farm aid is sprouting, with both the administration and the legislature providing solutions. The tools include tax credits, technical support, and regulatory compliance assistance. Even small steps, such as allowing farmers to transport larger vehicles on local roads, make a difference.
Farmers, as much as any group, desperately need the infrastructure improvements contained in the governor’s Restore PA proposal. Roads and bridges, water and sewer and stormwater facilities, broadband available and affordable, all are critical elements of the systems that undergird agricultural productivity and sustainability. Community activism and supporting studies make the case for quick action. The holdup is Governor Wolf’s obsession with taxing natural gas production, a significant and stubborn snag. Somebody better find the number for Negotiations R Us.
With the escalating mandates for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, in the absence of sufficient progress on stormwater control and prevention of sewage overflows, the default position of the feds is to hammer farmers again. Even where communities and regions have moved to impose stormwater fees, the way the assessments are structured can put another burden on farmers. It would be immensely disappointing and economically injurious if legislation to fix this soon does not emerge.
Access to other sources of income can be determined by geography. Where fracking is permitted, it is proving a lifeline for numerous farm families. Where fracking is banned, a comparable economic boost has not materialized.
More than a few farmers have turned to agri-tourism to help balance the books. It is a nice intersection between key economic engines. But there is a lot of policy work to be done to make sure that agribusiness remains a contributing enterprise to our state, and not just a tourist attraction of scattered museums.
The most troubling dislocation for farmers was unexpected. The escalating tariffs and trade wars may show as a win on someone’s political ledger, but the consequences seem highly adverse for many producers and consumers. Uncertainty and disruption are never helpful in enterprises where planning is a priority.
Plus, rather than moving toward the long-standing goal of having government less involved in agriculture, the remedy of bailouts increases the entanglement. The mitigating need to shower billions of dollars in federal relief piles on the national debt. Consumers face higher prices. The lack of competition among producers dampens innovation and efficiency. These consequences run contrary to decades of candidate campaign pledges to leave agriculture to the farmers.
State actions cannot entirely compensate for federal misdirection. States can stabilize the situation and plant the seeds for future growth. Pennsylvania, acting in accord with the role of states as laboratories of democracy, is testing new thinking and new attitudes of helpfulness at a crucial juncture for agriculture. Pennsylvania is headed on a constructive path with its agricultural support and pro-farm policies. The almanac prognosis would be brighter still if the federal government were not so heavily invested in making policy through chaos theory.
David A. Atkinson is an Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.