Pennsylvania’s new farm bill delivers the biggest economic boost to farmers — $24 million — in a generation. The help is years overdue, but the aid package hits the right notes: providing incentives for young people to enter agriculture, encouraging diversification of products and helping the industry plan for its future.
With $83.8 billion in direct economic output each year, according to a 2018 state report, agriculture remains big business in Pennsylvania despite the many economic and social pressures farmers face. The farm bill, which Gov. Tom Wolf signed July 1, offers the agricultural community hope of becoming larger and stronger despite these challenges.
The farm-to-table and eco-tourism movements afford many exciting opportunities alone.
The farm bill allocates $5 million to help the dairy industry — rocked by low milk prices and a dwindling number of farms — improve marketing and develop value-added products such as yogurts and cheeses. It establishes a grant program to help farmers explore markets for specialty products, such as hops for craft breweries and hardwoods for furniture-makers. It provides $1.6 million to support growth of the organic sector and $500,000 to help certain meat operations with startup costs.
Diversification, marketing and new ideas are key to successful farming these days. There are good models locally and statewide. The Pennsylvania Simply Sweet Onion, now about 19 years old, grew out of a Washington County entrepreneur’s desire to develop a product comparable to the Vidalia. The Bedillion Honey Farm, also in Washington County, makes honey, syrup, wax and soap with hives in at least five municipalities. North of Philadelphia, Laughing Lady Flower Farm sells blooms for the wholesale and special occasion markets.
The farm bill should help farmers get from idea to implementation. It sets aside $2 million for a Pennsylvania Agricultural Business Development Center, which will help farmers create business and succession plans. The new law also waives real-estate transfer taxes when farms pass to beginning farmers and provides assistance to youth agriculture education programs.
None of this will bring back the many farms Pennsylvania has lost over the years — the aid might have saved some had it come sooner — nor will it necessarily keep on the farm young people who have their eyes set on other occupations. Other industry challenges, outlined in last year’s economic impact study, include solving a farm workforce shortage and bringing better infrastructure and more technology to farms.
One of the farm bill’s biggest achievements simply will be to get the state focused on agriculture again. Subsequent bills should help the industry address emerging challenges in a prompt manner, and the state auditor general should review the current aid package’s programs to make sure they work as intended.
Never again should farmers have to wait 20 years for so comprehensive an aid package. That’s just poor husbandry on the state’s part.