Lancaster Study Will Seek Ways to Improve Ag Infrastructure

11/30/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

LANCASTER, Pa. — Fertile soil is only part of the reason Lancaster County is known as an agricultural hot spot.

The county is also home to a host of companies that cater to farmers: equipment dealers, feed mills, agricultural lenders, food manufacturers.

“That infrastructure, frankly, has left major areas of Pennsylvania” but remains strong in Lancaster, Michael Pechart, the state’s executive deputy secretary of agriculture, said Nov. 21 at the county’s annual Agriculture Summit at the Farm and Home Center.

The Lancaster County Agriculture Council, which organized the summit, wants to keep the county’s ag services sector strong — and make it even stronger.

To that end, the council announced at the summit the launch of a yearlong project to study the county’s ag infrastructure.

The study’s goals are to set benchmarks based on the current state of agriculture and to find ways to increase supply chain efficiency, said Scott Sheely, executive director of the Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board.

The Ag Council originally planned to study the county’s foodshed, the region where its food comes from. The council soon decided that making a blueprint for farm-centric economic development, especially regarding agricultural services, would be more beneficial.

“What are those things that the industry requires, and how do they feed into the industry?” Sheely asked.

Lancaster County businesses already supply many of the farming industry’s inputs.

Most of the lime spread in the county was quarried here, and the county’s produce wholesalers, machine dealers and veterinarians supply a majority of the county’s needs in those areas.

The council is also trying to find ag services that could be strengthened. “Where are the gaps?” Sheely asked.

The Agriculture Council will then try to shorten the supply chain by bringing new companies to the county to fill those gaps.

Penn State agricultural economist James Dunn explained that agriculture affects Lancaster County in many ways.

Lancaster farmers gross nearly $1.2 billion annually, the highest total for any U.S. county that does not use widespread irrigation.

Animal agriculture is key to Lancaster’s success, Dunn said. It is hard to have the county’s high land values and simply grow commodity crops, which can be produced on much cheaper land in states west of here, Dunn said.

The county boasts one-quarter of the state’s meat animals and one-fifth of its dairy industry, he said.

Agriculture’s effect on Lancaster County’s strong tourism sector is also considerable, but it is hard to calculate, Dunn said.

Many people visit agritourism and agritainment destinations in the county, but people also like simply driving past fields and seeing farmers, especially Amish people, working the land.

About 10 million tourists visit Lancaster County each year, Dunn said.

Together, the county’s farm products and agricultural tourism generate $3.33 billion annually, Dunn said.

But that figure does not include the county’s farm-service industries.

Though Lancaster County has a strong ag infrastructure, “there’s virtually nothing that’s self-sufficient within the county,” Dunn said. “We don’t really want that.”

Interacting with industries from other counties and states allows farmers and businesses to take advantage of other regions’ strengths. Lancaster feed mills can import corn and soybeans from the west. Most local hog farmers use processors in Bucks County, he said.

The council has identified several parts of the supply chain that the county does and does not currently provide.

Some sectors, such as software development and fuel refinement, may not inconvenience farmers by being outside the county.

On the other hand, Sheely, the workforce investment director, said the lack of in-county soybean processors is a deficiency that directly hurts farmers. He believes Perdue’s planned soybean plant near Elizabethtown will improve that situation.

The county’s many food manufacturers are also facing increased pressure from food safety requirements and struggling to find employees “who are willing to work at these rather hard jobs,” Dunn said.

David Nikoloff, president of the Economic Development Co. of Lancaster County, said the county also faces a shortage of buildings suitable for food processing.

Visiting executives from expanding processors see lots of open land, but much of that land is blocked from development by things like farmland preservation and urban growth boundaries, he said.

There are only four vacant buildings of at least 100,000 square feet in the whole county. Full occupancy for a region is usually defined as 4 to 5 percent vacancy. The county is at 2.5 percent vacancy.

“That’s a big worry,” Nikoloff said.

Despite that challenge, some companies are interested in locating in Lancaster. The Economic Development Co. hopes to finalize plans in December to bring a French company to the county to start a fruit-processing plant, Nikoloff said.

James Cowhey, the executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, said pressure to rezone agricultural land for commercial use has declined over the past decades.

Sixty-eight percent of the county’s land is farmland. Nearly all of it is in effective agriculture zoning, which makes development more difficult, he said.

“I believe the right policies are in place” at the county and municipal levels to keep Lancaster County from losing its farms to sprawl, as has happened in Chester and Montgomery counties, he said.

Now, Lancastrians have to be open to using urban growth areas better, he said.

County residents tend to oppose the development of farmland, even close to urban areas. That attitude can help protect farmland, Cowhey said, but “sometimes it makes sense to rezone” agricultural land.

Linda Aleci, a Franklin and Marshall College professor who works with the Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign, said the Ag Council’s heavy focus on services for mainstream agriculture could neglect the different supply chain needs of the locavore market.

The direct marketing sector is “very fragile” because of increased competition and a lack of meat processors who offer high-end options like curing and specialty cuts, she said.

The Ag Council plans to release the findings of the infrastructure study at next year’s Ag Summit.

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