LANCASTER, Pa. — “Organic farming is the future for Pennsylvania and it’s also the future for America,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, on Friday, Feb. 7, at a luncheon of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s annual conference, held for the first time in Lancaster after many years in State College.

Statistics from previous years show that 44 percent of the PASA conference attendees are typically under age 35.

“This is really important for the future of Pennsylvania agriculture, when the average farmer age is 59 years,” said Hannah Smith-Brubaker, PASA’s executive director.

Walking among the conference workshops and events, the enthusiasm and energetic youthful participation of this group is palpable. It is a hopeful sign for the future of farming in a state where herd sales and bankruptcies are increasing and more farms are being lost to rising input costs, outsourcing of food production, pricing pressures, market volatility and unmanageable debt, in some cases.

The number of conference registrations this year was 1,876, said Smith-Brubaker, up by more than 500 people from 2018, including 350 walk-in registrations. According to past year statistics, PASA conference attendees also are diverse, with typically more than 50 percent women. And, 65 percent of the farmers at the conference have 10 or fewer years of experience, so education sessions include workshops geared to both beginners and advanced levels.

Growing interest in sustainable farming approaches was also evident by joint programming taking place this year. According to Smith-Brubaker, on the first day of the conference, PASA was joined part of the day by the annual Dairy Summit — the state’s dairy producers and industry representatives — which included a dairy panel with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Additional joint programming happened via cooperation with the former Growing Pennsylvania Organic Farms and the Pennsylvania Farm Markets’ Farmers Market Manager conferences.

The youthful impact of the sustainable farm conference increased with the number of FFA students who attended as volunteers for the first time. FFA students from Cumberland Valley and Greenwood donated a half day of service and then were able to attend workshops.

When asked what he is doing to support new, young organic farmers, such as those attending the PASA conference, Casey talked about the Farm Bill’s new Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) Program, which was authorized with $435 million in mandatory funding.

“This program will provide education and training for beginning farmers and will provide guidance to farmers in utilizing USDA resources,” he stated. “Additionally, the Farm Bill promotes a beginning farmer research initiative, focusing on issues that most impact beginning farmers as they start and develop their businesses.”

At the Friday conference, Heidi Secord presented Casey with the National Farmers Union’s Golden Triangle Award, offered annually to legislators who make a significant difference in the lives of farmers through their legislative priorities.

A topic on the mind of keynote speaker Mike Hoffman is how climate change is affecting farming. He is with the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, which makes available to farmers its array of climate-smart farming tools for free. The tools include things like a winter cover crop planting scheduler; an apple stage freeze damage probability; a water-deficit calculator; and spring forecasting.

“The Hardiness Zone has shifted north from 1990 to 2012,” Hoffman said. “Last year was a tough year,” referencing the Mid-Atlantic region’s excessive rains which affected planting and harvesting for many farms.

“Talking about climate change can be overwhelming, even depressing,” he said, “but we’re going to talk about solutions. ... Everyone has a role (and can act).”

There are many examples of how climate change is affecting food production, Hoffman said. For instance, onions grown in the Northwest have been developing multiple “hearts” due to warmer temperatures. He mentioned the rise in vanilla prices last year, due to Madagascar’s excessive weather events — a major cyclone followed by drought — that damaged the vanilla orchids that produce the majority of the world’s vanilla. And, large ships can no longer travel through a major thoroughfare, the Panama Canal, due to lower water depths from the changing climate.

“The season length has gotten longer in Warren County, New York,” where Cornell has been studying climate effects specifically. He wants to help farmers to take advantage of that, and to adapt.

On Feb. 8, PASA honored three leaders in the sustainable agriculture community with its annual PASAbilities Awards.

The Sustainable Agriculture award went to Ike and Lisa Kerschner, of North Star Orchard in Cochranville. Their farm is known for growing more than 350 varieties of apples as well as many varieties of other fruits and vegetables.

The Sustainable Agriculture Community Leadership award went to direct-market farmers Bill and Pat Callahan, of Cow-A-Hen Farm in Centre County.

And, the Sustainable Agriculture Business Leadership award was presented to BUGS of Pittsburgh. Originating from the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners movement, the cooperative works for food justice issues.

“The PASA conference is an exploration of the financial, environmental and social benefits of ecologically minded agriculture,” Smith-Brubaker said. “Our annual conference gives farmers and supporters across the sustainable agriculture spectrum an opportunity to connect with and learn from each other. This year’s conference ... was full of farmer diversity: beginning and established; rural and urban; natural, organic, no-till, sensible, regenerative, you name it. Everyone is welcome.”