Plans for PA russell redding

The admirable work of Pennsylvania farmers as stewards of our natural resources was on full display last month at Ag Progress Days, alongside tremendous strides we have made in technology and science since I was a teenager on our family dairy farm. This reinforced my belief that telling the story of conservation and the important work our farmers are doing every day to improve healthy soil and clean water is critical.

I saw USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service using rotational grazing paddocks for beef and equine producers, demonstrating the value of managing pastures for minimum water runoff and maximum soil health.

Precision agriculture was everywhere. GPS systems installed on equipment and at dealer kiosks showcased products available to farmers to increase productivity, reduce crop inputs and increase bottom lines. There were sprayers that scan crops as they pass through fields, carefully applying the exact product amount needed for optimal crop performance. And drones gave a bird’s-eye view to analyze fields and pinpoint trouble spots. This all demonstrates how technology is shaping production agriculture and benefiting us all.

I appreciated remarks by Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Cosmo Servidio during the American Dairy Association North East’s dairy appreciation luncheon. He recognized farmers for focused efforts to improve soil health and water quality, and affirmed EPA’s support in working with farmers to continue making important strides locally and downstream. One example of this commitment was the recognition of Marie and David Graybill, recipients of the Dairying for Tomorrow award for their tireless conservation work and advocacy for on-farm conservation.

The department had the opportunity to showcase the PA Farm Bill — a victory for Pennsylvania and agriculture — spearheaded by Gov. Tom Wolf and championed by both the Pennsylvania House and Senate. The department is already beginning to implement the programs unveiled in the PA Farm Bill. Several of those are direct investments in conservation.

The popular Resource Enhancement and Protection program received a $3 million boost in funding. REAP awards tax credits to farms as reimbursement for equipment, nutrient and manure management plans, and best management practices. The legislation also increased the per-farm cap for REAP funds to $250,000 over seven years. The PA Farm Bill re-established the Agri-Link Program, allocating $500,000 to buy down the interest rate on loans to make installing more expensive improvements more affordable.

The Conservation Excellence Grant Program, which will provide $2.5 million in financial and technical assistance to farmers for developing plans and implementing BMPs, is perhaps the PA Farm Bill’s most critical investment, not only in water quality, but also in farm viability.

In total, the PA Farm Bill invests $6 million in conservation.

Our partners at the state and federal level see that commitment to conservation — that we in agriculture are making serious long-term investments. Because of our good faith work, we can encourage all other Pennsylvanians to do their parts.

One piece of legislation that will help increase accountability for all Pennsylvanians is a bill that would update our state’s fertilizer law to apply the 4R principles farmers are using — right source, right rate, at the right time, in the right place — to nonagricultural fertilizer applications, particularly in suburban and urban areas like lawns, golf courses, and athletic fields. These amendments to the law would help ensure that homeowners and lawn-care professionals are making the same careful considerations and calculations that farmers make every day.

My thanks to Sen. Gene Yaw, chair of the Environmental Resources Committee, for championing this legislation, and to other members of the Legislature who supported it. I’m looking forward to its consideration, and I encourage a speedy passage through to Gov. Wolf’s desk.

The quality of our water is a shared responsibility by all — agriculture, industry, homeowners — requiring all hands on deck. Agriculture has deep roots in conservation stewardship, and we understand well the everyday worry of protecting our natural resources while running on-farm businesses and feeding our communities. This is what’s on display every day across Pennsylvania. Let’s continue to tell our conservation story and use the PA Farm Bill to accelerate our work.

I appreciate your commitment to agriculture and meeting the multiple expectations we as consumers have for you — food, groundwater recharge, jobs, and the quality of life in our communities. Thank you.

Russell Redding is Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture.