The Pennsylvania House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee approved almost a dozen bills on Wednesday, most of which are part of the PA Farm Bill.
The degree of enthusiasm for the bills was underscored by the unanimous votes and lawmakers joking that their bills were “awesome” or the best.
“We all want to see our farmers and producers continue to grow and thrive here,” said Chairman Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint. “The industry literally puts food on our tables, but it also contributes billions to our economy and supports more than a half million jobs across the state.”
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf proposed the $24 million PA Farm Bill in February, though the bills were proposed by lawmakers from both parties. The bills were referred to the Rules Committee.
Here is what the approved bills would do:
• Create the Rapid Response Disaster Readiness Account. The Ag Department would use this money to fight animal and crop disease outbreaks — think avian influenza or the spotted lanternfly — and to address foodborne illnesses.
The amount of money for the program hasn’t been set, but Gov. Tom Wolf has requested $5 million.
• Create a state-level Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to invest in and encourage farming of high-priority crops like hemp, hops and hardwoods that are not eligible for the federal grants.
• Create a grant program to reimburse federal meat inspection costs for small or new processors.
• Re-establish a grant program to educate elementary school students about healthy eating and expose them to agriculture.
• Re-establish a grant program to fund agricultural youth organizations. FFA, 4-H, Ag in the Classroom and vocational education programs are among the programs that would qualify.
• Re-establish a low-interest loan program administered by the State Conservation Commission in conjunction with lending institutions for the implementation of agricultural and conservation best management practices.
• Protect agritourism from lawsuits in which no party is at fault for injuries or damages. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Barbara Gleim, who has operated a corn maze on her farm.
• Amend the existing PA Preferred program to bolster enrollment in Homegrown by Heroes, a veteran farmer program.
• Establish the Pennsylvania Agricultural Business Development Center within the Department of Agriculture to serve as a resource to help every farmer create a business plan, transition plan or succession plan.
• Allow the State Conservation Commission to offer grants, low-interest loans and tax credits to help farmers and landowners implement conservation best management practices. The companion bill passed the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee on Tuesday, with the loan and tax credit options removed.
Two other ag bills passed the Senate committee this week. The bills would adjust the rules for building houses on preserved farms, and add the tree of heaven to the noxious weed list.