NEW CASTLE, Pa. — The PA Farm Bill is Pennsylvania’s boldest plan for the ag industry in years, but many of the people who would benefit from the proposal are still trying to make sense of it.
“I wasn’t aware of what all was in the Farm Bill,” said Leonard Stewart, a crop and beef farmer who also owns a feed mill and farm store.
Stewart and about 65 people gathered at Elder Farms in Lawrence County on May 30 to hear Ag Secretary Russell Redding speak about the proposal.
The trip was at least Redding’s third to western Pennsylvania to promote the $24 million plan, which was announced in February by Gov. Tom Wolf.
Redding previously visited Ernst Conservation Seeds in Meadville and an urban farm in Braddock that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman helped found.
“Anytime you can have someone from Harrisburg come to western Pennsylvania to talk about agriculture, it is a good thing,” said Loren Elder, who runs the host farm with his brother and grandfather.
Elder was especially pleased that the Farm Bill would increase the lifetime cap for the Resource Enhancement and Protection tax credit.
The tax credits are given as a percentage of the cost of no-till equipment, conservation plan writing, stream bank fencing, riparian buffers and manure storage tanks.
Stewart was particularly interested in programs that could help young farmers. His daughter and son-in-law want to buy into the family farm.
The Farm Bill would create an Ag Business Development Center, which would help farmers with business, transition and succession planning.
An exemption to the realty transfer tax would also be available for the transfer of preserved farmland to early-career farmers with a bit of experience.
Greg McKean, a Certified Angus Beef farmer from Mercer County, said he’s happy with the Wolf administration’s existing efforts to help beef farmers, but he has reservations about the Farm Bill.
“I think the topics are too broad. I appreciate that they came to our area in support of agriculture, and it may be a start, but I was not impressed,” McKean said.
Henry Karki, a Lawrence County beef farmer, was even more skeptical.
“I have been staunchly opposed to the approach that the governor takes with environmental issues,” he said. “Considering past history, I am suspicious as to what is in the details.”
Karki said he also was concerned about where the money would come from.
The state is in its best fiscal position in a decade, but the Farm Bill spending would count as all new expenditures.
Elder liked the strategy of putting the Farm Bill in the regular state budget. That’s better than a bond issue or some other one-time effort, he said.
Michonda Weber, who runs the catering division of her family’s meat processing business, appreciated the proposal to help meat processors become USDA inspected, a status necessary to retail meat.
She’s well aware of the extensive rules that butchering companies must follow.
“Often the regulations are designed for large processing plants and can be overwhelming for small operators,” Weber said.
Meat businesses aren’t the only processors who would benefit from the Farm Bill.
The plan would renew a $5 million grant program to help dairy farmers improve their marketing or add processing.
The Farm Bill also would create an account for rapid response to invasive pests and disease outbreaks, bolster the PA Preferred branding program, and offer farmers conservation assistance.
Lawmakers have generally been enthusiastic about the Farm Bill, which is being introduced as more than a dozen pieces of legislation.
Many bills have already passed their first tests in committee, and a few have even passed one chamber.
This flurry of activity has come during spring planting season, a particularly busy time for farmers.
Rick Telesz, a dairy and crop farmer from Lawrence County, called the Farm Bill proposal a good start for Pennsylvania.
“I see that the state government recognizes the need to secure the future of agriculture,” he said.