Pennsylvania farmers would not be pushed to go organic under Gov. Tom Wolf’s ambitious plan for agriculture.
They would merely get some extra help if they want to join one of the state’s signature ag sectors.
“It’s voluntary to buy it. It’s voluntary to grow it. But you’ve got to figure out in the business plan whether that’s something you really want to pursue or not,” Ag Secretary Russell Redding said Wednesday during a joint hearing of the House and Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs committees.
Programs for organic farmers account for just $1.6 million of Wolf’s $24 million PA Farm Bill proposal.
But several lawmakers said farmer constituents have called them questioning the department’s motives.
Growers are worried the proposal will pit organic and conventional growers against each other, said Sen. Elder Vogel, chairman of the Senate committee.
Sen. Judith Schwank, the committee’s top Democrat, said she’s been asked, “Is that where we’re going? Is that the only thing we’re going to support?”
Those fears are unfounded, Redding said. The state remains supportive of both conventional and organic methods.
The PA Farm Bill was designed to encourage fledgling industries and build on the state’s strengths — including dairy, poultry, swine and, yes, organics.
Pennsylvania ranks second, behind only California, in total organic sales.
“One of the real blessings of Pennsylvania is we can accommodate all forms of production,” Redding said. “And where people see opportunities, they certainly ought to avail themselves of that.”
“There’s room for everyone at the table,” Shannon Powers, an Ag Department spokeswoman, reiterated in an interview late Wednesday.
The top priority of the Farm Bill organic initiative would be increasing technical assistance to help farmers during their transition to organic.
During that three-year period, farmers aren’t allowed to use the synthetic chemicals banned from organic production, but they don’t get the organic premium for their products either.
The Rodale Institute and Penn State Extension do offer technical assistance, but there just aren’t a lot of agronomists in the state who have expertise in the organic transition, Redding said.
The Farm Bill would also bolster organic research and marketing.
The proposed PA Preferred Organic program, for example, would combine the branding power of the USDA organic seal and the PA Preferred logo.
Financial assistance to farmers could also be part of the Farm Bill, though it’s not yet clear how great that demand would be, Redding said.
Despite the Wolf administration’s professedly benign intentions, skeptical farmers have been questioning the role of the organic initiative since the PA Farm Bill was rolled out at a Hershey farm back in February.
Responding to a farmer at the event, Wolf emphasized that the organic program was simply a way to help interested farmers seize a marketing opportunity.
“This is not an attempt to say, ‘OK, let’s just stop doing what we’re doing and start something else,’” he said.
Still, the organic question came up at a House Appropriations Committee hearing earlier this month before becoming a major topic of discussion this week.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Vogel wondered whether a state program was even the right strategy to help organic farmers.
“If the chicken people want organic soybeans, then go to the market and ask farmers to grow them, and pay them accordingly,” he said.
Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman Mark O’Neill said his group hasn’t heard from farmers worried about the state pushing them into organic production.
Organic and conventional farming are both good, and the state just needs to treat them equally so all farmers can prosper, he said.
Certainly, farmers wouldn’t want to be forced into organic, but “I don’t think that’s the intent of any of this,” O’Neill said.
For those willing to follow the rules, organic farming in Pennsylvania could be appealing.
Organic livestock feed from the Midwest and Europe could easily be replaced with locally grown grain.
The Northeastern U.S. offers a huge market for organic food.
And of course, the high prices for organic often mean extra money in the farmer’s pocket.
“There’s folks who are very passionate about organic, you know, and there are folks who may be even of the opinion that it’s all just kind of a marketing gimmick,” said Rep. John Lawrence, R-West Grove. “But I think what’s undeniable is that consumers are looking for it, and consumers are willing to pay a premium price for it.”
Still Lawrence, like Redding, said it would be wrong to privilege one production method over another.
“It can’t be an either-or, like we’re either for traditional farming or for organic,” Lawrence said. “It’s got to be a both-and.”