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Sen. Bob Casey listens to Steve Hershey speak about the workforce challenges for farmers.

WASHINGTON BORO, Pa. — Now is the time to lay the groundwork for the 2018 Farm Bill according to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who held a listening session Wednesday at Franklin View Farms in Washington Boro.

Casey is working with other members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee to gather information for the legislation.

“Some of the work has been done, but we have a long way to go,” said Casey, who is the ranking minority member on the Subcommittee on Nutrition, Specialty Crops and Agriculture.

Noting that this is his third Farm Bill markup, Casey admits the Margin Protection Program for Dairy in the 2014 Farm Bill “did not get the job done” in helping farmers manage risk.

“We have to make sure we come up with a better idea,” he said. “That could include premiums and other approaches to dairy that we have not tried before.”

Dairy producer Rob Barley of Star Rock Farms said the original idea in the 2014 Farm Bill “would not have solved all of our problems but would have been a lot more effective.”

Changes suggested by the Congressional Budget Office regarding the feed formula weakened the program’s intentions, he said.

This year is shaping up to be a good corn harvest, and Dick Cole, grain marketing manager for Perdue AgriBusiness, projects 160 million bushels of corn will be harvested in Pennsylvania.

But that will still be short of the 200 million bushels the state’s farmers need to feed their livestock, Cole said. That extra grain comes in by rail and the rates for delivering that corn continue to climb about 3 percent a year, which increases feed costs.

“Three-fourths of agriculture receipts in Pennsylvania come from animal agriculture,” said David Swartz, a Penn State Extension educator. “We can’t grow enough grain to feed all of these animals.”

If the higher feed costs are not accounted for in the new MPP formula, “the industry will migrate to where the grain is,” he warned.

“As I talk to farmers, it’s the feed cost issue that does not make it an effective program for Pennsylvania,” Swartz said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee made several changes to MPP during its markup of the 2018 ag appropriations bill before forwarding it for a full vote of the Senate.

The changes are intended to lower the cost for small to medium-size farms, making it more likely to trigger payments.

If the bill passes, those changes will go into effect in 2018 instead of 2020, Casey said.

Chris Hoffman, vice president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, suggested that milk be treated as a commodity instead of being managed under the livestock programs.

That could open up additional risk management options similar to corn and other commodity crops, he said.

Dairy producer Brandon Weary, who is also a board member for AgChoice Farm Credit, said his farm in Cumberland County benefited from crop insurance after the 2016 drought.

“This year, I will be jumping up and down,” he said. “We are going to have a premium to pay because our crop is looking well.”

Many farmers are worried about having a reliable workforce, but Tom Barley, Rob Barley’s brother, said current programs do not provide the stable, long-term workforce dairy farmers need.

Steve Hershey, president of the Lancaster County Farm Bureau, said dairy and poultry get lumped into the same category as farms that employ migrant workers on a seasonal basis. But livestock and dairy farms need a year-round workforce.

That issue is controversial in Washington, Casey said. “It will require real statecraft and an awful lot of work because of the way the issue has been argued for some time.”

Cole said he works with farmers in 45 counties and has seen their need for better technology.

“We have a number of areas where our farmers really struggle for cell service or internet service,” he said. That lack can hamper farmers’ ability to decide how they will market their crops.

Casey said 40 percent of rural America does not have access to rural broadband and he’s an advocate for improving that.

Cheryl Cook, state deputy secretary of agriculture, said USDA’s farmland preservation program does not fit well in Pennsylvania because of its restrictions on impermeable surfaces.

Farms can have only 2 percent of the farmland under impermeable surfaces, which makes it hard for farmers to diversify their operations with such facilities as poultry houses, she said.

Nelson Breneman told Casey he believes there should be better cooperation among lawmakers working on the Farm Bill and other issues.

“What is happening in politics?” Breneman asked. “This is not working together.”

Casey said the Farm Bill is unusual in the amount of bipartisan spirit it generates and when schisms do appear they usually break along regional rather than political lines.

“We have to continue to develop broad coalitions to get the work done,” he said.

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