HARRISBURG, Pa. — This summer, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding’s focus is as wide-ranging as the industry he represents.
He and his team are responding to several federal legislative proposals on organic and animal health issues, organizing town hall meetings about the new produce rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act, and preparing for the summer fair season.
However, three issues rise to the top at the agenda — the state budget, Chesapeake Bay reboot and economic development.
Redding spoke to members of the Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations about these issues on Monday.
Last week, he spoke with farmers in Lackawanna County about top agriculture needs for northeastern Pennsylvania.
The overlap of the 2015-16 budget and the proposed 2016-17 budget has made the issue a popular but confusing topic of conservation.
The current budget is finally being implemented with the next due July 1.
“I think we are at a point where the ’15-16 budget is unraveled and all of the knots are out of it,” Redding said.
There are a couple of items, such as agriculture research fund transfers to the universities, that have to be finalized, but things are wrapping up.
“We are starting from a good spot; we are advocating for it,” he said of the administration’s 2016-17 budget proposal, which includes increases in his department’s operating budget, ag research and Extension.
The House has begun its deliberations on the package with House Bill 1999, which is in the House Appropriations Committee.
The impasse over the 2015-16 budget revealed the lack of a framework to move work between the three Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratories in the event one is forced to go offline.
When the lab at Penn State announced it would have to shut down due to lack of funds earlier this spring, there was no plan in place to shift the work and funding to the other labs.
New agreements between the labs now include the details that would be needed to transfer that work and funding.
Discussion also continues on what to do with counties and municipalities rescinding their food safety, and weight and measures designations.
Redding told council members that the number of counties turning back their designation for weights and measure is up to 54, nearly double from when he left the department more than four years ago.
With the state staff remaining relatively unchanged, it’s been placing a significant strain on resources, he said.
Destiny Zeiders, the Democratic executive director of House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, told council members to talk with their legislators about what they would like to see in this year’s budget.
State Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich, D-Taylor, the host for a farmer roundtable last week at Keith Eckel’s farm in Clarks Summit, said work continues on the budget.
“The biggest discussion is where the revenue is going to come from as we head down the stretch,” Kavulich said by phone after the Lackawanna County meeting.
The shortfall from the last budget is going to play a role in the decisions that need to be made this summer about the next budget, which is due July 1.
“There is a willingness to get something done,” Kavulich said. “We don’t want to see a long-extended budget impasse. ...
“There is an urgency to get it passed” because another failure to pass a budget on time could further erode the state’s credit rating, he said.
Redding announced Monday that he had attended a Team Pennsylvania Foundation board meeting after the public/private partnership modified its bylaws to include the state agriculture secretary and representatives from the agriculture industry.
“That is important because Team Pennsylvania is focused on economic development,” Redding said, and this was the first time that agriculture was being included in the discussion.
Redding also announced that an advisory board will be formed to represent the state’s diverse agricultural interests to help guide the state’s agricultural initiatives, such as his department’s strategic plan for the state’s agriculture industry.
Redding said he hopes to get back on track with strategic planning, which he described as a 10-year projection of where state agriculture is headed, and what investments will be needed to support current activities and adapt to emerging opportunities.
Redding spoke at both meetings about the state’s Chesapeake Bay “reboot.”
He said standard operating procedures for conservation districts have been outlined showing how the districts will review farms and protocols for compliance.
Four counties — York, Franklin, Luzerne and Dauphin — have opted out of the program.
“I’m hopeful that we can come back to these counties,” Redding said. “Most made the decision before the standard operating procedures were finalized.”
Redding also said he has had several phone conversations with Patrick McDonnell, acting environmental protection secretary, since the resignation of John Quigley as secretary.
Redding is scheduled to meet with McDonnell this week to discuss the Chesapeake Bay program.
He said farmers have plenty to be proud about with the announcement of a drop in water nutrient level in the Chesapeake Bay watershed by the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science.
“We have work to do, but we have made progress,” Redding said.