Farmers Still Key to Growing Rural Economy

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks to the media as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, right, listens during the White House Rural Forum in Heritage Hall at Penn State's HUB-Robeson Center. Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016, in State College, Pa. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via AP)

If you want to build up the economy in rural Pennsylvania, look first to agriculture.

Young farmers need help getting their capital-intensive businesses off the ground, but the Keystone State already has a large ag industry and easy access to large markets.

“We can build on the strengths that are already there,” said Gov. Tom Wolf.

The governor spoke at the White House Rural Forum, a national gathering about business development and quality of life in rustic regions, on Wednesday at Penn State University.

The forum was presented by the White House Rural Council, which was launched by President Barack Obama and is headed by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Young farmers often have the enthusiasm but not the money to get started in farming, said Sophie Ackoff, the national field director at the National Young Farmers Coalition.

Ackoff knows that from experience. Her partner’s $30,000 student loan debt is preventing the couple from opening their own farm, she said.

At the same time, almost 80 percent of new farmers come from nonfarm families. Often, beginning growers are not inheriting land, and they have trouble getting credit.

“This new generation faces a unique set of challenges to getting started,” Ackoff said.

The credit problem has eased somewhat thanks to the Farm Service Agency’s microloan program, launched in 2013, Ackoff said.

The Young Farmers Coalition is also pushing to get farmers added to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

This federal program cancels the balance of a person’s student loans after 120 monthly student loan payments. Recipients must be working full time for the government or a nonprofit, or in fields such as public health or emergency management.

“We believe that farming is a public service,” Ackoff said.

Farmland preservation programs must be sustained, Ackoff said, as they help keep land in production and control the price of land.

Easement language stipulating that preserved farms must be sold to a working farmer could make it easier for farmers to compete with wealthy nonfarmers for land, Ackoff said.

Farmers also need to look for ways to increase the value of their work, said Emily Best, the general manager of Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative in Hustontown, Pennsylvania.

Best worked at a farm before becoming the co-op manager, and she said she knows what it is like to slog through a harvest only to realize, “Oh, I just made 4 bucks an hour.”

Part of her job at the co-op is negotiating with buyers to get a price at which co-op members can afford to grow a crop.

Best has also found some buyers who will take “ugly” produce at a discount. That way, farmers get at least some income for that produce, she said.

The co-op can also aggregate produce from several small farms to capture large-volume accounts, she said.

Organic growers like Best’s have been bolstered by a public interested in food production practices, but farmers can also benefit from the rapid growth in ag technology.

“These are extraordinary times in agriculture,” said Russell Redding, the Pennsylvania secretary of agriculture.

The United States excels in technology and education, yet global spending on agricultural research is declining, said Richard Roush, dean of Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

Education, such as Cooperative Extension programs, is necessary to get new, efficient practices into the fields. Without this support system, no-till took 40 years to catch on in Australia, Roush said.

The U.S. is also on the verge of being able to enhance the nutritional and health benefits of food using knowledge from medical research, Roush said.

Meanwhile, farmers need to be able to get their crops to market. Pennsylvania is in the midst of a push to repair 550 bridges, many in rural areas, Gov. Wolf said.

Improving education, health care, broadband and entertainment options in the country may also persuade young people that rural areas are enjoyable places to live, Wolf said.

At the federal level, USDA is in charge of many rural development efforts, even if they do not connect directly to agriculture.

“Production agriculture is at the core, but it has to be complemented,” Vilsack said.

At the Rural Forum, Vilsack announced $32 million in loans and grants for rural economic development and broadband access in 80 rural U.S. communities.

A $1.8 million grant, for example, will aid development of a fiber-optic network in two counties in southwestern Virginia. None of the funded programs were in Pennsylvania.

During Vilsack’s time as ag secretary, USDA has worked with other agencies to make government programs more suitable and accessible to rural people.

For example, the Department of Health and Human Services changed a rule that required medical staff to meet in person. Videoconferencing is now allowed, potentially saving a lot of travel time for rural doctors, Vilsack said.

Of course, USDA also has grant and loans programs to help farmers get into nascent agricultural industries, such as biofuel and local food, Vilsack said.

Farming has a big opportunity to help grow the economy of rural communities.