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Russell Redding

Pennsylvania farmers will soon have more help planning for their future.

The Ag Business Development Center, created in this summer’s PA Farm Bill, is set to open at the beginning of January.

The center, run by the state Ag Department, will help farmers develop business plans, marketing plans, succession and transition plans, maybe even conservation and biosecurity plans.

“It speaks to so many elements of change that are occurring,” said Ag Secretary Russell Redding.

Pennsylvania farmers are no strangers to change — in commodity prices, weather, consumer tastes, regulation, and family involvement in the farm.

Yet many farmers have only an amorphous strategy for steering their business through those inconstant times. A Center for Dairy Excellence study found that only 1 in 5 Pennsylvania dairy farmers has a formal business plan, Redding said.

The Ag Business Development Center will address that gap, but not by providing planning services directly to farmers.

Instead, Redding said, the center will use its $2 million in state funding to give grants to help farmers access planning services and to increase planning assistance in underserved parts of the state.

Advisers could come from private consulting firms and nonprofits as well as Extension and the Pennsylvania Small Business Development centers.

Farmers may be able to assemble a team of advisers, similar to the profit teams offered by the Center for Dairy Excellence, Redding said.

The Ag Business Development Center’s mission is broad by design. It will fund many kinds of plans, and it will help both farmers who already know what they want to do and those who are trying to decide their next steps.

Redding expects the center will get many calls from dairy farmers who, after several years of low prices, are looking to either fatten their milk checks or diversify.

The center replaces and expands on the mission of the state’s Center for Farm Transitions and Preserved Farms Resource Center.

Those two programs did not offer the private-sector partnerships that the new center does, said Shannon Powers, an Ag Department spokeswoman.

The state’s 5,600 preserved farms remain an important constituency, but the Ag Business Development Center is open to all farmers.

“We don’t at this point have any good sense of whether that is a 500 farmer number or a 5,000 number” who will seek the center’s help, Redding said.

The center is guided by a 12-member advisory board, which met for first time on Oct. 22.

Members include Redding; Dennis Davin, the secretary of community and economic development; Richard Roush, dean of Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences; lenders and a range of ag advisers.

As the center prepares to launch, the board is working on an inventory of existing ag services across the state and working out some final technical details.

A key question is whether the grants will be offered first-come, first-served or by competitive application.

Redding hopes it’s a mix of both. Advisory programs that receive block grants, for example, would accept clients according to their existing criteria.

And while Plain Sect farmers probably won’t seek help from the Ag Department directly, they might work with a grant-supported advisory group that they trust, Redding said.

In any case, the center’s funding won’t cover the entire cost of the programs it assists.

“There’ll have to be some skin in the game from the entity that’s asking for the service,” Redding said.

The Ag Business Development Center has taken a bit longer to start up than some other programs in the $23 million PA Farm Bill.

The $5 million Dairy Investment Program, for instance, was simply renewed from the previous budget year, and a few other programs were revived after a period of disuse.

The rules for the Ag Business Development Center had to be written from scratch.

Still, Redding said he’s eager to get the center launched in the coming weeks. Winter, after all, is when farms do much of their planning.

Lancaster Farming