Rick Ebert Nov 16 2021

Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, speaks Tuesday at a press conference during the organization’s annual meeting in Hershey, Pa.

HERSHEY, Pa. — Rick Ebert has a clear strategy to keep Pennsylvania farms competitive — fund climate mitigation and rural internet, and write smarter regulations for the dairy and meat industries.

“I believe Pennsylvania agriculture is poised for growth,” Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said in a press conference Tuesday during the group’s annual meeting at the Hershey Lodge.

The ag industry’s growth will depend in part on the expansion of internet service in rural areas.

Farm Bureau, like other ag and rural groups, has redoubled its focus on rural broadband since the start of the pandemic, when work and school at home highlighted the poor or nonexistent internet service in many sparsely populated areas.

The rollout has been hindered nationwide because it doesn’t pay for companies to run wires in areas with just a few potential customers.

In Pennsylvania, the effort has been further slowed by the lack of a statewide plan for deploying internet infrastructure. A bill from former ag committee Chairman Rep. Martin Causer would rectify that problem by creating a state broadband authority, Ebert said.

Ebert also expects Pennsylvania to get broadband grants of at least $100 million from the $1 trillion infrastructure funding package that President Joe Biden signed Monday.

Democrats have been eager to tie that infrastructure package to another huge spending bill for social programs.

The bill contains conservation funding that Ebert would welcome, but Farm Bureau opposes the legislation because it includes, among other sticking points, steep increases in fines for workplace accidents. Farmers want to keep their workers safe, Ebert said, but ag labor comes with inherent risks.

“There was just too many detrimental things yet in that bill,” he said.

That doesn’t mean Farm Bureau is down on Democrats. Ebert emphasized that Farm Bureau is bipartisan and invites candidates of both parties to visit its office.

Those meetings can be the start of long, fruitful relationships.

When U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson was running for Congress the first time, he took a meeting with Farm Bureau. What Ebert expected to be a one-hour sitdown turned into a three-hour discussion. Thompson is now the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee and a major advocate for the dairy industry.

And Ebert thinks the dairy industry could use some help to avoid a repeat of the negative producer price differentials seen last year and earlier this year.

This pricing mechanism was changed in the 2018 Farm Bill to improve milk buyers’ ability to hedge. But the new formula can cost farmers big time when cheese and powder diverge widely, as they did last year.

Ebert, a Westmoreland County dairy farmer, has been part of a national Farm Bureau committee seeking ways to simplify and modernize the arcane system of federal milk pricing.

“It’s a heavy lift to do that,” he said.

The pandemic has also underscored hopes for expansion in small-scale meat processing. Pennsylvania has a program to help small meat processors upgrade and grow, and its funding should be increased, Ebert said.

Ebert also wants the state and federal governments to look at their voluminous meat processing regulations to see if they can be made less onerous for small processors — without sacrificing food safety.

“I think it’s worth a conversation,” Ebert said.

As the U.S. pursues climate change mitigation, Ebert wants farmers to get funding, rather than new requirements, for implementing conservation practices.

“Regulation and mandates don’t make sense when farmers are willing to roll up their sleeves and be part of the solution,” he said.

If carbon markets reward newly adopted conservation practices, that system could greatly benefit Midwestern farmers who have large acreage but lag on adopting conservation practices.

That framework may be less remunerative in Pennsylvania, where many farmers are already using no-till and cover crops, Ebert said.

Ebert wants a chance for Eastern farmers to benefit, but he doesn’t want to create a perverse incentive for farmers to revert to tillage for a year just so they can later claim to be implementing new conservation practices.

Ebert also wants the state Legislature to pass the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program, which would use federal American Rescue Plan money to create a new funding source for conservation districts to implement best management practices.

So far the Western states have arguably gotten the worst of the weather problems attributed to climate change, such as severe drought and wildfires.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has maintained a good climate for growing many crops. While Ebert sees many ways to improve the state’s ag policies, plentiful water is already a strength.

“We need to do all we can,” Ebert said, “to sell Pennsylvania as a premier agriculture state.”

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