HARRISBURG, Pa. — Gov. Tom Wolf has signed the PA Farm Bill, and farmers should be able to access many of the dozen new programs within a matter of weeks.
“In most cases we’re going to try to push them out right away,” Ag Secretary Russell Redding said after Monday’s signing ceremony.
As part of last week’s budget deal, the Republican-controlled Legislature gave Wolf $23.1 million of the $24 million he proposed for the Farm Bill back in February.
The programs will provide farm business planning, conservation grants and loans, and aid for dairy ventures, small meat processors, and agricultural youth organizations.
The state Ag Department developed guidelines for the programs over the past few months so that they could go live as quickly as possible once the budget was approved.
“If the farmers in Pennsylvania succeed, all of us do,” Wolf said.
The various programs will take different lengths of time to launch.
The $5 million Dairy Investment Program, created last year and reaffirmed in the Farm Bill, just needs the state to put out a new request for proposals.
Old programs that are being revived, such as the ag youth grants and the Farm to School program, already have guidelines that just need to be dusted off.
It’s the brand-new programs, such as the $2 million Ag Business Development Center, that have taken a little bit longer to develop.
The guidelines for some programs will need to be published for public review before going into force, but Redding still hopes to have most of the Farm Bill in operation within a couple months.
Farmers will need to fill out applications for certain programs. It will take the state some time to review that paperwork, so it’s especially important to make those forms available to farmers promptly, Redding said.
A few Farm Bill programs will start out a little smaller than Wolf envisioned.
The ag disaster readiness account got $4 million, $1 million less than Wolf requested.
And lawmakers took baby steps toward creating the PA Preferred Organic program, which would involve creating state organic standards that need approval from USDA.
As passed, the Farm Bill requires Redding to report to the House and Senate ag committees on the approval process.
“What the committees would like to see is a little more of a blueprint,” Redding said.
When that’s been clarified, $1.6 million will be there to get the organic program rolling.
The PA Farm Bill was passed with strong bipartisan support, with Republicans sponsoring many of the ideas proposed by Wolf, a Democrat.
The GOP also produced several separate ag bills, including a commission that would make recommendations for the future of the dairy industry.
The Ag Department released a dairy development plan of its own last year, which included attracting more processors and other steps to strengthen the state’s top farm sector.
Redding wants the new commission to complement, not rehash, what’s already been done, so he’s hoping to focus it on growth opportunities.
“We know what the problem is. We know what the issues are. Now the question is what do you do about innovation,” Redding said.
Harrisburg’s enthusiasm for agriculture does have its limits.
Wolf vetoed a Republican bill on Tuesday that would exempt milk haulers from highway travel restrictions during winter storms.
Haulers say they need to make timely deliveries of their perishable product, but administration leaders worry that the big trucks could contribute to traffic jams that leave motorists stranded during blizzards.
Redding contended on Monday that the bill reflects discontent over how the state handled storms early this winter and doesn’t account for changes in hauler notification that were made into March.
The bill might be more palatable if, for example, it required milk trucks to carry tire chains, he said.
Another divisive GOP bill would reduce the building code requirements for old barns that are converted into event venues.
Sprinkler systems and other upgrades can be expensive for farmers to install, but it’s hard for the administration to justify a waiver of fire suppression and handicapped accessibility requirements, Redding said.
“It’s not a no, but hopefully we can get some amendment there to give us some assurance on the public health and safety side,” Redding said.
The bill narrowly passed the Senate and is in committee in the House.
In general, though, this year offered the perfect conditions for ag legislation in Harrisburg.
Thanks to the strong economy, the state is in its best fiscal position since the Great Recession. The state had spent the past few years studying the needs of the ag industry. And the dairy industry’s well publicized struggles added urgency.
2019 was a welcome departure from the normal budget process, in which ag lawmakers have to beg just to get flat funding as the deadline nears, said Sen. Elder Vogel, the Republican chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.
Not every year will see tax revenue as strong as this year’s, but Redding thinks the inaugural Farm Bill has demonstrated the broad support agriculture enjoys across the state.
“Our hope is that, irrespective of the fiscal climate, that we can make a compelling case that agriculture needs to be invested in on a continuous basis,” Redding said.
Those investments could come through the new programs, or ones that didn’t make it into this year’s Farm Bill.
“There’s already been discussion about what the next one looks like,” Redding said.