FOGELSVILLE, Pa. — Nearly three dozen farmers from Berks and Lehigh counties gathered on March 2 at the Fogelsville Fire Company to meet with Russell Redding, Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture, to discuss regional concerns and learn about the state of agriculture on a legislative level.
State Sen. Pat Browne, R-Allentown, and state Rep. Gary Day, R-Heidelberg Township, have been sponsoring the annual meeting for eight years.
“My farmers really like to have contact with the secretary,” Day said.
Ellen Kern, who works for Browne, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, brought copies of the budget hearings for review.
Redding began by saying that although the week of budget hearings can be a demanding one, there is also a deep appreciation and support for agriculture in those hearings.
“What we’re being asked to do in this department ... is not different than what people in agriculture are already doing,” and that is making challenging decisions, he said.
“We’ve been on a path of change for many years,” he said. “We take a long view of this business.”
The governor’s proposed budget for agriculture, he said, protects the core animal, plant and food safety aspects of the department.
The proposal for Penn State Extension is $51.8 million for 2017-18, picking up additional funding for the College of Agricultural Sciences and land preservation.
Redding also talked about the six counties and 74 municipalities where the invasive spotted lanternfly has been found.
The state is in partnership with the USDA to determine how to contain and eradicate this pest. Farmers in the audience said they thought the general public needed to be made more aware of the pest to aid in its eradication.
Redding urged those present to examine vehicles and wood vigilantly for signs of the lanternfly, and he said experiments are underway to determine an effective spray control.
Switching to efforts to improve water quality, Redding said voluntary practices are now quantifiable and outnumber cost-share practices three to one, with credit being given to farmers for their voluntary improvements.
Biosecurity in poultry operations continues to be a big concern because of the threat from highly pathogenic avian flu, he said, with hundreds of thousands of tests being conducted on poultry every year.
With Pennsylvania in one of the four U.S. flyways, the observation and study of migratory birds and poultry flocks continues to be important, he said.
Redding said he has been following current developments with proposed and existing trade agreements, which have serious ramifications for agriculture, as well as visa issues for foreign farmworkers in the U.S.
Redding said he would like to see the Port of Philadelphia back on the assets list for the state with decontamination sites for lumber to help those exports move through a state port.
Redding emphasized the importance of the state’s small farms and the need for their continued existence, particularly those that served farmers markets.
With consumers increasingly wanting to know where their food comes from, farmers need to find platforms to express their heritage and pride in farming, he said.
“We need to take on the responsibility of telling the story,” Redding said.
The farmers in attendance asked a variety of questions, from the nature of farmer diversity to dairy prices to grain dealership bonding.
Redding said the noxious weed law has been revised and improved upon, and is pending review. Palmer amaranth has been added to the list, some weeds have been reclassified, and others have been removed.
As the new law is written, there is no exemption for public or private lands, he said.
Redding referred to the “lost premium” of the dairy industry, with milk that is produced and sold here being processed out of state.
He said no new bill has been introduced dealing with the transparency issue for premiums for milk produced, processed and sold within the state.
Redding said he is trying to find a way to improve upon this process in lieu of legislation.
He suggested that the market of the future will want segmentation of farms, as the idea of milk being a commodity stops and milk regains its status as a Pennsylvania product with its own story and heritage.
As for bonding for grain dealers, Redding and Day acknowledged the concerns of farmers, but Day discouraged farmers from pursuing a state-led financial safety net.
After a comment from the audience concerning adversarial and competitive farm marketing, Redding expressed disappointment at what he described as “agriculture feeding on agriculture,” saying that legitimizes those who intentionally want to put a wedge between farmers who use organic versus conventional practices.
He said a diversity of options for consumers is key to the collective survival of state agriculture.
“The emphasis is where we are getting our food from,” he said.
As for the debate over genetically engineered food, Redding said he is interested to see how the consumer market reacts to the Arctic apple, which has been modified against browning.
With a capability that enhances a consumer’s interaction with food, he said, perhaps the divisive thoughts of GMOs will change.
Liz Wagner is a freelance writer in New Tripoli, Pennsylvania.