Russell Redding plans to spend much of next week talking to farmers at Ag Progress Days, the big trade show at Penn State’s Centre County research farm.
He’ll have plenty to discuss.
Pennsylvania’s ag secretary is leading the rollout of the PA Farm Bill, which was created earlier this summer and provides more than $20 million for new and expanded ag programs.
Meanwhile, dairy farmers continue to look for hope in a down market.
Redding spoke last week with Lancaster Farming about those and other hot topics in agriculture.
Following is the conversation, edited for length and context.
To start out, thinking about Ag Progress Days, what will you be doing up there?
Well, I always use Ag Progress Days as a chance to take that sort of midyear pulse of what’s happening in agriculture, you know, and really try to listen closely to what farmers are saying about what we’re doing in the department. But I also want to use it as a chance to talk about the Pennsylvania Farm Bill this year and the success we’ve had, but, more importantly, what it means to the farmers and ag community of Pennsylvania.
So you’ll be up there all three days, I imagine?
Be there all three days, and we have activities planned. ... We’ll participate with Penn State’s Dean Roush in a town hall, and Congressman G.T. Thompson’s there for a listening session. So we’ll put all this together in a busy schedule, but it’s always productive.
So what has been implemented with the Farm Bill so far? I’ve seen the urban ag piece at least.
Yeah, so we have the urban ag infrastructure grants. That opened yesterday, Aug. 1. We have the Dairy Investment Program that will open here in September. So those guidelines are ready to go since we’re working from the same structure we had last spring.
We are in the process of finalizing both the Farm to School and the Ag Youth Grants. We don’t have every day lined up, but our hope is, over the next two months, all of the different titles are active.
And the width allowance for farm machinery on the roads, is that in force now?
Yes, that’s there. That’s good to go. Yep, the 18 feet, that’s good.
Note: The change takes effect 60 days after the bill signing, so the 18-foot width allowance goes into effect Aug. 29, according to the Ag Department.
Why was urban ag one of the first ones out of the gate here?
Well, that’s interesting. So we have been talking about that for three years. We’ve done urban ag tours the last two with the proclamation from the governor. ... So it just happened to coincide with the week that we were on the road talking about it. ...
Our goal is to be pretty aggressive, as I said back when the bill passed, pretty aggressive in the rollout, and we want to stick to that. ...
Some of it means hiring some people. In other cases, it’s both writing of program requirements plus hiring. But in a short time here, all of those provisions will be rolled out.
What are some of the programs that require hiring?
There are a couple of positions that we have identified. One is in the business development center, and that’s to have somebody who is on staff who can, as I call it, sort of triage the business inquiries.
And that program, as you’re aware, has an allowance for business planning, marketing plans, succession planning, so you will have a lot of different calls coming into that same center.
And they’ll have to sort through the specific need, but also how do we link them up with the resources that are going to be required to fulfill that. So that’s one.
I had some questions, too, about dairy. I heard that milk prices might be increasing in the next couple months. So how are things looking for the dairy industry here in PA?
It’s all relative. They’re better than they were. I sense a little more optimism ... because of the prices. There’s an uptick.
Consumption continues to go up — not necessarily in the fluid category as we would want, but overall dairy consumption continues to hold and climb a bit.
I’d say some of that optimism depends on where you are in Pennsylvania, because of the weather.
If you’re in central PA where we’ve been blessed with adequate rain and got our crops in, it looks pretty good.
There are some other parts of the state that are struggling with the spring and, of course, delay in crops and the forage quality.
But overall, I’m much more optimistic about dairy and believe that we’ve gone through the most difficult period.
But we have to be vigilant. We’ve got to be smart about where we’re making investments, and that’s why I’m pleased to have this Dairy Future Commission to help guide us on that.
So are we still seeing dairy farms closing here and there?
Yeah, we are. We’re trying to track those numbers. I don’t have them in front of me, but I know that there are producers who are making that difficult decision of whether to stay or to exit.
And that’s continuing, and that obviously is disappointing, but I think it’s a result of the residual drag of the last two and a half years on farm income, and particularly on their ability to borrow.
And quite frankly, there are some producers who want to protect the equity they have in the event they want to come back into the dairy business. I respect them for that in this difficult decision.
Where are we at with trying to attract new processing to the state?
Yeah, that work continues. We have continued to pursue some of the early leads. Those folks who we’ve been in contact with, they’re still positive about dairy, but many have said, “We’re not quite ready to make that investment at the moment.”
But we’re continuing to pursue them. Some are regional, some are national, some are international interests, and I remain hopeful that we can still attract them into Pennsylvania.
Certainly, the Dairy Investment Program has helped on the local level ... farmers who see their future as on-farm processing or some value-added, and that’s very encouraging.
But on the more regional- or national-market processing, we’re still in pursuit.
I imagine those are much larger investments.
They’re large investments. They’re more complicated. These are folks who are from cooperatives to the independents and consumer packaged food product companies.
The conversations I would just characterize as positive and encouraging, but at this point we’re still sort of trying to attract the right partners.
Are there any other issues you want to raise or let people know you’re thinking about?
We’ve got a lot of good things going on, but there’s a lot of concern about where we’re headed with world markets and what’s happening with Chesapeake Bay and water quality and African swine fever around the globe.
I think having that conversation and engagement during Ag Progress Days is really helpful to us as a department, but also I think it’s important across the industry to make sure that we’re engaging the right people. ...
And I think that’s the value here in August. It just gives us that structure and opportunity to ask good questions and to engage and listen ... because that’s what it takes to find the right solutions. So that’s what we’re looking forward to at Ag Progress Days.
So farmers should make a point to talk to you or the other department staff about their concerns?
Absolutely. Yeah, reach out. Everybody has an issue, concerns, thoughts, things we like, things we want to see changed. We’re open to suggestions.
I think one of the hallmarks of the governor and this administration has been listening and trying to turn that into solutions where we can. ...
That’s how we got to a Farm Bill, by listening. So let’s have that conversation during Ag Progress Days.
This story has been updated.