HERSHEY, Pa. — Gov. Tom Wolf is planning the most ambitious expansion of Pennsylvania’s ag programs in his tenure.
Some $24 million of the $160 million ag budget has been dubbed the PA Farm Bill, a package designed to improve the business climate and support system for the state’s farmers.
“The goal of all this is to produce more jobs, more income and more hope,” Wolf said Thursday during a visit to Restful Acres, a Dairy of Distinction outside Hershey.
The proposal — based on goals identified in the state’s strategic plan for agriculture — contains mostly new programs. It also resurrects two programs, and extends temporary funding from last year for the dairy industry and spotted lanternfly containment.
The entire package is considered new funding for agriculture, said Russell Redding, the state ag secretary.
From meat to dairy to crops, the PA Farm Bill would give a boost to pretty much every sector of agriculture.
Wolf is proposing a $2 million Agricultural Business Development Center to help farmers create business, transition and succession plans.
The new entity would subsume the Center for Farm Transitions and the Preserved Farms Resource Center, Redding said.
Wolf also wants to create a $1 million Center for Animal Agriculture Excellence, which will serve producers of poultry, swine, sheep, goats and even rabbits.
The center will help farmers with food safety compliance, the establishment of hemp as an approved animal feed, and other types of technical assistance.
Separate from the PA Farm Bill, Wolf plans to more than double funding for the existing Center for Dairy Excellence and Center for Beef Excellence, to $2.8 million.
A number of programs in the Farm Bill would help farmers expand their markets, including a $1.6 million initiative to promote organic farming.
Pennsylvania has the nation’s highest organic sales after California, and it’s conveniently located in the populous Northeast.
“We’re right in the middle of a market that really wants this kind of product, and there’s a gap. Pennsylvania can fill it,” Wolf said.
One step toward that end would be to combine the marketing power of organic certification and the state’s PA Preferred brand, which promotes Pennsylvania-produced products.
Pennsylvania farmers also have an opportunity to raise more organic grain to feed the state’s abundant livestock and poultry.
An in-state product could have particular appeal at a time when the integrity of organic labeling for imported grains has been called into question, Redding said.
The goal of the initiative isn’t to force all farmers to become organic, just to help those who want to enter that valuable market, Wolf said.
For its part, PA Preferred would get a $1 million increase to expand its efforts, including the promotion of farmers who are military veterans.
A state version of USDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program would offer $500,000 to Pennsylvania’s nation-leading hardwood sector and the producers of certain crops, like hemp and hops.
Urban agriculture and a farm-to-school grant program would each get a half-million dollars.
The Dairy Investment Program, created last year to develop processing capacity and marketing, is being included in the Farm Bill this year.
Wolf is proposing $5 million for the program, the same as it got last year.
Wolf is also suggesting $500,000 to expand meat processing in the state. Tight capacity at federally inspected slaughterhouses has challenged direct-marketing farmers.
Through the program, small and new producers would be reimbursed for federal meat inspection costs.
The Farm Bill would also create a $5 million account for rapid response to agricultural disasters such as an avian influenza outbreak.
Spotted lanternfly containment, which received $3 million last year, would be funded through this program.
“The dollars are there for the general need of disaster planning and response, so we think we get a little more latitude, I guess, by combining them,” Redding said.
To help farmers do conservation work, the Farm Bill offers $2.5 million in grants, $500,000 in low-interest loans, and a $3 million boost to the Resource Enhancement and Protection, or REAP, tax credit program.
Tax credits are given as a percentage of the cost of no-till equipment, conservation plan writing, stream bank fencing, riparian buffers, and manure storage tanks.
Wolf is also planning to relax a few regulations.
The width of farm machinery allowed on roads would increase from 16 to 18 feet.
The realty transfer tax, which is paid when real estate changes hands, would not be charged when preserved farmland is transferred to a qualified beginning farmer.
And the subdivision of preserved farms would be allowed to assist diversification or transition to other types of farming.
County farmland preservation programs asked for this change as a way to handle large parcels that had been cobbled together for preservation through a single easement transaction, Redding said.
Once the change is approved at the state level, county programs would have to change their rules if they wanted to accommodate subdivisions.
“It won’t be a mandate from us,” Redding said.
To excite a new generation about farming, Wolf plans to restart a grant program from the late 1990s that would aid agricultural and rural youth organizations.
The $500,000 from this program could be used for school ag science programs, 4-H or FFA leadership development, or even activities of the Grange, junior fair boards or a local Envirothon, Redding said.
The Wolf administration has prioritized workforce development in the ag and food sectors, where it expects 75,000 job vacancies over the next decade.
It has already rolled out an apprenticeship program to train farm equipment technicians in hopes of filling some of those future vacancies.
The PA Farm Bill has gotten a warm reception from the top ag Democrats in Harrisburg.
“The ag budget is kind of one of those things buried in the back of the budget book and not always given the due attention that it should. But this year is different,” said Sen. Judith Schwank, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.
Wolf’s plan has also drawn interest from Republicans, who control both houses of the Legislature.
Rep. Martin Causer, chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said he was particularly pleased with disaster response fund and efforts to steer young people into agricultural careers.
“Working together, along with our farmers and agribusiness, I’m confident that we can ensure a bright future for Pennsylvania agriculture,” Causer said.
Redding said plans for the PA Farm Bill began during budget planning late last fall. State officials had an opportunity to advance goals in the state’s strategic plan for ag, which include infrastructure, workforce and market development.
For the second year in a row, strong revenues are giving Wolf and the Legislature breathing room they didn’t enjoy during Wolf’s earlier budget rollouts.
“The conversations are much better when you have some revenue to work with,” Redding said.
Wolf, who is just starting his second four-year term, may also have adjusted his tactics after those initial acrimonious and drawn-out negotiations.
In addition to the PA Farm Bill funding, Wolf’s proposed state ag budget includes $33 million for the Ag Department’s general operations, $54 million for Penn State’s ag research and Extension, and $31 million for the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school — plus smaller amounts for specialized Ag Department programs.