#PaBudget 2020: Let’s build on the Pa. Farm Bill’s success this budget season | Opinion

Image source: PxHere.com
Image source: PxHere.com

By Hannah Smith-Brubaker

With broad support from Pennsylvania farmers and agricultural organizations, in July 2019 Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law a bipartisan $23.1 million package of bills—collectively titled the PA Farm Bill. With these bills, the Commonwealth set an example for the nation and made a historic investment in farmers and the local food system, in a state where the agriculture industry accounts for 18 percent of its gross state product.

Current trends and opportunities in agriculture make this next budget cycle critical for sustaining the momentum created by last year’s passage of the PA Farm Bill, and for addressing a broader set of urgent industry concerns.

We envision a $27 million PA Farm Bill: Part Two focused simultaneously on responding to pressing needs and securing the long-term stability of our food system.

PA Farm Bill: Part Two would provide funding for preserving farmland and protecting natural resources; mitigating and adapting to climate change; and, training a new generation of agricultural producers as today’s farmer workforce nears retirement. Here are a few of our suggestions for measures to fund in the next PA Farm Bill.

While the state farm bill is a start, Pennsylvania’s agriculture leaders see further reforms

Fund more tax credits for on-farm conservation practices.

The popular Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) tax credit program administered by the Pennsylvania State Conservation Commission should be expanded to support soil health and other conservation practices.

The tax credit approach, with sponsoring organizations willing to underwrite these practices in return for a credit, has been popular with farmers for its ease, speed, and simplicity. Where farmers are willing to commit to long-term and measurable soil health and water quality outcomes, increased REAP funding stands to benefit us all. It should be increased by $5 million to $20 million a year.

Make the PA Preferred Organic program permanent.

Amend the PA Preferred Act to make PA Preferred Organic a permanent, funded program, starting this year with $2 million in additional funding. Many dairy farms in Pennsylvania are in dire financial shape as a result of a historic market downturn—between 2010 and 2018, 830 Pennsylvania dairy farms went out of business. The PA Preferred Organic program could serve to bolster dairy farms’ bottom line through the marketing value of the PA Preferred Organic label.

More technical support for livestock farmers transitioning to organic pasture-based grazing systems will help family farms survive by aligning with evolving consumer values and demand, not to mention the conservation benefits that come with transitioning feed row-crop fields to pastureland. The PA Preferred Organic program should include incentives for retailers to source their store-brand milk and milk products from local Pennsylvania organic dairies—rather than trucking in milk from Midwestern and West Coast states.

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Invest in the next generation of agricultural producers, and support retiring farmers who are transitioning their land to new stewards.

$5 million in funding over three years would help 500 beginning farmers complete state- and federally registered apprenticeship programs on established farms, and 500 retiring farmers keep their land in agricultural production after transitioning it to new stewards.

Through the vegetable farming and dairy grazing apprenticeships we facilitate, we know that there is substantial demand for on-farm training opportunities.

At an average price of $10,000 per acre, an additional $5 million investment would make 500 acres of farmland available to beginning farmers. For beginning farmers, access to suitable farmland is the greatest barrier to entry in the profession. While federal 2018 Farm Bill program dollars are available for some of these measures, they often require matching funds that farmers struggle to afford. State funding can help provide needed match funding.

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Create a new healthy soils program for Pennsylvania.

Farmers who want to transition to practices that build and improve their soil are investing in both their business’ and community’s future.

Healthy soil improves crop yields and pastures, reduces the need for fertilizer and pesticide inputs, protects waterways from agricultural runoff, and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere

A budget line of $5 million would support technical assistance to help farmers learn best practices for building soil health, as well as fund important equipment and supplies needed to implement these practices.

Numerous states have already enacted soil health bills to date, recognizing the critical importance of healthy soil. We know that every inch of organic matter—a key indicator of soil health—added to farmland, can absorb 20,000 gallons more water per acre.

With the increased precipitation anticipated for Pennsylvania as a result of climate change, this flood mitigation strategy alone stands to dramatically benefit all the Commonwealth’s citizens.

Help support the forest products industry.

Managed woodlots and forests stand to combat the ravages of climate change nearly more than any other strategy. We strongly support agroforestry and see planting trees as integral to any ecological farming system. A necessary part of management is responsible harvesting.

Yet, the logger workforce is an endangered breed in Pennsylvania. Currently, workers compensation for this workforce is cost-prohibitive, taking 40 cents on every dollar of income earned. This causes workers to opt to go without insurance and work alone, making the job even more dangerous.

A $5 million cost-share program over three years to lower the cost of workers’ compensation and support more safety training would ultimately lower the cost of workers’ compensation as accidents decline and more workers sign up, sharing the burden and lowering the premium.

Given the importance of the agricultural industry to Pennsylvania, a $27 million investment in additional farm-friendly technical and financial support in the 2020-21 budget would be a modest investment that would support the health of our communities, the viability of farm businesses in a challenging—yet opportunity-filled—market, and the long-term stability of our food system.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. She writes from Harrisburg.