Capital-Star Q&A: Pa. Ag. Sect’y Russell Redding talks 2022 Farm Show return, COVID recovery, and the Chesapeake Bay

Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding talks about the impact of the state's agriculture industry during an event on Wednesday, 4/28/21 (Commonwealth Media Services photo).

Bring on the milkshakes. ‘Our goal is to have a 2022 Farm Show in person,’ Pa.s top agriculture official says.

Overseeing one of the largest industries in the commonwealth, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding has led the department through two separate administrations, a pandemic, and changing times for Pennsylvania’s farmers and consumers. 

The Capital-Star sat down with Redding this week to discuss the state of Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry, what he’s learned from the pandemic and what he expects for the future

Capital-Star: I know agriculture is one of the largest industries in Pennsylvania. I was hoping to talk a little bit about how the industry is faring right now, as we come back from COVID, and resume some sort of normalcy. Can you give us an idea of where it’s at, and how things are progressing?

Russell Redding:  Based on the latest economic impact study we conducted with Econsult and the Fox School of Business [at Temple University], I mean, it really sort of confirms the size and scale complexity of agriculture in the state, you know, with 590,000 jobs and 18 percent of our state’s growth economy. 

So it’s critical to Pennsylvania and I think continues to be even more important. And I think that was elevated, even during the COVID experience of what is happening in the state and our food supply and how fragile that food supply is. So I think it really speaks to the importance of Ag. 

Every day brings a little better market news for Pennsylvania, you know, part of that is driven by the assumption of sort of normalcy within the food system. Certainly the trade activity that we’ve seen carried out in the last 90 days with the administration, federal administration. It gives us a lot of confidence. 

But as we know, you only have to look back, you know, two years to see how quickly that can fall apart. Right? You’re talking about trade mitigation to farmers, that was only two years ago. And that was trying to make up for the lost market. Of course, now we see China and Brazil and the UK sort of on the rebound, which is all good news.

 So yeah, agriculture is important to us. I think it’s, it continues to be strong, but I would just call it generally fragile. Because of all of the moving parts, the dynamics of, of markets of weather, of consumer patterns, of changes in those consumer patterns are really driving Pennsylvania agriculture. 

C-S: You brought up a good point about how fragile we’ve kind of realized the industry is because of COVID, those supply chains and things like that. Is there anything that the department has seen now from COVID? That maybe we haven’t seen before? That’s kind of driving policy or any changes coming down the line?

Redding: Yeah, I think there’s a long list of lessons learned from COVID. I keep a sort of personal list of things learned. But also, there’s a departmental list, you know, and I think they’re twofold. 

One, from a policy standpoint, the importance of the local food system, you know, sort of there before, and I say local food system, I think that, you know, I think a farmer’s markets, and CSA is and all of that, you know, sort of food infrastructure that is is important to us. And I just think that has been elevated in a new way, with a new appreciation for consumers about what is produced locally. 

And I think that’s a really important conversation. We have spoken about that, we’ve tried to highlight that, of course, it’s part of our farm bill. And we certainly look at it in terms of food access. But I think COVID has completely changed that dynamic, to now be one of very intentional buying local, versus just a convenience. Right, or something nice to do. But very intentional.

Two, I would just say on the concern that we have about local food processing, particularly in the meat and poultry sector, is something we saw, you know, again, concerning, but it’s an opportunity as well concerning in that we have some very significant, large meat processors in the state, which is good., 

But you need a lot of those local processors as well. Again, it feeds the first point of the local food system, but it also gives you flexibility and redundancy in that food system that is important to us. 

And I think one of the outcomes of COVID is the need to make those intentional investments in local processing at all levels, but particularly the food, the food sector.

C-S: What do you want Pennsylvanians everywhere to know and understand about this industry? If you had to tell them, you know, one thing to get them a better understanding of how this operates and how it runs? What would you tell them?

Redding:  I would say several things. One is that agriculture has been important to Pennsylvania’s history. But it’s critical to its future. Because we hold, in this industry, some of the most important issues of our time, issues of jobs and the environment and food and food security, concerns about sustainability. 

And of course, your quality of life is determinant, I think, to a large extent that what happens on the landscape of Pennsylvania, and making sure that we’re thinking in those terms, and try to shift from this one dimensional view that many folks have about agriculture. And it’s usually a dated view, right? It’s what it was, but doesn’t reflect what it is. 

And I think that’s important for us now coming out of COVID, to really take stock of what is produced locally? Who is doing that? And how does that happen in a state as complex in a region as complex as Pennsylvania in the Mid- Atlantic region? That is something that we take very seriously in the department, and I think underscores the need to look at the economic impact, but also understand that that is something that isn’t solely determined by what we as a department do. It’s local governments. Right? It’s federal policy. It’s making sure that we’re thinking holistically about what that industry needs to stay here and thrive.

C-S: What for you are the biggest challenges of the industry long term and short term? What obstacles are you particularly concerned with?

Redding: I think, you know, first and foremost, economics. I mean, this is a business without walls, but every bit of business, right? It’s access to market[s]. It’s access to capital. It’s access to a workforce, all of those are the same things you find on Main Street, right? They just happen to be, you know, scattered around, you know, Pennsylvania, on our, on our farm. 

So I think the first challenge is just economics. And we’ve got to be aware of that, at the end of the day, there has to be some profit, some margin in this business for folks to stay in and attract new people to it. 

So economics are number one, in that, there’s a lot of different pieces, because all these different enterprises have to sort of find that, you know, find that margin in their business. And again, as we’ve witnessed, that’s more difficult in some particular sectors, like dairy., 

But number one is economics because we’re an animal agriculture state. It’s our anchor, right? It’s the beef, the poultry, the dairy, the protein sector. 

So what happens with that particular, you know, area in terms of growth in terms of attracting processors in terms of consumer preferences for meats and protein, I think continues to be a critical part of our work. 

Pennsylvania has 200 million animals that either live here or move through here. And so what happens with that industry is critical. And I would just say that lesson out of the pandemic, again, is biosecurity and the threats of disease in these dangerous transmissible diseases, right? 

What we witnessed in COVID, in the general population, we have witnessed within animal agriculture with SARS and African swine fever, and, you know, the avian influenza. 

They’re all things that we work every day to address but animal agriculture really has to be sort of protected in the sense that we have to make sure that we do all the diagnostic work that we’re attracting the processors that we’re keeping that food system safe. 

And I think the workforce is certainly one of the issues that we have on our to do list to make sure that the folks that we have in the business that we can retain them, and that we’re attracting people with those specialized skills to the industry of agriculture, and working hard, if that you mean through through a number of different initiatives. 

Other things I would add to that list, one is broadband. It’s probably second to food insecurity, in terms of lessons learned from COVID. And I think that broadband, because we’ve seen it at the farm and ag-level, those who had access, were at least able to pivot and change markets, if you didn’t have access to broadband, you didn’t have any options. 

And I think that is a long term challenge for us, then you’ve got the secondary piece where a lot of the equipment is embedded with technologies that needs the broadband for signal to operate, which is a really important and evolving piece. 

And it doesn’t have to be it’s sort of scale neutral, meaning that there’s a lot of technologies that we apply for either environmental monitoring, or animal welfare monitoring or quality monitoring. 

That’s all part of the broadband, and then you can’t talk about the future of ag without looking at the issues around the environment … 

And we’re particularly sensitive to it here in Pennsylvania with the Chesapeake Bay, and the expectations attached to ..  the total maximum daily load (TMDL). That is, Pennsylvania is under; we have to continually monitor that. Then you add to that the sustainability expectations of consumers and then the impacts of climate. 

So that is a short list of challenges. Every one of them is complicated, but I think they’re interrelated. Right? If you can’t deal with any of those in one dimension, it’s the holistic picture. 

Because when you ask the farm community, “what are those challenges for you?” They will give you that list that I gave you about, and what do we do about it from the state and our federal policy level?

C-S: That’s a long list. As far as sustainability and climate, I think you’ve hit some pretty existential threats to the industry and to Pennsylvania, as well. So how does a department go about addressing that?

Redding: You’ve got to be engaged in these conversations. I mean, I think that I say that, it sounds obvious, but, you know, we have to think pretty holistically about our own approach to the policies and the programs and and the stewardship of those issues. Meaning that it’s not simply for the federal government to resolve a trade issue or a climate issue.. It’s our issue. It’s not simply for another department, whether it be Community Economic Development, or environmental protection or health to deal with those issues..

It’s the Department of Agriculture as well. So making sure that we’re engaged in those conversations, that we’ve got opinions and policies that correspond to those that work for Pennsylvania, that we’re thinking, you know, about, about the implications of the workforce, and how do we solve that particular concern for the industry?

I think making direct investments, I mean, the Farm Bill, I think is one of those sort of historic and transformative pieces of legislation from 2019. That was designed in part to address some of these issues that I’ve talked about from workforce to markets to Pennsylvania’s brand, making sure we’re doing all the right things from an environmental standpoint. 

So yeah, I mean, it’s all of that. And we’ve tried to do that through our regular normal work, if you will, but also making sure that we’re a great advocate for this industry and with it, bringing in people who don’t think they’re connected to agriculture. 

I think that’s to me, the biggest challenge is we’ve got everyone walking around with an opinion about what sustainability looks like and what the food system should be. We need them to be at the table. We need them to be thinking hard about the intentionality of their purchasing decisions as an example, in the direct implication then for the economics of agriculture in the state, and what our food system long term looks like, for Pennsylvania.

C-S: So you’ve served as Secretary under Gov. Rendell. And also under Gov. Wolf, I believe it adds up to like eight or nine years, almost a decade at this point, if I’m doing my math right. So I’m curious what changes your department and the industry have seen in that time? Is there anything from administration to administration that’s different? Any priorities that have shifted? Or anything like that, that might be notable?

Redding:  I think there are clearly, you know, a couple of really important moments as I look back, I mean, you mentioned governor Rendell and I gave him a lot of credit for focusing on the economic development needs of agriculture.

You know, that was one of those changes in philosophy. And then with it came changes in legislation and with it came changes in programs. And that was really a turning point for us, because historically, economic development has been the domain of the Community and Economic Development Department. And what we saw shift in that move was to include the Department of Agriculture in discussions about what the industry needs from an economic development standpoint. 

Now, that was critical, right, because it moved from one agency’s view of agriculture to one much more comprehensive. And I think that was a big change for me to witness the other change. 

And I give Governor Wolf a lot of credit, because it took that economic development platform one step further, and made very direct and intentional investments. In the Farm Bill, it’s the first, and only, state-level farm bill in the nation. So we have our federal farm bill, which everyone sort of knows about, generally, but not at a state level. 

So the governor put a lot of thought into that build off of the economic impact study, built off of his own philosophy about the importance of agriculture to the economy, but also knowing that it’s not going to stay here, just because you and I like it, it’ll stay here if we intentionally invest in it and work with it. 

So that farm bill really became I think one of the important administration changes. So it builds on, you know, previous administrations, I think that’s been important. The other changes over time, and I’ve actually worked in the Ridge administration … but the other changes around sort of the land use and conservation, stewardship. 

Focus, is built again, over the last 30 years, part of that’s a reflection of what’s happened in the general society and their interest in awareness of the environment, to, you know, the concerns about external factors like, you know, the EPA and the TMDL on the Chesapeake Bay, and what’s required of us. 

So that’s been a gradual change. And I would say, a good change, in that the awareness level, the practices on the ground, at the farm level, have significantly improved from where we were, you know, some some years ago, and I think, put us in a really good place for the engagement on some of the climate mitigation and resiliency discussions we have to have.

C-S: I know that the Chesapeake Bay has been a contentious one [discussion], just with several lawsuits between other states and things like that. Where do you see Pennsylvania, maybe stepping up and, and doing better and where are we lacking and what do you think we’re excelling at in terms of those protections?

Redding: Yeah, I think the, you know, the, the pressures continue to build on agriculture, you know, and it is an extraordinary lift. I mean, I don’t want to mislead anybody. I mean, when you talk about, you know, 41 of our 67 counties in Pennsylvania, in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and the number of farms that we have to sort of manage that landscape on into my point earlier that we’re an animal agriculture state, which means a lot of animals are out there producing nutrients, you know, it is a challenge to to manage that. 

But I think it’s looking back just the last 20 years and it’s really been a significant change in our practices applied to the landscape like no till, and cover crops and you know, the diversity of those crops and enterprises and the practice. So I take that look back as a really encouraging sign of what the next 20 years look like. So, to your point, though, making sure that we get the practices on the land, just most critical, right, we’ve got to get these nutrients managed, you have to have a plan on these farms. 

And then you’ve got to manage that plan pretty tightly. So I think we’ve excelled at that. Where we have been challenged, I think, is in the monitoring of progress. You know, both the in-stream monitoring, but also the landscape monitoring, we have to do better there. We’ve got to get additional resources into the task of putting plans in place and putting conservation practices in place. 

I think that’s one of the discussions we’re having real time and I hope it is part of our infrastructure discussion with the state here, as we look forward, but that’s going to have to be every farm’s responsibility to make sure that we meet those goals. 

And I think that’s one thing. The other I would say is, is recognizing that the the molecule of nitrogen in the bay, it doesn’t know the source, whether it’s out of a a wastewater treatment plant, or from a farm, or an on live septic system, or, you know, lawn fertilizer, right, so making sure that we again, take a comprehensive look at that. 

And there’s a piece of legislation with Senator [Gene] Yaw [a Lycoming County Republican] that gets at that exact point of fertilizer use residential and commercial fertilizer uses. I think that’s an area that we have to improve on and get done as well.

C-S: But over the past year, we’ve really heard you intensify calls about the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, and getting the necessary funding in there – those fee increases and things like that. So I was wondering, can you tell us a little bit more about how that problem came to be and what the department is trying to do to address that?

Pa. Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement ‘unable to fulfill its mission’ state officials say, citing lack of funding increases

Redding: Dog law, it’s been around for, you know for 27 years in Pennsylvania. So it’s one of these things that many years ago, governors and legislators thought it was important for Pennsylvania to have a law that licenses dogs. The Department of Agriculture’s vested with that responsibility. 

As the number of companion animals has escalated, the number of issues of dangerous dogs and dog bites and nuisances, and, you know, stray dogs, all of that has continued to increase. We’ve added a lot more kennels to Pennsylvania, in the last 30 years as well. 

So that combined is that sort of at the heart of the issue, we fund the Bureau of dog all of those functions through an annual license fee, which is currently $6.50 and hasn’t changed in 25 years. 

So the number of responsibilities have increased considerably, the number of kennels have increased 15 percent, the number of inspections and those kennels, mandated by law from 2009 have increased 85 percent while the number of dog licenses have increased a little, but not correspondingly to the number of dogs that are out there. 

So we’re constantly trying to educate and raise awareness. So we now have a situation where the fund balance in the Dog Law Fund is insufficient to pay for the responsibilities the laws  require. That’s causing us to engage the Legislature to change the fee of the annual license or a lifetime license. 

And in the interim, the governor has provided $1.2 million out of general taxpayer funds to keep the bureau operating and proposes to do so again next year. But all that does is keep the lights on. It doesn’t address the need that we have to get more wardens in the field to address those things that are responsible for kennels and dangerous dogs and strays and stuff. So that’s our dilemma. 

And the way it’s set up in the Pennsylvania law is that the only entity that can change the fee is the Legislature. There’s no delegation of responsibility to the Department of Agriculture to do that through a regulatory process. 

We have asked for that. But that’s been denied. So we’re back to having the Legislature raise funds through a general appropriation or general appropriation but also fee increased discussion. That’s our dilemma, and I wish it were different but it’s not like I Secretary I can say, well, we don’t have the money, so we’re not going to do it. It’s a mandated responsibility. 

And it says the secretary shall. So we’ve got to go ask the legislature to raise the fee, I remain hopeful that we can get beyond this impediment that we have with a moment of raising fees and get that done. I’ve been talking about it now for six years. We’ve had many discussions about what the future looks like. 

C-S: I know Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks and Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Luzerne have introduced several bills to address that issue and raise those fees for the department. Is there a plan B, though, should the General Assembly not come through on those fee increases?

Redding: Yeah, so we’re hopeful that, you know, Senate Bill 232. And House Bill 526, as you note, from the prime sponsors of his passed. Plan B is unfortunately, status quo in terms of the services that we have, but continue to transfer from the general fund. So we’re going to use general taxpayer money to cover an obligation that for 27 years has been self-funded through user fees.

That’s the Plan B, but it’s an incomplete Plan B, in that it doesn’t get us the 14 wardens that we need to go out and cover these counties. It doesn’t get us more dog license sales necessarily. It just sort of, you know, is a maintenance effort, and that shouldn’t be acceptable to any of us.

C-S: Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, introduced legislation, not directly regarding dog law, but it’s something that he said that would support it. And if I remember correctly, it was something to the effect of basically a supplemental approach giving the county the ability to hire outside help, should they need it because of the absence of dog wardens. Do you see that kind of approach becoming more common as the counties start to see a dwindling presence from the department in that regard?

State lawmaker looks for ‘supplement’ to dwindling dog warden presence

Redding: Well, I’m intrigued with the proposal. But I think that county treasurers, you know, they’re, they’re our partner in the sale of licenses. And $1.50 of every $6.50 [license] sale goes to the county treasurer to help cover their costs and advertising and stuff. 

So, I mean, I think the right way to do it is the way that we’ve done it. The right is that has had a fee for all the dog licenses, and then, you know, share that, you know, across the state and and let the Department of Agriculture sort of determine where there are direct needs or supplemental needs to address where you’ve got continued growth in either cattle activity or dangerous dogs or a high number of strays without a corresponding shelter in those counties. 

So I’m not, I’m not sure that taking the supplemental approach to the counties is necessarily the right way to do that. Right, because we’ve learned a lot about I mean, where the growth is, but also where the issues are. So I think you know, the structure we have today works if you fund it sufficiently. 

C-S:  I want to switch gears a little bit. I know we’re more than a few months away, but does the department have any idea about the next Farm Show and whether or not we’ll be in person? Will any of those virtual changes that were made last year remain?

2021 Pa. Farm Show will be virtual, Agriculture Secretary Redding says

Redding: Everybody wants to know about the Farm Show. So yeah, our hope is two things. One, we take the lessons learned of the 2021 Farm Show, in terms of its virtual platform and programming and what that allows us to do to reach parts of the state that we’ve never been able to reach previously and use that and all of those good, good experiences, but we get back on site. Our goal is to have a 2022 Farm Show in person. And it’s going to look different. It’ll feel different. But it’ll be physically on site at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex.

C-S: That’s great to hear. Is there anything that you want people to know about agriculture, any additional comments or anything that you want to share that we didn’t touch on?

Redding: Yeah, I would say a couple things. One, you’re coming out of the pandemic, I think the issues of food security, and food insecurity, however you want to look at it, just how important you know our response in Pennsylvania was, but also recognizing it that was built on the frame of many, many years of refinements of the state food purchase program and partnerships with the federal government and this wonderful food bank and food pantry system that we have in Pennsylvania, it’s just been to me amazing. 

It underscored how many folks are food insecure in Pennsylvania, which we should work at, always. 

But we also have to make sure we’ve got the right policies that support that food system, right. And, and I think we’ve done a lot of that, but knowing that, that we’ve got, you know, one and a half million to 1.8 million people who are food insecure, I think in a post pandemic, environment, we really have to double down and look at the basic issues that that surrounding those families and individuals. And that has to do with economic mobility, it has to do with the minimum wage and making sure we address that it’s the state and federal policies. 

But also making sure that we’re thinking within the agricultural community about that particular segment of our population is also one of our responsibilities. You can’t have a tradable food system without a food system that’s charitable. I think that’s a really important principle going forward and how we do that, whether we do that through, you know, the agricultural surplus system and direct connections between those who are producers and those who are consumers in some of those insecure food insecure. So I think that’s an issue for me and the administration. And I think it is for all of agriculture’s to really be thinking hard about that responsibility, and how do we address the issues of food insecurity in Pennsylvania. 

We touched on climate but just to say that as we look at the future, agriculture has an intimate relationship to the climate, right. It defines every single day, what we do is make sure that you just as the farm community is on the front lines of impact, but we also recognize they’re on the front lines of opportunity, and making sure that we harness those good land use and stewardship practices for benefit of water quality, but also a benefit of climate. I think it’s important.

Finally, I would say, again, the Farm Bill, to me, having been around the Department for many years,  what it has allowed us to do, to reach into these urban communities that are doing some really interesting and vital work in their local community for food, economics jobs.

I think that’s a really important change that I’ve seen and I want to make sure that we continue that work and recognize the value that those local communities are undertaking to build their own capacity, but also, you know, improve our food system and food access. And then making sure we are just respecting the diversity of agriculture in the state and diversity. I mean, by race, by ethnicity, by economic enterprise, by region. 

That is a really important point. It’s in the governor’s [priorities] to make sure that we respect that and work to be very inclusive. Bringing all these folks that are part of the food system to the table and making sure they’ve got a seat there. So that’s important to us.

Cassie Miller
A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller has an extensive background in magazine writing, editing and design. She is a graduate of Penn State University where she served as the campus newspaper’s photo editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared.