A farm in Ephrata, Lancaster County. (Capital-Star photo)
A proposal to spend $1.6 million to help conventional farms convert to organic production methods drew criticism Wednesday from state lawmakers, who said it could pit the commonwealth’s farmers against one another.
The allocation is a line item in Gov. Tom Wolf’s Farm Bill, a first-of-its-kind proposal to support business development and workforce training in the state’s agriculture industry.
The bill was the subject of a joint public hearing by the House and Senate’s Rural and Agricultural Affairs committees Wednesday.
One aim of the proposed Farm Bill is to make Pennsylvania the nation’s leading organic state. Pennsylvania is ranked second only to California in the value of its farmers’ organic sales, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said Wednesday.
But according to lawmakers, some conventional farmers perceive a growing preference for organic agriculture, which carries benefits for the environment and consumer health but is more expensive than conventional farming.
“The concern among traditional farmers is that there will be more focus on funding organic production,” said Sen. Judy Schwank, the Senate committee’s ranking Democrat. “And organic is not for everyone.”
Pennsylvania won’t mandate that any of its conventional farmers switch over to organic methods, Redding said. But they do want to help conventional farmers who opt to make the transition.
Converting a farm from conventional to organic methods is a three-year process that requires farmers to use new soil fertilizers, pest management techniques, and crop seeds, according to standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The state Agriculture department estimates that 1,000 farms in Pennsylvania have an organic certification, Redding said. More farms follow organic practices but haven’t pursued the third-party audit required to get a USDA certification.
The Farm Bill would create a Pennsylvania organic brand and support farmers who are making the conventional-to-organic transition. The $1.6 million budget allocation would fund agronomist consulting, research, and marketing, Redding said.
Lawmakers said Wednesday that the cost of supporting organic agriculture shouldn’t be borne by the state, but by consumers and agricultural businesses who want to buy organic products.
“We don’t want to start some kind of class warfare among farmers,” Sen. Elder Vogel, the Republican Senate committee chair, said after the hearing. “Organic is a rather new thing in Pennsylvania and a lot of conventional farmers have concerns about putting extra money into it when we’ve survived on conventional for this long.”
Vogel said that participants in the agriculture market should coordinate amongst themselves if they want more organic products. If a chicken farmer wants to buy organic soybeans from a Pennsylvania farmer, for instance, he should work with a farm to build a supply chain.
Redding said that state Agriculture department programs help farmers with everything from developing business plans to diagnosing soil and crop problems. But the department is currently “production neutral,” meaning it doesn’t have programs that support production practices.
Given the growing consumer demand for organic products and the start-up cost of a farm’s organic transition, a program that supports organic techniques may be a good place to start, Redding said.
“There’s no reason we can’t supply [the organic] market when we supply others,” Redding said.
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