Farm show season highlights issues facing Pennsylvania agriculture

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Every January, thousands of Keystone State residents descend on the Pennsylvania Farm Show complex on Harrisburg’s north side for a week-long celebration of the Commonwealth’s agricultural heritage. 

The annual event boasts Pa. Dairymen’s milkshakes, sweet potato fries and mushroom burgers. 

But it’s not just about the delicious snacking options. Farm show season is the perfect time to talk about issues currently facing the state’s diverse agricultural industry.

Trends & Regulation

Trendy isn’t a word that’s often used to describe the agricultural industry, but in order to succeed in changing times and under changing regulation, Pennsylvania farmers will need to embrace the trendy and new, and that means following the high demand and going organic. Scott Sechler, owner and president of Fredericksburg-based chicken producer Bell & Evans, told the Capital-Star.

“They’re missing out,” Sechler said of farmers who have yet to jump on the organic bandwagon.

Bell & Evans employs between 18,000-19,000 people, and is the largest organic grain buyer in the country.

Sechler serves on the state Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Advisory Board, where he weighs in on matters concerning Pennsylvania farmers.

Sechler said that trends toward more natural, local and organic products could become a major threat to Pennsylvania’s agricultural industry if it does not adapt quickly to the change in demand from consumers.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” he said.

By working with the state government, Sechler and others are trying to make Pennsylvania a leader in organic farming.

“We’re driving now to have Pennsylvania be its own certifier,” Sechler said, applauding Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, the state government and Pennsylvania Certified Organic for their efforts to establish a standard that he believes will stand for more than the USDA’s certified organic label.

Sechler also believes that if the state creates its own standard, it will better align with what consumers already expect from organic foods and match trends with regulation.

“The USDA has that standard a little too mediocre for me,” Sechler said, “and the governor agrees, and [Redding] agrees. Let’s have it that the Pennsylvania Preferred Organic label means more than the USDA certified organic label.”

A Republican, Sechler spent New Year’s Eve at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. But he says he’s pleased by the initiatives put forth by Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration to help Pennsylvania agriculture.

“I’m really tickled with how much support we’re getting through,” Sechler said. “I don’t think we could’ve pulled this thing off 10 or 15 years ago.”

Sechler said that Wolf’s reelection has stabilized the administration and provided “continuity.”

“Pennsylvania has all the right ingredients,” Sechler said. 

Trade & Immigration

Several of the hurdles the Keystone state’s agricultural industry is facing lie in federal policies.

Source: Pa. Dept. of Agriculture

In 2018, the Department of Agriculture and Team PA, a nonprofit aimed at connecting business with industry to promote economic growth, joined forces for a report on the economic impact and future trends in Pennsylvania agriculture.

The report found that tariffs and trade were a top concern.

“The changing political climate around trade has created uncertainty for the future of Pennsylvania’s agricultural exports,” the report noted.

Agriculture, food processing and manufacturing make up 60 percent of the state’s economic output, churning out crops, food and other products to the tune of $83.8 billion in direct economic output for the commonwealth, the report indicated.

With so much at stake, it’s no wonder why experts have been carefully watching trade and tariff disputes at the national level.

After months of retaliatory tariffs, the new North American Fair-Trade Agreement, now called the United States, Mexico, Canada Agreement, which has been signed, but not yet ratified by the U.S. Senate, was agreed upon by all three parties in its revised form. 

The negotiations leading up to USMCA’s adoption caused hardship for the nation’s agricultural community who faced stiff retaliatory tariffs from importing countries.

In 2018, some retaliatory tariffs were as high as 25 percent. In Mexico, tariffs on U.S. cheese, pork and fruit walloped American farmers, leaving a lasting impact on their bottom line.

While trade negotiations have unpredictable outcomes, one of the biggest accomplishments of the USMCA is the provision that narrowly opened Canada’s dairy market to U.S. suppliers.

Despite this, the next 10 years could prove difficult for Pa. farmers, who, according to the report, are on the cusp of workforce shortage. 

“The agricultural workforce shortage in Pennsylvania is driven by the aging of sector employees, tightening immigration laws, and a growing skills gap,” the report reads. “It is estimated that there will be more than 75,000 new and replacement job openings in Pennsylvania agriculture over the next decade.”

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.