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

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Pennsylvania’s legislature is fresh off passing a $24 million aid package for farmers, including grants for everything from inspection costs for small meat processors to mediation of invasive species like the dreaded spotted lanternfly.

But at a House Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday, lawmakers heard more potential small fixes to aid farmers, big issues that needed some action, and hope that the PA Farm Bill was taking root.

“We thought everything would be finished when we did the farm bill,” the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, of Luzerne County, said. “I guess not.”

Advocates for farmers, such as the Pennsylvania State Grange, the state Farm Bureau, and the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, all pushed lawmakers to reduce the legal liability for agri-tourism — or “recreational services such as hunting, fishing, farm or wine tours, hayrides,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farmers who had “diversified revenue streams” had the best chance of surviving even as the family farm continues to decline, Farm Bureau President Richard Ebert said.

WITF reported last year that the commonwealth lost 6,000 farms between 2012 and 2017, despite the state having saved land roughly equal to the size of Delaware, Philadelphia and Montgomery counties combined.

Ebert and other advocates Wednesday said agritourism could serve as buffer for farmers fearing financial ruin. The industry earned $27 million in 2017, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Advocates also pushed for a stronger focus on rural issues, such as expanding rural broadband access or improving access to health care services.

State Grange President Wayne Campbell noted the delay of a bill creating a legal framework for telemedicine in Pennsylvania. The bill passed the GOP-controlled House this fall with an additional measure banning the remote prescription of abortion-inducing medications. 

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf opposes the new language, while the majority-Republican Senate is still deciding what to do next.

But lawmakers also heard that their bipartisan efforts last year on the farm bill had resulted in progress.

One goal of the bill was to encourage the hemp industry, which was legalized in 2017.

In the two years since, the state has issued 324 permits covering 4,000 acres for the crop, which can be used to make textiles, building materials, food and paper — not to mention CBD oil, a non-intoxicating extract with unproven medical benefits.

As of 2018, the federal government had also lifted its own prohibition on the industry, leading to an explosion of hemp farming and products.

While CBD products, from oil to soda to gummies, are everywhere, Farmers Union President Heidi Secord told the House panel that the farms’ bottom lines weren’t reaping the benefits.

In fact, “a lot of farmers lost a lot of money growing hemp last year,” Secord said. That’s because few farmers had signed contracts to sell hemp, and there is little infrastructure to bring hemp to market, she added.

But a $500,000 grant program authorized by the farm bill that’s designed to “assist with the growth, certification of seed, and marketing” of specialty crops, such as hemp, hops and honey, is coming to farmers’ aid.

Secord said a Farmers Union member was applying for a grant to build a mobile hemp drying truck. It would collect freshly harvested hemp from one farm, before traveling to another farm while the cargo dries en route.

Hearing this, lawmakers expressed excitement for such innovations and the overall opportunity that the industry presents.

“CBD is very sexy, but there is so much more,” Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, said.