HARRISBURG, Pa. — Looking back on 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said the commonwealth has taken great strides to create an environment where the state’s food and fiber industries can grow, thrive and compete locally, nationally and globally.
“2016 has been an incredibly productive year,” said Redding. “We kicked it off by celebrating the 100th Pennsylvania Farm Show in January, which proved to be an extremely well-received celebration of the industry that helps to sustain us all. And since then, we have built on strengths of this industry and its diversity, while at the same time tackling some of the challenges it faced.”
Among the challenges Redding cited was protecting the state against highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI. The H5N2 strain ravaged the nation’s poultry industry in 2015, but not Pennsylvania due to the state aggressively preparing its response to the deadly disease. Last year, Governor Tom Wolf set aside $3.5 million for HPAI planning and response, and he and the General Assembly dedicated $2 million in the current budget for avian flu preparedness. Additional funding was secured for the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center laboratory and the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences to build testing and research capacity.
Redding also outlined progress on five major issues the commonwealth addressed this year.
- Pennsylvania continued to make progress on its Clean Water Restoration Plan, which Gov. Wolf unveiled in January. The plan is focused primarily on improving local water quality as part of the state’s contribution to restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay. The plan is based on recognizing the co-equal goals of improving water quality and preserving healthy and viable of farms. In addition to completing a survey to track and quantify on-farm best management practices implemented voluntarily without any government financial assistance, the state also made tremendous progress in securing new funding to support conservation efforts. In August, the commonwealth received more than $630,000 in funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to support an innovative public-private partnership that will demonstrate the connection between conservation practices and farm profitability. Those funds will be matched by more than $909,000 in contributions from the state, nonprofits and other nongovernmental organizations. In October, Gov. Wolf announced $28 million in state and federal funds, including $16 million in new federal commitments from the U.S. Environmental Protection agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- To bring better consistency and fairness to the state and local tax climate, in July, Gov. Wolf signed Act 89, which improves predictability for farm owners who commit to keep their land free from development. The law prohibits changes in use values through the Clean and Green program unless there is a county-wide reassessment. Additionally, the Governor signed Act 175 in November to exempt preserved farm owners from assessment of the realty transfer tax.
- The commonwealth also built on its record of preserving productive farmland, approving the 5,000th preserved farm in August. All told, the commonwealth has now permanently preserved more than 527,000 acres, safeguarding that land from development. The state also committed an additional $5 million through this year’s budget to farmland preservation, and the state signed for the first time in years a new cooperative agreement with the federal government that will bring an additional $1 million to the commonwealth through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program. The new funding will help to address the estimated backlog of 1,500 farms now waiting to be preserved. And to help those preserved farm owners plan for the next generation, the state created a new transition planning grant program to help offset the costs of creating succession planning teams for those farms with a preservation easement. Through the Preserved Farm Resource Center, which the department created in 2015 to serve as a resource to preserved farm owners, $165,000 will be made available for matching grants of up to $3,000.
- The department also continued the innovative work that is connecting Pennsylvania’s farmers with the state’s charitable food system. Using the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System, or PASS, a program created in 2010 but only funded for the first time under Gov. Wolf, the state has worked with its partner the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank to secure and distribute more than 2.2 million pounds of food from 64 farmers, growers and processors across the commonwealth. This program helps connect surplus product that would otherwise be discarded or go to waste with the state’s charitable food organizations, helping more Pennsylvanians at risk for hunger.
- Lastly, the department, working with the General Assembly, made considerable progress to create new, promising markets for Pennsylvania’s agricultural producers. Earlier this year, Gov. Wolf signed Act 92, which allows the department or an institute of higher education to conduct pilot research programs to study the growth, cultivation and marketing potential of industrial hemp. The department is now accepting research proposals and applications for up to 30 projects of five acres each. The department also continued to expand the Homegrown by Heroes PA Preferred labeling program it launched in 2015 with the Farmer Veteran Coalition. The program helps farmer veterans to market and promote their products. Membership increased 33 percent in 2016.
Despite a productive 2016, Redding said more challenges remain, but the department is committed to tackling those issues in 2017.
“I still believe that it is an extraordinary time to be in agriculture — full of opportunities and challenges. We’ve done a tremendous amount to capitalize on those opportunities and begin to tackle those challenges, but more work remains,” said Redding. “In the face of a competitive and evolving global marketplace, we know that we need a strategic plan for the industry. We need a solution to the workforce challenges that plague employers here in Pennsylvania and across the nation. And we know that there is more work to do to manage our environmental resources in a sustainable manner. These are all incredibly important issues for the future of agriculture in Pennsylvania, and we look forward to working with our partners in the year ahead.”
For more information on the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, visit www.agriculture.pa.gov.