Farm tour

Ed Rising, president of the Indiana County Farm Bureau, moderated the session with about three dozen taking part in the event.

ARMSTRONG TOWNSHIP — Mounting their own recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is one thing.

Being targeted for funding cuts due to a multi-billion-dollar state budget shortfall is another that Indiana County’s agriculture industry is fighting.

Being unfairly restricted and taxed under stormwater management regulations is another burden local farmers say they want stopped.

Getting the same kind of fast, reliable internet service that urban dwellers enjoy is something farm owners are crusading for on behalf of all rural families in the state.

At an annual conference between Indiana County’s agriculture organization and the area’s contingent of elected officials on Thursday — as much a lobbying session as a congenial get-reacquainted gathering — the top challenges confronting farm business people were aired at host Dan Yarnick’s farm and greenhouse.

The annual Legislative Farm Tour sponsored by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau brought echoes of those concerns from political figures.

State Reps. Jim Struzzi and Cris Dush took in the concerns, and quizzed local Indiana County Farm Bureau officers and members to get an understanding of their concerns.

U.S. Rep Glenn Thompson, reminding farmers that wide support among his colleagues is how Congress can act on agriculture interests, offered encouraging views on trade relations with China and milk marketing efforts — especially as he called out federal health officials’ negative assessment of whole milk compared to skim milk.

“China had a huge commitment in that trade deal that was unfortunately sidelined by COVID-19, largely because China’s economy was hit just as hard as ours,” Thompson said. “But it’s coming back. China has made significant corn and soybean purchases. I’m a little surprised they went ahead with it actually, because a lot of people have concerns about China. They’ve been taking a lot of heat over the virus and whether they’re spying on the United States.

“But China’s fulfillment of trade purchases would be important in trying to honor that. … They continue to work on other trade agreements.”

NEW MILK CONSUMERS

Thompson said dairy producers suffered at the hands of national health experts whose opinions and recommendations in favor of skim milk frightened consumers about whole milk.

“We lost an entire generation of milk drinkers,” Thompson said. “Some of those kids from 10 years ago are now parents, so we have a second generation being cheated out of a great milk experience.

“I think the impact of COVID-19 had a lot of negative impacts on everybody’s lives. But one of the positive things, though, is that there’s now a lot of kids finally getting a good milk experience,” Thompson said. “When you looked at the numbers of whole milk, 63 percent of all milk was served in restaurants prior to COVID-19, and that’s forced everybody back to the family dining room table.

“Actually that’s a good thing for kids to get the whole milk experience and we’ve got to capitalize on that. Now we’ve got them to know what good milk tastes like.

“Unfortunately we’ve got some researchers out there that are completely out of touch with science,” he said. “We even discussed with the Dairy Guidance Advisory Group at the federal level. We need to get some local folks on that but we were unsuccessful, unfortunately. The secretary chose to put other folks on. And once again they are stuck in the past. They make their recommendations every eight or 10 years and we’re stuck with those recommendations until next time around. But all the recent science in past years is that whole milk is what you need in your diet. They cheated our kids when they demonized milk fat.”

That came after Green Township dairy farmer Ron Learn took the promotion of “almond milk” to task as a poor substitute for real milk.

“What you get with almond milk, I feel, is some water, some white food coloring, and maybe run it over some crushed almond and add some nutrients to say it’s ‘almond milk,’” he said.

Learn thanked the lawmakers for support they have demonstrated for the local dairy farmers, even through a slump that has hurt milk production for about five years.

With some sense of satisfaction, Learn said locally produced whole milk found a welcoming market during the shutdowns and stay-at-home orders marking the arrival of coronavirus in Pennsylvania.

“We saw a run on whole milk in the grocery stores, it became the latest thing to grab when milk was selling out of the stores,” Learn said.

Talk on milk pricing formulas was brief, with farm organization leaders again decrying the rates that have left some producers bankrupt.

The enigma of milk price regulations, one leader suggested, was understood by only two or three people in the entire nation, “and they’re not allowed to fly on the same airplane.”

STRESSFUL TIME FOR FARMERS

State Farm Bureau President Rick Ebert went off the organization’s main talking points for legislators with important words for farm bureau members.

“There’s a new initiative about resilience and mental health of members,” Ebert said. “Mental health has always been a factor and there are a lot of different levels.

“When you look at the stress on farms today, it can create the anxiety, the depression — there are programs out there for the guys, husbands and wives, the farm families, to reach out to and just talk to somebody.

“Sometimes maybe that’s all we need, to be able to talk to somebody and get a different perspective of what’s happening on your farm and get some encouragement. Dairy farmers — well, any farmers, really — you take a look at all that’s happened with COVID-19. You’re sitting there with all these animals and it’s stressful. … We need to push on with the American Farm Bureau, National Farmers Union, a couple of other organizations, its called resilience. To make sure you understand, when farmers have issues, it’s not a bad thing. There are people out there to give you help.”

State Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, took in the farmers’ concerns and urged them to pursue aid that’s available through the federal CARES Act, cautioning them to make applications before the approaching deadlines.

Then he noted the serene atmosphere of the Yarnick farm complex, with greenhouses protecting year-round vegetable production, the bright red farm store with a steady stream of shoppers heading in and out with bags of fresh produce, all surrounded by acres and acres of field crops looking ready for harvest.

Pittman compared it to a massive coal mining and shipping operation served by freight trains only a mile or so away on Fulton Run Road,

“While they’re loading a coal train, we’re here in the bread basket of Indiana County,” Pittman said. “We can co-exist for the benefit of all.”

On behalf of Harrisburg lawmakers, Pittman told the farm owners that the Legislature has made the expansion of rural broadband service one of its priorities.

FUNDING AGRICULTURE

Ed Rising, president of Indiana County Farm Bureau, moderated the session with about three dozen taking part in discussion, enjoying a picnic-style lunch of hot dogs, corn on the cob, cantaloupe and yellow seedless watermelon, and following Dan Yarnick on a tour of his family-owned farm operation.

Rising acknowledged a projected budget shortfall of $3.5 billion to $5 billion that likely will bear on the state’s economy for years. But the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, through its county organizations, has roundly called on lawmakers to support funding for agriculture.

“Protect funding for Penn State Cooperative Extension, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and core functions within the Department of Agriculture, which conducts state inspections,” Rising said. “The agriculture industry already was in difficult economic circumstances before the COVID-19 crisis. Deep cuts to core programs could be detrimental to farm families.

“Continue funding for agriculture grants that strengthen the agriculture supply chain and encourage on-farm diversity, such as Dairy Development Grants and Small Meat Processing Grants,” Rising asked the lawmakers.

STORMWATER RUNOFF ISSUES

Scott Overdorff, a member of the Brush Valley Township board of supervisors and member of Indiana County Conservation District board, said farmers aren’t getting a fair shake in the growing awareness of stormwater runoff.

A big problem: recently levied fees on owners of land with “impervious surfaces” — ground covered with pavement or structures — to help pay for protective drainage systems.

The fees are predominant in eastern Pennsylvania but are spreading to areas with the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

“The average residential fees in these communities are less than $100 a year, but farmers are paying several hundred to several thousands of dollars annually in stormwater fee assessments,” Overdorff said.

“An inch of rainfall on an acre of ground equals 27,000 gallons of water,” he said. “So I would say that farmers already are doing quite a business of keeping that water from running into streams. And when we get heavy rainfall, some debris gets into streams and washes onto farm land. But farmers are limited in what they can use to clean them out.”

The imbalance already has been recognized by some eastern lawmakers, who have drafted measures to give farmers a break with:

• Senate Bill 1026, which would cap the amounts that farmers could be assessed

• Senate Bill 679, which would direct the Environmental Quality Board to develop regulations to allow counties to adopt their own stream cleaning programs

BROADBAND INTERNET NEEDED

Reporting on the growing need for and more dire consequences of the lack of broadband internet service in many parts of Pennsylvania, Stacy Hilliard of REA Electric Cooperative, said the utility has been surveying its service areas to gauge interest in being online.

It’s overwhelming, she said.

“With changes in employment and people working from home, and then with students not knowing what’s going to happen, if they’re going to be in school or learning from home … but on our end, we have conducted multiple surveys … and it was a 90 percent positive rate for that,” Hilliard said. “And surveying through Facebook, mail and phone, we had 874 responses, a 95.5 percent confidence rate and overall 71 percent of those people are interested in receiving broadband service.”

REA has been given estimates of $90 million to $110 million for the feasibility of starting broadband, she said.

“But we won’t put that prospect on our members, but if we were to do this, to all of our members, to reach their homes on 2,000 miles of line, to make it feasible for us, we would be looking at upward of $60 million in grants.”

REA, she said, is motivated to roll out fiberoptic line just to enable distant digital access and control of its substations and switching equipment on the electric service network but needs help.

Tom Beresnyak of the Penn State Cooperative Extension, commended Pittman’s introduction of Senate Bill 1118, a companion to Senate Bill 2438, which would allow rural cooperatives to run fiber optic cable on their existing rights-of-way without negotiating with landowners for additional fees.

The Farm Bureau also endorses Senate Bill 835, which would designate a fund of public sector money as “seed money” for private counties and rural cooperatives together to build broadband service in rural areas.

Beresnyak asked for support of the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, known as R-DOF.

“It’s a reverse auction, and that’s not new money. That’s money you pay every month in the Universal Service Charge on your phone bill,” Beresnyak said. “That money is set aside for high-cost projects, which broadband would be a part of. Pennsylvania was eligible for around $700 million.

“The application deadline closed around July 15. … We won’t know who bid until October, but it is a big deal.”

ADDRESSING FARM CONCERNS

A farm bureau policy statement handed out to those attending the tour outlined many more issues affecting agriculture and proposed solutions to satisfy farmers’ interests.

• They call for approval of House Bill 1348, which is designed to better protect farm owners from being held liable for injuries suffered by people who take part in agritourism events, by granting protection from litigation to farmers who post multiple warning signs and collect signed waivers from event participants.

• They urged passage of Senate Bill 453 and House Bill 1037, which would exempt farmers from requirements to install sprinkler systems in barns and other farm buildings used for social events, if the buildings are equipped with smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and multiple posted exit points.

• They lobbied for approval of House Bill 2032, a measure that would exempt farmers who hire foreign workers from the federal H-2A system from having to pay into the state unemployment compensation fund for those workers. Workers hired under that system are ineligible to collect the benefits that the fund provides.

• Farm leaders asked legislators to pass House Bill 2244, a bill intended to allow landowners to use certain favorable formulas in calculating their state income taxes.

• They also urged adoption of Senate Bill 1041, a measure that broadly defines “farm use” to allow all-terrain vehicles and other similar vehicles to be exempted from state sales tax payments.

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the county courthouse; Indiana Area and Homer-Center schools; Blairsville, Homer City, Clymer, Center and Burrell; and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.