The 2020 Pennsylvania Farm Show came to a close on Saturday. As farmers and young people showed off their best livestock and crops, federal and state lawmakers spent the week touting their respective farm bill packages meant to prop up the agriculture industry in the commonwealth and help struggling farmers make ends meet.
The federal farm bill was passed in 2018 for $428 billion -- with 76% of that money going toward nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and is renewed every five years. Pennsylvania became the only state with its own farm bill, which Wolf signed in July totaling $23.1 million investment for organic transition assistance and research, small meat processor incentives, disaster response dollars for agricultural disasters like the spotted lanternfly, and more.
Lancaster County’s agriculture industry is central to its identity and economy. Sales of farm products in the county topped $1.5 billion for the first time in 2017, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture Agriculture Census. But it’s been slowing, growing by only 2.2% since the previous ag census in 2012, which shakes out to less than one-half percent each year.
Plus the dairy industry -- one of Lancaster’s top exports -- has struggled along with the rest of the nation as international trade conflicts impact demand and consumers direct their dollars to plant-based beverages. The Farm Show heavily promoted the state’s dairy industry because of this.
Based off the 2020 Farm Show theme Imagine the Opportunities, the state Department of Agriculture Russell Redding said these opportunities are “much clearer today than they were a year ago as a result of the Pennsylvania farm bill.”
The state farm bill package is “a springboard to even do more” for local farmers, said Rep. David Zimmerman, R-East Earl.
“Both the legislators on both sides of the aisle, as well as the governor, see the plight of our farmers and we’re all willing to help and get things started,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman noted that the parts of the farm bill that were most important to his constituents in the 99th House District are the dollars to help plan and manage the conservation of their land.
But how are local farmers feeling about these new laws?
Don Ranck, president of the Lancaster County Farm Bureau, said any law that’s designed to help farmers in emergency situations is welcomed, but is still skeptical of any unintended circumstances that could come from the package of bills.
“What we’re looking for is long term, we want markets to return to a free and open market, not limited by the small amount of money that would be available [from government],” Ranck said.
Some farmers have had to diversify their farms by adding part-time work or agri-tourism to their property to bring in extra cash to keep the farm up and running, including Ranck, whose farm in Paradise doubles as a bed and breakfast.
Jeff Balmer, who operates Stoney Path Farms near Lititz, is one of these farmers who have had to diversify their income. He’s become a part-time bus driver to bring in extra income.
He said he appreciates the legislation but “the farm bills are a small piece of the international supply and demand issues.”
Ranck agrees, and said the issues Lancaster County’s agriculture is facing are “not monolithic.”
“Farmers are usually optimistic,” Ranck said. “I’m an eternal optimist. I think that pot of gold could be out there [this year].”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Jeff Balmer's name and has since been corrected.