SUGARLOAF TWP. — Farmers were not shy about pressing Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding on a number of issues during a forum Thursday morning.
Those issues included the plight of dairy farmers, the enactment of what they called “the rain fee,” the plan to increase the state’s minimum wage, the difficulty in growing much-in-demand hemp, and the lack of quality career-technology education in schools.
The farmers had the opportunity to air their concerns to Redding at Rep. Tarah Toohil’s annual breakfast at Tom’s Kitchen restaurant in Sugarloaf Township.
Toohil, R-Drums, said she was elated to have Redding on hand to meet with about 75 farmers in the heart of the Conyngham Valley, which itself is home to some sizable agricultural operations.
Don Gregory, 70 of Dallas, has been farming all his life. Gregory was upset about several issues, one being the “rain fee” — the recently enacted stormwater fee levied by the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority.
Gregory said he faces a $1,300 annual bill, while another farmer near him has been billed $2,800.
“I have 100 acres that I grow grass for hay,” Gregory said. “One inch of rain produces 27,000 gallons of water — that’s a billion gallons in a year. I’m saving water, not polluting it.”
Gregory said his farm has near zero runoff, yet he is being billed.
Redding said dairy farmers are facing serious times, most having lost money over the past three years.
“Dairy farmers are in a difficult spot,” Redding said. “There is still a negative margin on milk. It’s something we worry about every day. There’s not a more painful piece of agriculture than dairy right now. If there’s no margin, there’s no mission.”
Toohil noted that The Lands at Hillside Farms near Shavertown has become a non-profit entity, prompting one farmer to yell out, “We’ve been non-profit for years.”
Redding said dairy farms across Pennsylvania have “a breadth of options and resources” at their disposal as they consider their next step. He said they could access more information on the department’s website.
The farmers asked Redding to advocate for the return of whole milk in schools and public institutions.
“You know why kids are fat today?” a farmer asked. “It’s because they don’t move. All they move are their thumbs.”
“Regarding industrial hemp farming, Pennsylvania is open for business,” Redding said.
The secretary said the state has completed two years of research on hemp farming that is available to interested farmers. He expects 2019 to be a big growing year for the product, noting that he realizes it’s a complex issue.
One farmer said growing hemp is “labor intensive,” and with the possible increase in the state’s minimum wage to $15, it would be a costly endeavor.
The farmers said another issue is that there are no hemp processing plants in Pennsylvania.
Redding said the passage and signing of the 2018 Farm Bill, particularly the language removing industrial hemp from regulation under the Controlled Substances Act and providing for commercial production of industrial hemp, are welcome changes that will benefit both Pennsylvania producers and consumers.
Toohil said it is estimated that some 75,000 farm-related workers will be needed in the next 10 years.
But farmers said there is a need for educational training for careers in farming so there are enough people to operate and repair heavy equipment that includes high-tech features.
Redding said as part of a workforce development plan outlined last year, the state is working to identify gaps in education and training for those in-demand career paths. The plan is also focused on work-based learning, including micro-credentials and apprenticeships, and helping Pennsylvanians obtain meaningful careers as part of finding solutions to a shortage of talent in the near and long-term.
Redding called the meeting “a healthy conversation,” although most of the farmers didn’t feel they got the answers they were hoping for on several fronts.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.