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AG Secretary speaks on state of agriculture

PAT CROSSLEY/Sun-Gazette Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock, left, and Secretary of Agriculture Russell C. Redding stand with members of the Montoursville Area School District’s Future Farmers of America, Brady Steinbacher, Gavin Reeder, Tyler Lepley, Matthias Albert and their adviser, Dan Tucker.

Speaking before a room filled with members of the agricultural community, future farmer students, area legislators and community members, the state Secretary of Agriculture Russell C. Redding said that the pandemic has “reminded us all of how important agriculture is, but just how fragile this agricultural system is.”

“If there’s a silver lining inside the pandemic, I think it’s the appreciation of what we have as individuals and what we have as a community and as a state in our agricultural industry,” Redding said.

“And, we’ve been reminded how important agriculture is to both our state and national security,” he added.

Redding noted that agriculture should be “at the table” when discussing economic development in the state.

He added that 18% of the state’s gross state product is agriculture and food, with $132 billion and 580,000 jobs connected to agriculture.

“We now have something definitive to talk about — what the size and scale of the industry is, and what does it need,” Redding said.

“The other important piece of this is we wanted to be able to say to every one these students who are in agriculture science education, what those jobs and that landscape in the workforce looks like in the future,” Redding said, speaking of the Future Farmer students who attended the breakfast meeting Friday.

Redding explained the difficulty in filling jobs when there aren’t enough students in the agricultural programs in schools to fill those jobs.

“How do you inspire somebody to enter this business? How do you convey to communities and schools that don’t have an AG science program, what is agriculture? Why should they be interested in studying the field of agricultural? Let’s talk about the jobs. Let’s talk about the impact,” he said.

Redding highlighted how agriculture is at the intersection of some of the most important issues of today.

“It’s food, it’s jobs, it’s the economy, it’s conservation, it’s the environment,” Redding said.

“When you start defining agriculture in the state, it’s not an easy thing to do. Everybody has a little different definition of what is agriculture,” he said.

Detailing how different regions in the state define agriculture according to the commodities specific to that area, such as mushrooms in Chester County, grapes in Erie, Lancaster County, dairy, pork, poultry, he noted that most people leave out forestry, which comprises about 15 million acres of agricultural land in the state.

Redding addressed the economic issues in agricultural by noting that there was probably not a farmer at the event who is not in transition.

“What do you do with these commodity prices that have been on a wild ride? What do you do with a dairy industry right now where corn and soybeans have pushed the margins to 24% of where they were a year ago, less than a year ago? What do you do with these poultry and hog guys who are trying to figure out how to get their animals to enjoy $7 corn?” he said.

“I can tell you there’s no margin in there,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is about the margin. If there’s no margin, then there’s no mission.”

“It’s important that we focus on the issues of AG, invest in AG,” he added.

The issue of animal health is significant in the state which Redding categorized as an “animal agriculture” state. He noted that one of the concerns right now revolves around the African Swine fever which is in the Dominican Republic.

Redding said that chronic wasting disease in the deer population is also a concern, which can be a controversial issue.

“That is part of the animal kingdom, and we’re trying to be fair to our deer farmers,” he said.

“It is a problem both inside the fence and outside the fence. I’m sort of tired of pointing fingers whether it’s the wild deer or the domestic deer. At the end of the day, we’ve got a problem,” he added.

The secretary also touched on the part the state is playing in the Chesapeake Bay Initiative related to the reduction of nutrients going into the bay.

“There is no secret that the burden to get the job done on nitrogen and phosphorous is falling to Pennsylvania,” Redding stated. “Of the total reduction still to be done, 80% of those 50 million pounds of nitrogen have to come from agriculture.”

“How are you going to do that? We’ve reduced that by half, but it’s taken 30 years to do it. We don’t have 30 more years to do it,” he said.

“There is a very deep culture of stewardship in agriculture. We want to respect that. We are not going to get to the end goal of reductions without the full support and endorsements of the farm community. You’re never going to get there without the resources to get the job done. I’ve never had a farmer say, ‘I don’t want do that.’ They have told me, ‘I cannot afford to do that,'” he added.

Also speaking at the event, Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock, talked about an AG conservation assistance program bill which he is working on that deals with clean water.

“I’m not focusing on the Chesapeake Bay; I’m focusing on what we do with our own water here in Pennsylvania, then we don’t have to worry about what happens downstream,” Yaw said.

“We’re trying to go back now and help farmers because…open land is where we need to concentrate,” he added.

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