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Op-Ed: Compromise needed to help aging Pennsylvania farming population


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There's not much that Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Republican, agree on.

However, there is one thing that they both see the same way. They both think there's a need to lure young people into farming to replace the ever-growing number of retired farmers.

“The average age of a Pennsylvania farmer is 56 years old,” Wolf said during a news conference earlier this year. “And it’s getting higher every year.''

Wolf said there are expected to be about 75,000 job vacancies in the farming industry over the next 10 years.

“If we want these kids to think about a career in farming, we need to make sure we are reaching out to them earlier and more effectively,” Wolf noted, adding that young people need to “think about farming and agriculture as a viable lifelong professional pursuit.”

“The young people are not going into it at the level they used to, so it's a very aging industry,'' said Corman. “One of the reasons why young people aren't going into it is, they can't make a dollar, can't make a living.''

Both Wolf and Corman are trying to address these concerns, and you'd think they'd be able to agree on a solution. But you'd be wrong. True to form in Harrisburg, Wolf and Corman have very different ways of dealing with the problem.

Wolf's proposal is more expansive and would come with a cost for taxpayers.

His bill would provide:

• $500,000 to re-establish a program to fund agricultural and rural youth organizations to increase awareness of agricultural issues within the state.

• $500,000 to improve childhood nutrition while increasing exposure to agriculture.

• $2 million for an agricultural business development center.

• Allow farmers to acquire preserved farmland without having to pay the realty transfer tax. By exempting them from the realty transfer tax it would allow new and beginning farmers to purchase those farms at a lower cost.

• Provide $3 million in low-interest loans and grants to assist farmers in implementing best management practices.

• Spend $5 million for a rapid response disaster readiness account to be able to move quickly to address agricultural disasters and contain an outbreak or threat, such as the spotted lantern fly or avian influenza.

Meanwhile, Corman and his fellow Republicans have passed their own package of assistance for farmers. Basically, they're more specific and don't look to carry the price tag of Wolf's measure.

The package includes:

• A tax credit program for landowners to lease or sell farmland to future generations of farmers.

• The creation of the Pennsylvania Dairy Future Commission to bring together all stakeholders in the industry.

• Exempting milk haulers from weather-related travel bans.

• Easing restrictions on the use of farmland for farm-related tourism and entertainment activities.

So far, the only proposal Wolf has outright nixed is exempting milk haulers from weather-related travel bans. The two sides do seem close, though, on the need to make it easier for farmers to sell farmland to other younger farmers and possibly setting up some form of a dairy commission or agricultural business center to coordinate the agricultural industry.

It's hard to tell what, if any, agreement can be reached on the other proposals. Overall, Republicans, who represent most of the farmers in Pennsylvania, are concerned about spending overall, and might object to the cost of Wolf's measures. Still, it's hard to see Republicans outright rejecting Wolf's proposal.

It's much the same for Wolf. He may disagree with some of the specifics in the GOP bill, but a compromise seems likely just so Wolf can say he did something to help farmers.

All in all, it looks like something might actually be done to help both young and old farmers. However, remember this is Harrisburg where nothing ever comes easy. It's entirely possible that the Republicans will end up passing something that Wolf will veto.

It's also possible the measure will fall by the wayside as Wolf and the Legislature get down to the nitty-gritty of passing a budget before the June 30 deadline.

Farmers and all Pennsylvanians, though, have to hope that a compromise of sorts can be reached to bring young people into an industry that needs them now more than ever.

publish here with permission | June 21, 2019