Federal, state legislators hear farmers’ concerns at Portage farm tour
Federal and state legislators heard on Tuesday from Cambria County farmers how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has hurt the agriculture business locally.
Weakland Farms in Portage Township was the site of the Cambria County Farm Bureau’s 2020 legislative farm tour, an event that’s held each summer as a way for Farm Bureau members to communicate to policy-makers the issues on which they’re focused.
This year, farmers said they’re seeking civil liability reform for agritourism businesses, new investments for on-farm conservation activities, changes in stormwater management regulations and fees and expansion of rural high-speed broadband internet service, among other issues.
“It’s always great to be out on these family farms, to be able to meet the families, to see the operations … and to be able to hear directly from them what their needs are,” said U.S. Rep. Glenn “G.T.” Thompson, R-Centre, one of several federal, state and county-level elected officials who attended the tour. “I do appreciate the Farm Bureau briefing because that’s kind of a grassroots identification of the issues.”
State legislators attending the event were Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Richland Township, Rep. Jim Rigby, R-Ferndale, Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, and Rep. Tommy Sankey, R-Clearfield. Also in attendance were Democrat Shaun Dougherty and Republican Howard Terndrup, challengers in November’s election for Langerholc’s Senate seat and Burns’ House seat, respectively.
A handful of Cambria County elected officials were present – Commissioners Thomas Chernisky and Scott Hunt, District Attorney Gregory Neugebauer and Recorder of Deeds Melissa Kimla – and staffers were sent from the offices of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-Blair.
The COVID-19 pandemic piled bad news on top of bad news for farmers in Cambria County and across the United States, said Martin Yahner, governmental relations director for the Cambria County Farm Bureau.
“The agriculture economy in this nation has been bad for eight years before COVID ever hit,” Yahner said. “The ag-conomy just did not come back like the rest of the macro-economy in the United States in the last several years. There are a lot of reasons for that – weather, commodity prices, supply and demand issues, trade wars. … Then COVID hit, and that made things much worse.”
The pandemic caused the closure of schools and restaurants across the country, and the resulting supply chain disruptions led farmers to plow under or otherwise destroy crops or euthanize animals that couldn’t be sold.
“We have some recovery going on now, which is good,” Yahner said. “Government payments have helped farmers tremendously. On one hand, I personally and the Farm Bureau would rather have markets than government payments for a lot of reasons, but we have to save our industry.”
Economic issues are part of the reason why mental health is “a big, big problem in agriculture right now,” as Yahner put it.
“Farm bankruptcies are as high now as they’ve been across this nation since the 1980s and the Great Recession,” Yahner said. “It’s real, real tough out there. It’s real sad when you hear about farmers committing suicide, but that’s what’s been going on. It’s just another reality.”
State legislators to protect funding in the state budget for Penn State Extension, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and core functions within the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture – called “the three big things that we need to properly fund in Pennsylvania” by Yahner. They were also asked to continue funding grants “that strengthen the agriculture supply chain and encourage on-farm diversity,” such as Dairy Development grants and grants to small meat processors.