Judy Chambers made it clear at the outset that when she references local governments she is talking about boroughs and townships rather than counties. Chambers, degreed from Northwestern University and Penn State, is now with the Penn State Extension, and was one of the breakout speakers at the PA Farm Bureau’s 66th annual meeting. Before getting underway, she took an informal survey — a show of hands — of who among the attendees was an elected official, an appointed official, or a recovering elected official. And when she discusses farmers, she means growers, producers and the whole ag industry. She says they can affect your farms at several levels: land use, types of operations, building and expansion permitting (“a big problem”), signage, highway occupancy, and taxes. “It helps,” says Chambers, “to live in a farm-friendly community. Such a community is one that understands how modern farming works, and what agriculture needs in the way of ordinances and policies in order to be able to do its work well.” An FFC wants to encourage agricultural expansion, actively seek farmer involvement when considering local policy, and support next generation and new farmer activities.
“Local government gets in your way, inadvertently, all the time,” says Chambers. “A lot of townships have policies, usually in their zoning, about retail farm sales, for example.” To put it another way, it’s about what you can sell on your farm and how you can set up a farm market. Regulations dealing with this particular boogeyman will often phrase it this way: Sales are restricted to only those products produced on the farm. And elected officials will tell you that it is done that way to protect you. “That is their idea of farm friendly,” Chambers explains. “They’re trying to make sure that you don’t get somebody next to you selling bananas. What they fail to understand is that it makes sense in modern agriculture if I’m growing tomatoes and you’ve got honey that I sell your honey at my farm market.” One solution is to get more farmers into local government. Chambers admits to not knowing how many farmers are involved in local government, but that “it feels like less than in the past. For one thing, there are fewer farmers to draw from. Conversely, there is also an influx of new residents, especially retirees, with time and interest.” The great weeder-outer is that “local government is a lot of work, takes more time than it used to, and is much more complex.” People aren’t being as nice to elected officials as they used to be, which can be a pathway to non-involvement for a farmer considering a foray into local politics. “Everybody thinks it’s wonderful to live next door to an orchard — until they start spraying,” Chambers says.
Urban fringe issues, that always seem to be on the table and are reasons for caring about getting involved, are noises, odors, and air quality; natural gas drilling; and those ever-popular activists who often seem to choose sophomoric and underhanded ways to make their points, i.e. shooting undercover footage of what’s going on in your operation. “There are a lot of people out there who have a lot to say about agriculture who don’t necessarily understand what your business is,” notes Chambers. Citing a start-up business in Adams County, Chambers chronicled a township horror story that ate up a whole year of start-up time at a cost of more than $10,000. “When they applied for the new permit, because they were moving from one part of their farm to another, the township said it was a commercial enterprise, and that ‘we can’t permit this as an accessory operation for agriculture if it is commercial.’ They had to go through storm water issues, handicapped accessibility, bathrooms, industrial waste management, and all manner of other things before they could open the shop.” Owners said afterward that, “The township likes our project; they just didn’t know how to treat us. If there were something in the ordinances which recognized that some farmers need to be involved in direct sales, or in value-added processing for other producers, they could have made it much easier to expand.”
Chambers says she doesn’t want to paint a picture of the township as the evil empire. “What I’d like you to do is get more involved in them.” But, she says, you need a reason to get involved in local government. “When a farmer runs for public office he is not doing it for personal gain. Farmers are trying to preserve their living and the rural area where they live.”
Let’s go through the paces. If you’re ready for appointed office, you need to let somebody know. New appointments are typically made in January. With elected office, you don’t have to go to Elective Officials School. “We’ll try to get you there after you’re elected,” says Chambers. All you have to do to qualify is live in that municipality for at least one year, be aged 18 or older, and be a registered voter. Other marketable factors can help you like motivation, an open mind, a willingness to learn, making time for a few meetings each month, and a true interest in the future of your community.