In early April, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau members spent a productive morning meeting with legislators, then gathered to hear the commonwealth’s top political figures discuss the future of agriculture.

Ag Secretary Russell Redding opened the session with a reminder that highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) remains a threat to poultry. He reiterated the critical role of the animal health and diagnostic lab system and discussed the state level Farm Bill that benefits Pennsylvania agriculture.

Governor Josh Shapiro acknowledged the importance of state government’s strong relationship with Farm Bureau. “It’s Republicans and Democrats breaking bread together, talking together about issues that should unite us, not divide us,” he said.

Shapiro discussed the need to protect the heritage of rural communities, especially in the face of challenges such as overregulation and HPAI. “HPAI is one of the biggest animal health emergencies in American history, and it’s hitting us particularly hard,” he said. “It’s been almost a year since Pennsylvania confirmed its first case of avian flu in decades … This year, the first case of avian flu was reported on January 30, about four months earlier than last year due to warmer weather and earlier bird migration.”

HPAI impacts farmers, contributes to rising consumer costs and impacts biomedical research across the state. “For the sake of our farmers and our economy, we need to double down on our efforts to mitigate the spread of avian flu, and that’s what my administration is going to do with partners and leaders in the General Assembly,” said Shapiro. “Under the leadership of Acting Secretary Russell Redding, the Department of Agriculture has been on the ground responding to threats to our poultry industry.”

Since HPAI first hit, Pennsylvania has lost nearly five million birds. The efforts of 170 experts have helped poultry farmers keep their flocks safe. So far, 420,000 tests have been conducted to help diagnose and reduce the spread of HPAI.

“We’ve developed biosecurity protocols,” said Shapiro, “and we’re working with farmers to implement plans.”

Shapiro wants agriculture to do a better job partnering with outside organizations. “Oftentimes those are trusted more by farmers in the community than government or government officials,” he said, “and we are doing a better job partnering with outside organizations to drive the message out about the importance of biosecurity measures, particularly with backyard flocks. These experts are working to wipe out the virus where it hits, reducing the spread and supporting impacted farmers – including helping farmers who have lost birds.”

Pennsylvania is the only state with a $25 million fund set aside for farmers to recoup HPAI losses. Nine million dollars have been paid out to poultry farmers, and Shapiro’s budget doubled the fund for a total of $50 million.

“I’m also proposing an additional $6 million to reimburse farmers for the supplies they need to get birds tested by certified poultry techs,” he said. “These two investments represent a true investment in the farm community and with a fiscally conservative budget.”

The HPAI outbreak has resulted in some states banning and blocking Pennsylvania poultry products. Redding and the Ag Department have been actively advocating for the poultry industry and working to reduce restrictions imposed by other states, such as Texas.

Shapiro saluted the work that’s been done under Redding and is ready to put aside political differences to come together to support farmers and grow the state’s economy. “Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has long been a partner to farmers and state government to make sure the needs of farmers are met,” he said. “I believe we can do this work together, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to take this approach.”

For the good of agriculture

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro address Farm Bureau members, emphasizing the importance of working together to solve problems. Photo by Sally Colby

Newly elected state Farm Bureau president Chris Hoffman emphasized the importance of Farm Bureau Legislative Day as an opportunity to meet with elected officials to discuss ag issues.

“As farmers, it’s our job to educate legislators on matters so important to our families and communities,” he said. “After reflecting on our legislative agenda, it becomes clear that Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has a distinct and conscious path forward for agriculture for the Commonwealth – one that includes prosperity, stewardship and collaboration.”

Hoffman noted that whole milk has been barred from schools for more than 10 years due to federal nutrition standards. “Ideally, this issue would be solved at the federal level,” he said. “I’m grateful that members of the General Assembly are working on a Pennsylvania solution. It’s critical for the health of our dairy industry.”

SB 297 will give Pennsylvania schools the option to serve whole milk with school meals. To qualify, schools must purchase 100% Pennsylvania-produced milk. “Fluid milk consumption is at an all-time low,” said Hoffman, “and I’m thankful members of the General Assembly are working to address this troubling trend.”

He noted that lawmakers have proposed language to clarify the definition of milk in Pennsylvania to state that milk comes only from mammals.

“Allowing non-dairy beverages to be labeled ‘milk’ is not only harmful for the dairy industry, it’s misleading to consumer,” said Hoffman. “The answer is simple: milk comes from a mammal, nut juice does not.”

Hoffman is counting on the General Assembly to pass transportation legislation to recognize the uniqueness of the ag industry. SB 153 would allow milk haulers to travel during declared disaster emergencies. “Prohibiting travel of milk trucks poses a host of problems that may result in a farmer dumping milk,” said Hoffman. “That is not an option for struggling dairy farmers.”

Another key piece of transportation legislation is HB 84, which would allow farmers with specialized farm equipment to obtain a yearly permit for movement of equipment and eliminate the need for a state police escort.

Solar energy is a relatively new topic for PFB. “Farm Bureau energy policy remains dedicated to keeping farm production costs down and strengthening energy security by enhancing sustainability,” said Hoffman. “We realize the role solar has in our energy landscape and we look to foster the opportunities it brings to farmers by keeping agriculture production at the forefront of the conversation.”

PFB supports SB 211, which establishes decommissioning and bonding requirements for developers who install or operate commercial solar facilities in Pennsylvania. Reasonable decommissioning and bonding requirements will help ensure solar sites are properly decommissioned and waste is handled appropriately.

Another proposal would protect prime agricultural land from solar development. “Pennsylvania’s farm landscape is a showcase of productive fields that enable agriculture in the Commonwealth to be the largest industry,” said Hoffman. “Solar energy has an important role but it’s critical we preserve prime farmland for food production.”

Hoffman urged farmers to return to their county Farm Bureau to share what they learned. “Remind them of the power and influence of the largest farm organization in Pennsylvania,” said Hoffman. “Remind them of the values of being involved and engaged. Remind them that together, we can be transformative for Pennsylvania agriculture.”

by Sally Colby