Farmers here and elsewhere face challenges in 2018

The 102nd Pennsylvania Farm Show started this weekend and will run through Saturday at its namesake complex in Harrisburg. It is billed as the largest show of its kind under one roof. This week also features the Keystone Farm Show held at the York Fairgrounds from Jan. 9-11. This is promoted as the biggest commercial farm equipment and service provider trade show in the commonwealth.

Employing about half a million people and contributing $185 billion to Pennsylvania’s economy annually, agriculture in Pennsylvania deserves to show off at least once a year. If for nothing else, a trip through the food courts to sample the culinary side of the industry is worth it.

But behind the perfectly groomed animals, polished modern farming equipment, prize-winning baked goods and newly spun wool is an industry facing many challenges. Positive and negative issues are changing the look of how and where our food is produced. Some farmers are thriving, and some are barely surviving. This applies both locally and globally.

Here in Lancaster County, we’re seeing a mix of strengths and weaknesses in farming. Most people working in the industry seem to be optimistic about its future, but it’s likely going to require a different way of looking at things to succeed.

“It’s an exciting time,” Stephanie Shirk, client relations manager for Penn State Extension, said. “There’s such a great opportunity for niche marketing in Lancaster County right now.”

This year we will see two huge new supermarkets open here. They join a variety of places where shoppers can buy food — ranging from farm stands and markets to specialty shops and stores. I would guess there has never before been a time when consumers have had so many food choices.

But consumer awareness about where food comes from and how it is produced has never been as heightened. This phenomenon is propelling a strong farm-to-table movement here and nationally. Shirk said more people also are turning to Extension’s revamped website for tips on how to grow their own food and preserve it or raise animals.

Technological advances in agriculture have introduced unmatched efficiencies in raising crops and producing food. Agriculture has largely become a technology-driven industry in the last decade and will continue to be. It’s all about getting food to the consumer as fresh as possible, and now, more than ever, the demand is to produce it so that it’s environmentally sustainable.

“We’re ready to be able to provide good food products using new technology out there,” Shirk said.

A new program launched last year in Lancaster County with the state Department of Agriculture recognizes the need for more trained personnel in the area of farm equipment technology. Youths are being recruited for an apprenticeship program with local equipment dealerships to learn how these new machines work and how to fix them.

“I think we all understand we can’t be the ho-hum, run-of-the-mill farms anymore,” Steve Hershey, president of the Lancaster County branch of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said. “What happened a generation ago, or two generations ago, won’t work.”

Hershey and his son, Phillip, raise layer hens and some beef cattle on their farm in Rapho Township. The next generation was able to come in to the family operation with a well-thought-out plan and good timing in the egg-producing business, Hershey explained. But he is less optimistic about young people making farming a career in the face of low product prices and unrealistically high land prices.

“Land prices today. That’s the challenge,” Hershey said. “I think at some point in time we have to get back to a more realistic figure.”

The poultry industry in the county is strong, as are most ag products, Shirk reported. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported projections of beef and poultry consumption this year will reach a new high with the average consumer expected to eat 222.2 pounds of the products.

But it is a much bleaker outlook for dairy farmers here and elsewhere.

Save for 2014, the dairy industry has suffered extremely low prices. A steady decline in milk consumption combined with overproduction has been daunting the industry for years. Even organic milk, which for a time became the darling of the dairy industry, is in oversupply, and production has been cut.

While accustomed to positioning themselves to ride out the low times, dairy farmers everywhere have turned to other sources of income to make ends meet. Tobacco and produce have kept many Plain sect dairy farmers afloat, while others have diversified into poultry or other commodities.

Lancaster County farmers are known to be hard workers and diligent, Hershey said, even though there are many challenges in front of them. “That’s something to celebrate,” he added.

There are so many variables that come into play, not only with milk pricing, but in the entire business of producing and moving food. Some can be controlled, but others — like weather conditions and pest damage —cannot be.

Farmers will be watching what happens at the federal level this year for sure.

The outcome of North American Free Trade Agreement trade talks will affect agriculture; the 2018 federal farm bill will have a huge impact; and continued discussion around labor and immigration are paramount to food production.

Whatever happens, it seems most Lancaster County farmers and the supporting industries are ready to face the future head-on. We are a strong industry here with the infrastructure in place. Opportunities abound. It’s how we use them that will set us apart.

One thing we can always count on: As long as there are hungry people, there will be a need for food and therefore a need for farmers and agriculture.

Lisa A. Graybeal is a dairy farmer and chairwoman of the Lancaster County Agriculture Council.


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