HARRISBURG, Pa. — Like every state agency, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture took it on the chin when lawmakers adopted their budget, 101 days overdue, early this October.
Comparatively, Pennsylvania’s agriculture department fared better than other state agencies. But considering agriculture’s status as Pennsylvania’s leading industry, a number of farmers are questioning the cuts lawmakers made when they passed the budget Oct. 5th.
In the new fiscal plan, the state slashed $545,000 in funding to help farmers buy crop insurance, eliminated promotion of Pennsylvania farm products and cut nearly $1 million from research and development.
“I think we tend to be an easy target sometimes,” said Jennifer Heltzel, a Blair County dairy farmer. “We have such diversified interest that I think we tend to make ourselves easy to divide and conquer.”
Overall, Pennsylvania’s contribution to the agriculture department went to $67.8 million from $76 million, an 11 percent drop in funding. But it could have been much worse.
Under early proposals adopted by senators, the agriculture department would have received $8 million less in funding, said Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., a Beaver County Republican and dairy farmer.
Negotiations between lawmakers restored that funding. The problem is Pennsylvania started its budget talks in February facing a $3 billion revenue shortfall that continued to worsen throughout the year, Vogel said.
Given tough economic times Pennsylvania faces, agriculture made out OK in the budget, he said. “We knew it would be ugly,” he said. “It came down to priorities and it got to people wanting to argue about their interests. We finally got it worked out.”
Lawmakers still have yet to decide on funding for Penn State, a portion of which goes to local cooperative extension agencies. Those talks are tied to ongoing debates over taxing table games in casinos.
Henry Karki, president of the Beaver-Lawrence Counties Farm Bureau, praised Vogel for getting some funding restored, but criticized Harrisburg lawmakers for not acting in farmer’s best interest.
Cutting the state’s contribution to crop insurance will put some farmers under, he said. “The ones who are really going to get hurt is the dairy industry,” Karki said. “They have to have good crops to feed to their animals.”
Pennsylvania’s investment in crop insurance is cheaper than giving farmers disaster relief payments, something that was done following the devastating drought of 1999, Heltzel said.
Since 2006, Pennsylvania has cut its contribution to crop insurance by 80 percent, said Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. The program does not pay for all of the farmers insurance, but instead contributes a percentage to ensure better coverage, he said. “Our concern is that fewer farmers may participate in the program, leaving them vulnerable to losses,” he said. But farmers are not the only ones who have taken a hit in this year’s budget, O’Neill said.
Funding for research was reduced to $1 million from $1.6 million, with that money helping scientists develop crops that give better yields, he said.
“Advancement in agriculture research is what allows us to grow more food on less acres,” he said. “Even with less acres in farming, we are still able to feed the population.” The elimination of $518,000 for marketing will also hurt farmers and consumers, said Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
PASA received only a limited amount of funding from the state budget, and much of the marketing budget went to support commodities like milk, beef and pork, Snyder said. That money also, in part, helped develop “Buy Local” campaigns to help farmers market their fresh goods to consumers, he said. Lawmakers undercut those efforts by eliminating the promotion of Pennsylvania products, Snyder said.
“The future trend is that more and more people are looking for foods that are grown locally,” he said. “It is going to hurt our farmers and ultimately hurt our consumers.”