SALEM, Ohio — More than 10 years ago, on the way home from his county’s first-ever farmland preservation meeting, Pennsylvania farmer Craig Sweger had an epiphany.
“We can buy the development rights to every single acre of every farm in Washington County, but there will still be no farms unless we preserve the farmer.”
That idea, coupled with Sweger’s personal interest in helping his friends and neighbors become more profitable, grew into the University of Pittsburgh’s agricultural entrepreneurship program.
The idea to keep farms thriving and in the black made its way to an agricultural economic development committee that serves Washington and Greene counties in southwestern Pennsylvania.
That committee of farmers, Penn State Cooperative Extension and economic development personnel “saw a need for a strategic view of ag opportunities out there, and coordinated implementation,” Sweger explained.
Sure, there are programs to assist and finance beginning farmers, retiring farmers, fruit and vegetable farmers, even plain old dairy farmers. But what good is a program if nobody knows about it, Sweger said.
Couldn’t and shouldn’t there be a resource that brings all players to the table, and gives farmers easier access to them?
Members secured funding from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and other sources, took the idea to Pitt, and last year watched it bloom into reality.
There are programs to assist and finance beginning farmers, retiring farmers, fruit and vegetable farmers, even plain old dairy farmers. But what good is a program if nobody knows about it?
Sweger has farmed the foothills of the Pittsburgh-to-West Virginia corridor since he was 7, working alongside his father to raise beef and then in the family’s now-defunct lime and fertilizer business.
After his father passed away in the early 1980s, Sweger became a dealer for Vermeer hay equipment. Last year he gave that up, too, and now concentrates on haying his 130 acres near West Middletown and leading the entrepreneurship program.
“In those 25 years, I offered my two cents on equipment, and even sometimes recommended a guy not buy something if there was a better solution. That attitude, that I really care about the people I work with, and that I’m a farmer, too, gives me credibility,” he said.
Sweger’s work as program director is still mostly a one-man show, but his singular outreach efforts rival that of much larger-staffed programs.
In the year the program has existed, Sweger estimates he’s visited some 60-plus farmers to offer advice, resources, and assistance in growing their operations. Those visits include everything from helping young people looking to buy an existing organic farm to consulting with a traditional dairy operation.
At every one, he tries to work with clients to see where they can improve their management, better utilize resources, or become involved in a program that’s already out there.
For instance, Sweger cites the Center for Dairy Excellence’s profit or target teams. The state programs offer cash to farmers who participate, to offset costs of bringing in experts like veterinarians, nutritionists, agronomists or accountants to see where an operation can become more responsible, more efficient, more profitable.
Sweger says those programs, and many others available to Pennsylvania farmers, aren’t well known and are underutilized.
“There are a lot of great programs out there, but if you don’t bring them to the field, you’ve accomplished nothing,” he said.
“The opportunities are out there for them, they just have to be found.”
And that’s where Sweger comes in, concentrating on matching farms with people, programs and resources that can help them.
Of particular interest is business planning and transitions. The average age of a farmer in western Pennsylvania is 58. In the next 10 years, one-quarter of all farms in western Pennsylvania are expected to change hands, he said.
If those transitions aren’t done properly, the foundation of the rural economy could crumble.
“I’ve seen way too many farm transitions done in a funeral home,” Sweger recounts. “That’s tragic. If we’re going to have farms around here in the future, we’ve got to find an orderly way to transition them.”
This winter, the ag entrepreneurship program teamed with Pitt’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence to host a series of workshops on the topic. Sweger said the sessions were well received, and that he sees workshops on several topics, such as risk management and crop insurance, to become a regular and expected part of the program
Sweger also sees an opportunity to get right down to the extreme basics, like how to make hay, especially with those who are getting into agriculture but have no background in it.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity there,” Sweger said.
“My goal is for this program to provide whatever services it can, whether that’s linking farmers with farmers or with experts who can work one-on-one with individuals.”
Sweger says he’ll help any type of farm operation grow and succeed if it means keeping agriculture alive and thriving in western Pennsylvania.
“There’s a pile of money and help out there for all types of farms. If we can put all the pieces together and look at the farms that make up the biggest piece of the pie and work together regionally, we should be able to make a difference in agriculture,” he said.