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Ag industry faces spring season with zero funding

With spring weather arriving this week, it is safe to say that everybody is ready for flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables and outdoor activities.

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Most anxious about spring are local growers, as communities throughout the state rely on their production.

Yet, at the start of the season the agribusiness industry in Pennsylvania is preparing for the dismantling of its academic resources after more than eight months of no funding, according to a news release.

Gov. Tom Wolf line-item vetoed more than $50 million from the state’s agricultural programs. What exactly does this mean for agriculture here?

It means possibly closing Penn State University’s Cooperative Extension and Agriculture Research programs, an educational network that provides resources and expertise to agribusinesses across the state.

The network’s expertise includes responding to natural crises, as well as outbreaks of animal diseases and food-borne illnesses.

So far in this fiscal year, from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016, the amount of money going to the Extension programs is zero, according to Mark O’Neill, director of media and strategic communications for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

Midstate farmers stress impact of budget impasse

Midstate farmers, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and the dean of Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences gathered yesterday to warn about the possible shutdown of Penn State University’s Cooperative Extension and Agriculture Research programs.

The programs’ 1,100 workers – whose jobs are on the line – are often  the only link between local farmers and information about what threats are looming, how to handle pest control, new information available for best practices and timely recommendations.

“You never know year to year whether their might be some type of new potential disease, pest or element that just happens out of the blue,” O’Neill said.

Extension offices are located throughout Pennsylvania’s 67 counties and provide a wide variety of services including leadership development for 90,000 youth involved in 4-H. 

Yesterday’s gathering took place at Penn State’s Fruit Research and Extension Center, in Biglerville, the epicenter of Pennsylvania’s fruit belt in Adams County.

Bruce Hollabaugh is a fruit grower and co-owner of Butler Township-based Hollabaugh Brothers Fruit Farm and Market.

“Our family farm relies heavily on the Fruit Research and Extension Center,” Hollabaugh said. “In one instance, a research project spearheaded by the center significantly increased the production of apples on our farm by showing us how to transition our orchards from old tree systems to the next generation of growing through high-density precision planting.”

A short-term closure of the fruit research center could hurt farmers like Hollabaugh, and a long-term shutdown could threaten the capability of fruit growers and food safety.

The impact on fruit growers is just one example, but a shutdown of extension services could impact every commodity in Pennsylvania agriculture.

The fight for funding

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced two bills to restore funding to agriculture research programs. Although slightly different, each bill calls for enough funding to continue the programs.

“The bottom line for a lot of this is that if it would close down, farmers could be in a huge bind because there really aren’t a lot of other resources out there,” O’Neill said. “It’s not like there’s a backup organization somewhere.”

Lenay Ruhl

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