Pa. counties receive more than $1 million in Veterans’ Trust Fund awards

Berks, Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, and York are among the 14 Pennsylvania county veterans’ affairs offices and 34 charitable or veteran service organizations receiving grants from the Veterans’ Trust Fund (VTF), announced Tuesday by Gov. Tom Wolf. 

The VTF is administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA).  It is funded by voluntary $5 donations from Pennsylvanians applying for or renewing their driver’s license, photo ID, or a motor vehicle registration. The VTF also receives proceeds from private donations and the sale of Honoring Our Veterans and Honoring our Women Veterans license plates. 

Wolf said in a statement that the fund helps fill gaps in services to veterans that would otherwise go unfilled. 

“The county offices and civic organizations who receive these grants do incredible work supporting our veterans,” said Wolf. “They truly improve the lives of veterans, providing them with life-enhancing programs and services. Pennsylvania owes a debt of gratitude to everyone who contributes to this program, either as a donor or hard-working recipient.” 

A total of $1.35 million in grants was awarded, with $200,000 to county veterans affairs offices and $1.15 million to charitable or veteran service organizations. Grantees slated to receive funding identified more than $1 million in matching funds pledged toward grant-funded initiatives. Combined with the VTF grants, this will result in more than $2.4 million for veterans’ initiatives during the next two years. 

“As Pennsylvania’s biggest veteran advocate, the DMVA connects veterans to benefits that meet their daily needs,” said Maj. Gen. Mark Schindler, Pennsylvania’s adjutant general and head of the DMVA. “Our goal is to reach every veteran in the commonwealth. The best way in obtaining that goal is by collaborating with other organizations to conduct our outreach campaign. 

“It is through this collaboration and these grants that veterans receive the help they need and earned by serving our nation. I would like to personally thanks all those that donate to ensure our veterans get the best we can give them.” 

Up to a total of $200,000 in grant funding was available for new, innovative, or expanded programs or services provided by county directors of veterans’ affairs or the Pennsylvania Association of County Directors of Veterans Affairs. The three areas of emphasis for grantees in this category were veterans’ outreach, veterans’ courts, and training and capacity building. The Berks County Office of Veterans Affairs received $20,000 to implement a county veterans temporary assistance grant program. 

The VTF grant also identified $1.15 million in funding available to veteran service organizations with 501(c)(19) status and non-profit, 501(c)(3), charitable organizations with a mission of serving Pennsylvania veterans. Funding priorities for grants in this category were veterans’ employment and education, behavioral health initiatives, or other programs addressing newly identified, unmet or emerging needs of veterans and their families. 

Central Pennsylvania grantees, their specific award amounts, and their programs supported are as follows: 

  • Building Bridges Foundation at Anderson Farm, Conestoga (Lancaster County): $35,000 to provide interactive equine therapy to veterans 
  • Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, Harrisburg (Dauphin County): $50,000 to support the MilitaryShare program 
  • JFT Recovery and Veterans Support Services, Lemoyne (Cumberland County): $50,000 to assist veterans with vocational, educational and job services 
  • Pennsylvania Wounded Warriors, Camp Hill (Cumberland County): $45,000 to provide financial assistance to veterans 
  • rabbitCARES, York (York County): $49,900 for transportation services to veterans 
  • Rodale Institute, Kutztown (Berks County): $50,000 to support the veteran farming training program 
  • Writeface, Conestoga (Lancaster County): $34,080 to provide therapeutic services to veterans.

Pennsylvania companies are joining the push to increase organic farming



Organic food is gaining popularity.

Currently a more than $55 billion industry in the U.S., the pandemic has made organics even more popular as consumers concentrate on health and well-being.

According to Food Drive, sales of organic produce rose by more than 14% in 2020, adding an increase of $1 billion to that $8.5 billion segment of the organics market. While produce sales were up overall for the year, that’s a significant jump over the 10.7% increase of conventional produce.

But despite organics’ increasing popularity with consumers, only around 1% of all farms in the U.S. are certified organic because of the expense of converting. To be certified organic, the soil must be free of all herbicides, pesticides or other man-made enhancements, a process that takes two years or more.

To offset that disparity and pump up their supply chain, some companies in the food industry are joining grass-roots efforts to improve access to the resources farmers need to make the change. And with organics pioneer, the Rodale Institute in Berks County, some Pennsylvania-based companies are leading the way.

Bell & Evans, an organic chicken producer, and supermarket chain The Giant Co., are working with Rodale and other companies and organizations to grow the ranks of organic farms.

The Fredericksburg, Lebanon County-based Bell & Evans launched an Organic Grain Initiative, pledging $500 million to helping farmers convert to organically growing grains such a soy and corn, which it uses to feed its chickens. The goal of the initiative, which is in partnership with the Rodale and grain supplier, Cargill, is to convert 50,000 acres of farmland to organic.

“It’s just one more thing, having control of the quality of the organic grain,” said Bell & Evans owner Scott Sechler.

With the limited number of farmers growing organic soy and corn, companies like Bell & Evans must sometimes rely on foreign-grown grains to meet the demand. The foreign option is less desirable and has a greater risk of mishandling or mislabeling, he said.

“If you have a good product you can charge a little more,” Sechler said. “We’re the most expensive chicken, but were also the ones that are growing because people are sick of chicken that’s raised and processed based on ‘how cheap can you do it.’ If I’m going to be charging more for organic. I want to make sure it’s fully organic.”

Carlisle-based The Giant Co., has long been a supporter of carrying the organic produce in its grocery stores and participates in the PA Preferred program to support local farmers.

“Customers want to know where their food is coming from and how it is grown,” said Jessica Groves, social impact manager for Giant. ”We have an obligation as a food retailer to educate them and make those organics regularly available.”

To help promote organic and sustainable agriculture, the grocer launched a Healing the Planet program that partners with Rodale as well as Planet Bee Foundation and Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful. Giant hopes to raise about $1 million for each organization by asking customers to round up the dollar amount on their purchases, donate Giant Points or purchase a “Bee Bag” reusable grocery bag at any of its stores.

Money given to Rodale will help with its Organic Crop Consulting Services, which has helped more than 200 farmers convert to organic agriculture. The program launched in Pennsylvania in 2019 and is now expanding to states around the country.

Sustaining growth

Diana Martin, director of communications for Rodale, said it is important to see players in the food industry get behind the push towards more sustainable agriculture and she is pleased to see two Pennsylvania companies getting involved.

“Organic farming is going to be growing exponentially because of these corporations,” she said. “The story is about connecting the dots between demand and the support and now we have these corporations coming in to complete that loop.”

She noted that Pennsylvania is a bit ahead in the organic game compared to other states.

“A lot of people don’t know that Pennsylvania is such a powerhouse in organic farming,” Martin said. “We’re ranked no. 3 in the nation in organic agriculture sales.”

She said there are more organic farms in Pennsylvania than in other states, partly because of the influence of the nearly 70-year-old Kutztown-based Rodale Institute, but also because the state’s farms are small compared to the large industrial farms in other parts of the country.

Organic farming is six to nine times more profitable than conventional farming, so it pays for local farmers to get the most money they can out of each acre of land. However, converting can be costly and complicated, leaving many farmers hesitant to do it.

But, working with its grain supplier, Cargill, Bell & Evans will offer market access for transition crops during the process of converting to certified organic. Farmers will be guaranteed a dedicated market for their certified organic grains through Bell & Evans.

It will also fund the Rodale Institute’s organic consulting program to work with farmers on proper organic farming techniques and transitioning and to help them achieve the certification they need.

“There’s a lot involved,” said Sechler. “You need crop rotation. You have to have really good coordination of crops and markets.”

He said the experts at Cargill and Rodale can help the farmers manage such issues.

Giant’s initiative, Martin said, is also helpful to the organic cause because it raises consumer awareness by educating customers about organics and asking them to help support sustainable farming.

“Giant is helping by connecting with the customers,” Martin said.

She said the investment these companies are making in promoting organic farming is smart.

“Organic is profitable,” she said. “In the U.S. it is the fastest growing area for food. And, if you’re looking to the long term, a lot of commercial and industrial farming is just short-sighted.”

She also said it’s not just corporations in the food industry that should be interested in the cause.

“You need to ask ‘how do you make this healthier food available to your employees?’” Martin said. “You need to be the thinking about the food system and how we can improve and sustain the environment.

Martin said commitments by companies like Bell & Evans and the Giant Co. are a good start in the effort to get more stakeholders involved, but she said Rodale is hoping more corporations will get involved in promoting organic farming. “We’ve always worked with farmers and we always worked with consumers, but we can’t rely on that to make the massive changes we need to our food system.”

Producers discuss PA Preferred Organic program

A hemp field at The Rodale Institute in Kutztown. (Photo: Submitted)

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture hosted more than 30 representatives of the state’s organic industry on Monday to give updates on the development of the PA Preferred Organic program.

Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding listened to feedback from producers, processors and retailers on how the department can meet the industry’s needs and Governor Tom Wolf’s goal of leading the nation in organic production.

Earlier this year, Wolf signed the first-ever Pennsylvania Farm Bill, which included $1.6 million to established the PA Preferred Organic program to assist farmers in transitioning to organic production and promote local organic products to consumers. The state is currently third in the nation for organic farming, officials said, and home to more than 1,000 certified organic farms and more than 93,000 acres of certified organic land.

“There is a market at the consumer level for the brand of Pennsylvania,” Redding said. “People want local and they want organic. By marrying these demands with PA Preferred Organic, we’re going to create new markets for PA farmers and become the premier state for organic production.”

Some of Monday’s participants in the roundtable discussion included representatives of the Rodale Institute in Berks County, Bethel Township, Lebanon County-based organic poultry producer Bell & Evans and Kegel’s Produce Inc. of East Hempfield Township, Lancaster County.

Pennsylvania organic producers can take advantage of resources in the PA Farm Bill’s Ag Business Development Center to help create business plans and management strategies to enhance economic viability, diversification of markets and farm expansions.

“The PA Farm Bill is a gamer changer for agriculture in the commonwealth,” said State. Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks), minority chair of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. “The legislation builds on Pennsylvania’s stature in organic farming, and will enhance brand recognition and open doors for marketing our products around the nation. We know consumer demands are changing and we need to be able to help our farmers meet those demands.”