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The future of Pennsylvania agriculture as I see it, Part 1

August 30, 2018

Dear friends of North Mountain Pastures,

 

2018 has been one of the most difficult and unique years for us at North Mountain Pastures. Often in the past, we’ve felt like our pasture-based livestock infrastructure was solid and ready for anything, and this year has provided us with several challenges (such as water line leakages and well pump failures) that required more maintenance and rebuilding of this infrastructure. Additionally, the volume and frequency of rain has made it difficult to plan and execute pasture moves and brooder operations, and has required quicker rotations for our swine groups to maintain ecological integrity within our system.

 

Oh, and we had a baby! Brooke is a blessing and is a beautiful, healthy 12-week-old as I write this, and has been our easiest baby to date. However, life with a newborn is still life with a newborn - all priorities are dropped for this little human, and time becomes a factor on the farm and in our business. Add to that some labor force woes early in the season, and training a whole new crew mid-season, and it has added up to a fast-paced, stressful year. We are coping with our personal practices to maintain sanity and trying to keep some normalcy for our other children. Hopefully these efforts see us through another year and a successful CSA.

 

In the greater agriculture world, Governor Tom Wolf recently announced his 6-point plan to improve and strengthen Pennsylvania agriculture. I applaud the efforts Governor Wolf, Secretary of Ag Russell Redding and his team have made in analyzing the current state of ag in PA, and drafting a plan to build further. Overall, I do believe the points of focus are sound, and as with anything, the devil is in the details of the plan if it is to succeed. Much of the data informing the plan seems to come from a recent report on the state of ag in the commonwealth.

 

That said, I’d like to offer my take on the points, not heavily researched, but from the inside of PA agriculture, and specifically as someone the plan seems to point to directly. 

The six points of the plan are:

  1. Rebuilding and expanding the state’s infrastructure, including roads, bridges, ports and broadband;

  2. Strengthening Pennsylvania’s workforce to ensure the next generation is prepared to lead;

  3. Removing unnecessary regulatory burdens and strengthening the state’s business climate;

  4. Establishing business ownership succession plans on the farm and throughout the food system

  5. Creating more processing capabilities to accommodate a growing animal agriculture and protein sector

 Building on these five points, Governor Wolf also added a sixth point– his plan to make Pennsylvania the nation’s leading organic state. 

 

U.S. organic food sales increased by $47 billion in 2017, and Governor Wolf believes that the commonwealth must take advantage of this burgeoning market. To achieve this, he will focus on raising awareness amongst producers, improving infrastructure and training, and facilitating the marketing aspects of organic produce.

 

The first point seems relatively broad - not so much an agricultural point as something necessary for commerce in general. I do believe government is responsible for facilitating commerce, and thus I think this is a great place to start. As someone who has worked in utilities construction during summers in college, I also know these are hard-working, high-skill jobs that pay well. This type of work can generate consumers of higher-end agricultural products, which is something to address in the later points.

 

As for the 2nd point, maybe it's just me getting older, but the more I talk to people who do hard labor for a living, the more I hear the same story - (not so) young people taking construction and agricultural jobs, only to spend as much time checking phones and as little time working as possible. That said, drive, motivation, and work experience seem to play heavily in the next bullet point.

 

Heidi Witmer, a close friend who runs the LEAF Project in Perry County (with whom we partner), runs a first employment program for teenagers in the central PA region. When Heidi first started LEAF in 2013, youth employment was at an all-time low, with a national average of only 1 in 4 youth under the age of 22 employed. While the employment market has recovered, Heidi says our cultural values around youth employment may not have - she regularly hears parents say that they want their children to focus on school and sports versus working while in high school.

 

I started working at 12 in order to buy a mountain bike. I continued working throughout the school year and in summers, landscaping, cutting and selling christmas trees, building houses, laying sewer pipelines, lifeguarding, and a variety of other jobs throughout high school and college. My brother and sister were no different, if we wanted something that cost money, we had better figure out a way to make some. I believe this cultivates responsibility and an understanding of money and the value of hard work that is impossible to teach without experience. If we are to believe the statistics (think about the number of young people you know who work), this entire generation is being cheated of this experience at a young age.

 

In my opinion, leadership derives from experience, motivation and an ability to see the bigger picture. If young Pennsylvanians aren’t willing to do any of the agricultural labor themselves, I find it hard to believe they’ll be suited to lead agricultural workers. 

 

Every farm owner I know has milked the cows, moved the pigs, fed the chickens, picked the apples, and harvested the lettuce themselves at some point. Leadership requires an understanding of the mechanics of the operation, but also requires an understanding of the human cost of the operation - a good leader will know what field operations are like and require the appropriate amount of rest, food and water throughout the day. A good leader will not exploit the economic differences and needs of a laborer.

Even if we are building the next generation of leaders, they will want to be paid for their efforts. Maybe they will even want to own the properties upon which they build their living! If this is the case, then one bullet point should be to actually pay farmers for their labor. According to a recent Wall Street Journal Report, on average, 82% of U.S. farm household income is expected to come from outside jobs.

 

Can you imagine trying to sell a student on a tech career, engineering career, or literally any industry where they will be expected to hold one of the most difficult and stressful jobs of any of their peers? And then let them know that 82% of them will have to get another job just for the privilege of holding the first job??? 
"Don’t worry, Chad, you’ll get to live the lifestyle of a software engineer while working your second job loading FedEx trucks at night!"

 

Not to mention -- not everyone is a “leader.” Some people need to take orders, but these people need to feel as fulfilled by the work they do every day as the leaders in the workforce do. Producing food is one of the most fulfilling pursuits I’ve ever undertaken, but not getting paid for it. However, a massive part of the lack of money in agriculture is the constant pursuit by big food to the bottom. In the end, we’re always competing with that Tyson, Perdue, or even Bell&Evans chicken on the grocery store shelf for $0.99/lb.

 

So...what would I do to make this point better? 

 

I think the first thing to do to strengthen Pennsylvania’s work force is to create and mandate curriculum in schools for learning how to integrate mobile technologies into life in a healthy way. Parents, coaches, and other role models will have to model appropriate behavior with phones  and other devices, but if kids don’t learn that these devices are tools, and not life itself, they will succumb to the addictive screen-checking that most adults experience now. It is up to schools and parents to realize just how addictive digital media is, and determine solutions for working and living in possession of devices.

 

I would fund first-employment programs like LEAF where young people have access to meaningful manual labor. I am constantly physically and mentally challenged by agriculture, and working outdoors is a blessing, not a curse to me. Working outdoors is known to reduce depression, anxiety, and blood pressure. Additionally, LEAF has data on how much growing food has an impact on healthier food choices for both the employee and his/her family. This should lead to purchasing more whole foods, and ideally, less drain on our healthcare system as healthy food choices produce healthier people.

 

I believe I would rewrite this point thusly: Building a workforce that: seeks out meaningful work, puts its heart and mind into its work, and gets paid appropriately for its output. There’s a lot hidden in those words for sure, but the intent is captured in the actions above - teach (and model) appropriate use of mobile technologies, fund programs that give kids meaningful work in food production so they understand manual labor and learn to make healthier food choices.

Thanks for reading, and thanks as always for considering where your food comes from,
~Brooks

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