The agriculture industry remains an important part of Centre County’s economy, despite challenges farmers are facing on a daily basis.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 census notes that yearly agriculture sales in the county total more than $69 million. This number doesn’t necessarily translate to large profit margins, and many of the region’s farmers are fighting an uphill battle in regard to issues such as land preservation.
The most recent agriculture census shows that Centre County has 148,464 acres of farmland — about the same today as it was in the 1980s. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the county’s population has increased by more than 30 percent in the same time period.
The agriculture census also notes that there are 1,146 farms in the county, about 350 more than there were in 1987.
Several efforts throughout the county have been designed to preserve existing farmland and encourage new development. One of the most prominent efforts is the Centre County Farmland Trust, formed in 1996 by local residents.
“The farmland trust’s first priority is to preserve more farms and let people know about the importance of protecting agriculture in the landscape,” said Sarah Walter, the trust’s executive director.
Walter said one of the ways her organization and others helps preserve farmland is through conservation easement programs.
An easement is an agreement between a landowner and an organization that the land won’t be used for anything other than its original purpose. Because easements must be purchased from farmers, Walter noted that acquiring them can be a challenging process.
“There continues to be a waiting list of over 60 farms for purchased easements through the Centre County Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement program,” Walter said.
“Our limiting factor there is funding, and that program appeals to owners of productive farms because of the requirements and the opportunity to receive compensation for the development rights they give up.”
Even with easement programs in place, many farms continue to lose land and others don’t have the money necessary for expansion. According to Walter, rising property values are just one part of the equation.
“Some of our best farmland also happens to be close to developed areas that are ideal for development. The conflict comes when people desire to live in an area surrounded by open space, but complain about agricultural activities that cause smell, noise and dust,” Walter said.
Large commercial businesses expanding into the region are also a problem for farmers. National chains typically have brand recognition, wide product availability, entire marketing departments and other resources not available to local farms, especially the newer, smaller operations.
In order to compete, some farmers have been forced to take advantage of new technology and marketing techniques.
“Some farmers that use direct marketing may have a web or Facebook presence, but I’m not sure how helpful that really is,” said James Dunn, a professor of agricultural economics at Penn State. “Many of the customers are older and use those tools less than younger buyers.”
While land preservation is a constant topic of concern in the agriculture community, Centre County’s farmers have had to deal with other issues in the past year. The nationwide drought in 2012 had lasting effects on farmers throughout 2013. More than 1,600 counties, including several in Pennsylvania, were added to the USDA’s list of natural disaster zones due to droughtlike conditions.
Although Centre County wasn’t included on this list, local farmers still dealt with rising prices and crop shortages.
“Anyone with animals that buys feed hated the prices until mid-September and then liked them after that,” Dunn said. “However, our farmers had pretty good crops in 2012, so those with homegrown feed had the higher milk and animal prices but less shock on the feed side than farmers in the Midwest or farmers here that buy a lot of feed.”
In addition to natural disasters, national politics has far-reaching effects on the region’s farming community. The Senate approved the farm bill Feb. 4, and the president has said he will sign it.
According to Dunn, some of the provisions in the latest version are troubling.
“Direct payments will probably end and that is a source of so-called cash money, which is always in short supply on farms,” Dunn said. “Farmers that bought expensive land or signed expensive leases for land might find themselves in a cash-flow bind with the drop in row-crop prices. The loss of some of the government payments might make the squeeze worse.”
Politics, weather and expansion issues aside, agriculture remains a vibrant part of the community. According to the Centre County Planning Department’s 2013 agriculture plan, interest in purchasing locally grown organic foods is on the rise. Whether this interest, along with increased efforts to preserve county farmland, begins to make a significant impact is yet to be determined. A better picture may be painted later this month when the USDA releases its Agriculture Census for the first time in five years.