Labor shortages. The spotted lanternfly. Climate change. Water quality. Biosecurity.
Those are some of the most pressing issues facing Pennsylvania farmers that should be addressed both industrywide and in the legislature, according to state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and Penn State Agricultural Sciences Dean Rick Roush.
In a town hall Tuesday at the annual Ag Progress Days held at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center in Ferguson Township, Redding and Roush heard from farmers, future farmers and other concerned citizens about topics ranging from riparian buffers to African swine fever.
Awareness is key in spotted lanternfly fight
Increasing public awareness of the spotted lanternfly and the dangers it poses to agriculture is most important in the fight against the invasive insect, both Roush and Redding said.
The Lycorma delicatula, known as the spotted lanternfly, is an invasive planthopper native to China, India and Vietnam, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. The species arrived in Pennsylvania in 2014 in Berks County, and has the potential to negatively impact the state’s grape, orchard and hardwood crops.
“We’ve all been a little astonished at how fast the lanternfly nymphs move,” Roush said. Through a fluorescent dust tracking study, researchers found that some nymphs can move up to 150 feet in one jump, he said. They also tend to gravitate toward tall objects like telephone poles, he said, which poses a unique opportunity for detecting and eradicating them.
A quarantine zone has been established in 14 southeastern Pennsylvania counties, Redding said, which has been integral in stopping the spread of the lanternfly. More than 1 million spotted lanternfly permits have been issued to businesses that travel in, out or through the spotted lanternfly quarantine, he said.
“The key, though, has been awareness,” he said. Residents or travelers in Pennsylvania passing through the quarantine zone can do their part to stop the spread by checking their cars, boats, camping or hunting gear for adult spotted lanternfly or their larvae, he said.
Farmers do their part to help improve water quality
Two things Pennsylvania farmers do really well, Roush said, is planting no-till cover crops and installing riparian buffers to protect streams from agricultural runoff.
A riparian buffer, sometimes called a stream buffer, is an area of vegetation near a stream that helps protect it from the impact of adjacent land use. The recommendation is to have a 35-foot stream buffer, said a farmer who spoke at the town hall. He also said he’s seen success by installing a wire along the stream so his cows don’t walk in the stream while drinking.
“Cows don’t poop and drink at the same time,” he said, to laughter.
Another audience member said that by engaging in no-till cover crop planting, farmers can reduce their excess nutrients or trap them, making riparian buffers less necessary. Roush and Redding agreed, extolling the success of cover cropping and planting riparian buffers in reducing agricultural runoff in streams that flow to the Susquehanna River and into the Chesapeake Bay.
Redding said the state needs to “raise additional money” to support Growing Greener grants, after an audience member said the program, which has helped with stream management and conservation, has lost funding over the years.
Finding solutions in agriculture
A changing climate, workforce and technology are things current and future farmers will need to adapt to in coming years, said Roush and Redding.
“Virtually every climate change adaption solution you consider involves water in some way,” Roush said. “The kind of things we’re doing at looking at trying to avoid agricultural runoff and sediments lend themselves to the first part of a more efficient way of using water.”
“When your paycheck depends on the weather, you take this seriously,” Redding said.
The demand for skilled laborers to operate technologically advancing farm machinery is also growing, Roush said. Pennsylvania is still trying to address that demand, Redding said, but there is increased competition for skilled workers and money is necessary to attract them.
As threats like the spotted lanternfly and African swine fever affect and draw closer to Pennsylvania farm communities, Roush said, biosecurity practices will become even more important. Building trust with consumers and raising awareness of food supply threats are paramount to limiting their spread, he said.
Responding to questions from members of the National FFA Organization, Roush told students, “don’t shirk the math,” as those skills will be important in operating technology like drones to track spotted lanternfly, or robotic milking equipment.
Both Redding and Roush said curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit will be important for future farmers to come up with creative solutions to the issues facing the food system.
“That’s the person we need in the orchards of Adams County, that’s the person we need in the vineyards of Erie, to solve these types of problems,” Redding said.
The discussion continues
Elected officials will be in full force Wednesday, as Ag Progress Days continues. Starting at 10 a.m., the Pennsylvania House and Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs committees will hold a joint informational meeting to discuss and hear testimony on topics such as livestock disease threats and biosecurity.
Gov. Tom Wolf will then join Redding, Deputy Secretary Mike Hanna and other agriculture officials at the Special Events Building at 1 p.m. to highlight the accomplishments of the Pennsylvania Farm Bill.
House Agriculture committee member U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, along with other government officials and industry leaders, will host a public discussion at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the College Exhibits building on agricultural policy and the federal Farm Bill. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., will also be at the event to talk about the Farm Bill, his work on the Senate Agriculture committee, and to meet with participants.
Ag Progress Days wraps up at 4 p.m. Thursday.