Penn State

Penn State, farm leaders push for ag funds

CDT photo

An 8-year-old boy named Parker isn’t old enough to join 4-H yet, but his brother is. He helps his older brother with his projects, and when that brother’s 4-H group was asked to write letters to support the funding that would keep the group going in Pennsylvania, Parker pitched in.

“People need to know that food does not appear at stores. It starts at farms,” Parker wrote in a letter that Chris Hoffman, a farmer, vice president of the Farm Bureau and a Penn State trustee, read Tuesday in a joint hearing in Harrisburg on agriculture funding.

People need to know that food does not appear at stores. It starts at farms.

Parker, age 8

Parker’s brother, and more than 92,000 other kids across the state, could lose their opportunity to participate in 4-H soon if the 2015-2016 state budget is not passed, or other provisions are not made to keep agricultural programs funded.

Last month, Penn State President Eric Barron warned about the looming deadline of May 1, a date that would mark the end of the university’s ability to cover the gap left by the state in covering programs related to Pennsylvania’s largest industry.

On Tuesday, Provost Nick Jones sat before state senators and representatives with a similar message.

The 4-H programs, he said, are just a part of it. A larger piece is the cooperative extension programs that serve farmers across Pennsylvania.

“We think it’s important to bring to the committee’s attention the breadth and the excellence of investment in extension,” he said.

Penn State Extension programs are one of the ways the university touches the lives of more than just students and football fans. It is “an educational network that gives people in Pennsylvania's 67 counties access to the university’s resources and expertise.”

That network can help farmers make the most of their crops. It can help backyard gardeners feed their families. It teaches on topics from food safety to early intervention for kids with special needs to facts about gas drilling for people looking to make decisions about their land.

But those services are outside of Penn State’s normal operations. They are funded with the help of additional dollars aside from the university’s general appropriation.

As part of the 2015-2016 ag budget request of $49.4 million, the university asked for an additional $3.2 million for research and extension from the state, money that would come from the Department of Agriculture’s land scrip fund.

But then Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-led legislature hit a stalemate on budget negotiations that has brought programs and agencies all over Pennsylvania to the point of layoffs, shutdowns or paying out of pocket while waiting for the budget to pass.

Jones said that Penn State has been footing the bill to date, paying millions for programs and research to continue “in good faith.”

Sixty-day layoff notices will go out on May 1 to 1,100 staff members, he said.

For some people, that might seem like a temporary problem. A layoff, after all, is not a firing.

But Jones’ concern is that once the employees are laid off, they will find other opportunities.

“This staff is in high demand in both public and private sectors. Once they are laid off, they will be hard to get back,” he said.

This staff is in high demand in both public and private sectors. Once they are laid off, they will be hard to get back.

Penn State Provost Nick Jones

And that, Jones said, could be the end of extension in Pennsylvania. Other speakers before the committee expressed similar concerns.

Agriculture has long been a focus at Penn State, the commonwealth’s land grant university. One of the largest and most applied-to colleges in the country, it started as a simple farming school in 1855. Although other majors, like engineering, have become focuses, agriculture is still the one branch of science with a guaranteed constituency on the board of trustees, holding six of the ruling body’s seats.

The university conducts research in areas involving cattle, swine, bees and more.

Among current concerns with the lack of funding is the looming threat of avian flu. In 2015, numerous states saw flocks hit hard by the disease, driving up the price of eggs and poultry.

“I believe Penn State played a huge role in the avian flu miss,” said Hoffman. “They were working in partnership with the Department of Ag to develop protocols we as farmers used to protect our farms and protect our industries. Those are things we can't do on our own as farmers.”

I believe Penn State played a huge role in the avian flu miss.

Farmer and Penn State trustee Chris Hoffman

But some of the legislators on the committee were focused on the greater issue of the budget as a whole, and its impact on other areas.

State Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne, questioned placing issues like agriculture ahead of school district funding, saying multiple districts in his area were also preparing to issue 60-day layoffs.

Karoline Kent is a Penn State agriculture student. She has also been state president of 4-H. In her testimony, she saw no larger issue than agriculture.

“Penn State students are at risk of losing barns and labs. ... That will go away if not funded,” she said. “Penn State Extension is the source of most of the research Pennsylvania farmers rely on.”

Pennsylvania has now gone 259 days without a budget.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce