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What have we learned from Pennsylvania's Producers to date?

Over the past year, Penn State Extension in partnership with the Packard Foundation, has sought to bring Pennsylvania’s agricultural producers and conservation partners together to examine conservation programs implemented in the current Farm Bill, how they’re working for Pennsylvania’s producers, and how they could be improved upon to work better with regard to serving producers better to increase conservation practices on the ground.
Conservation practitioners learning from PA producer

Conservation practitioners learning from PA producer

Producers and conservation partners came together at several venues across the state beginning at Ag Progress Days 2011.  Then, on October 21, 2011 a Farm Bill Forum was convened in Harrisburg for the exclusive purpose of identifying priorities, suggestions, and challenges of the existing USDA conservation programs.  The synthesis of ideas gathered there serves as a foundation for continued thought and discussions. An additional event was held in Harrisburg on May 31, 2012 where a small group of Pennsylvania producers representing a variety of agricultural products came together and identified key priorities for continued success with conservation programs in Pennsylvania.  In addition, we began thinking about ways to organize and educate decision makers about the importance and working of USDA conservation programs on the ground in Pennsylvania.

Moving Forward—with you!

We’ve learned a lot from producers and conservation partners, and now it is time to share that knowledge more broadly.  Your experience is unique and invaluable, and matters in ensuring a robust conversation about conservation priorities as it relates to federal and state programs.

We hope you’ll be able to join us for the upcoming event at Masonic Village Farm in October. Here, we’ll continue our ongoing efforts to build on what we’ve learned about the state of conservation practices in Pennsylvania while we discuss ways in which farmers can make their stories—both success and challenges—heard by our legislators.

Have an idea? Want to share it? We are open to your suggestions for potential venues for future discussions.  Do you have a friend or neighbor who has strong opinions about conservation programs? Make sure you tell them about this opportunity to sit with other producers and legislators to talk about conservation programs in Pennsylvania.

Conservation Issues Important to PA Producers

Over the course of several meetings and discussions with PA producers, we have identified a long list of considerations related to USDA conservation programs and how they work in our state.

We plan to continue to engage on these issues over the next year and ask that you take a minute to look over this list and think about how these issues effect your own operation. Also, what have we missed?

May 31, 2012: A Dinner Conversation

To continue building on the previous discussions, PA producers were invited to attend a dinner conversation surrounding Farm Bill conservation programs on May 31, 2012 in Harrisburg. This small group of producers (some of whom had participated in the earlier events) gathered to learn about the current status of the Farm Bill process, to continue to conversation about conservation practices and programs that are highest priority across the Chesapeake Bay portion of the state. Some of the common themes that have been raised throughout the meetings we’ve held as part of this ongoing initiative.

Success through independence

Much of our discussions about the successes and challenges of conservation programs in PA has centered on the ability of farmers to implement them with autonomy and flexibility. Producers recognize the constraints of technical assistance staffing and the delays associated with regulatory reporting and are searching for ways to work together with state and Federal partners to achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness in the adoption and implementation of these programs.

Motivations for Conservation

PA producers understand that, like any issue, people approach conservation practices with different motivations. Some motivations are inherently economic—will implementing this practice improve my bottom line? Could it hurt it? Where is the financial incentive for me to change how I manage my operation? Am I compensated for the ecosystem services and benefits I provide? Others approach conservation from an environmental perspective—I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do for my land. How can I best protect and enhance the soil, ecosystems, and water on my farm? How can I best sustain this land for the long-term?

Sustainability on the Farm

Pennsylvania producers share a deep concern for the sustainability of their operations. The concept of sustainability here is tied to both environmental and economic concerns. Producers have voiced concerns about the economic viability of their operations in an increasingly complex set of business and environmental pressures and choices. Conservation practices can be an integral part of this discussion, providing farmers with the security they need to ensure their operations remain profitable.

Conservation and Energy

PA producers have identified what could be a huge opportunity to connect conservation practices to energy on the farm. This could take a variety of shapes from helping farmers identify ways to conserve energy and become more efficient or ways to produce energy for the farm on the farm. Energy costs are a big concern for producers, and opportunities to reduce these costs are welcome.

Keep it Simple!

The rules surrounding some of our conservation programs can be complicated and as such are barriers to participation. Keeping rules goal-focused ensures that money is spent wisely and producers understand and can take full advantage of the conservation opportunities and options available to them.

Information Sharing

PA producers want to learn from each other and find ways to share information across operations and more broadly in their communities. This lateral knowledge sharing is regarded as preferable to a more top-down approach. If I see that my neighbor has implemented this practice and is having success, I might be more likely to try it too. We need to come up with ways to share more information on the ground.

Awareness and understanding of the (environmental, operational, and economic) merits of various conservation practices could be pivotal in encouraging producer adoption. In addition to utilizing the information resources about conservation programs provided by the federal and state government, there is much to be gained from producer-to-producer knowledge sharing. Coupled with technical assistance, this peer scale educational component can be a powerful tool.

In addition to sharing knowledge across farms, PA producers have indicated an eagerness to become more involved members of the communities they serve. This can manifest in many ways, including participating in farmer markets, offering tours of facilities to local schools, and a variety of other engagement opportunities. Creating a greater awareness among the non-farming population about how their food is grown and produced is something producers identified as a way to bridge what can sometimes be a wide gap between these two populations.

Looking Back at the Dialogue

Here is a summary of what we’ve heard PA farmers identify as priorities and concerns related to conservation on the farm in discussion opportunities prior to the most recent May 31 dinner conversation.

October 21, 2011: A Forum on the Next Farm Bill

Following on the issues raised in the survey from Ag Progress Days, a Forum was convened in Harrisburg in October 2011 to bring PA producers and conservation partners together to discuss conservation in the next Farm Bill. The goals of this meeting were (1) to identify what conservation programs were currently working for PA producers and more specifically, to drill down into how best to target limited funds in the future Farm Bill to best serve PA producers and (2) give PA’s producers a voice in that process.

Priorities

Producers discussed a wide range of success stories related to conservation programs and offered many practical suggestions for continued success with program implementation:

  • Win-win solutions – Producers repeatedly recounted stories illustrating that on-farm conservation practices the provided both economic and environmental benefits while also improving the day to day management of the farm.
  • Peer-to-peer demonstration – Seeing conservation practices in action excites producers and is the best way to gain support from potential adopters.
  • Trusted partnerships – Producers identified a long list of important partners aiding in the successful adoption and implementation of conservation practices and also noted opportunities for increased engagement with additional groups.
  • Strong sense of community – Producers were eager to embrace community-based approaches and investments as opposed to more ‘silo-ed’ approaches on a farm by farm basis. Efforts to instill a stronger sense of farmland as part of the community (and as a part of the community focused on environmental conservation) are key in developing strong relationships and appreciation.

Ag Progress Days 2011

During Ag Progress Days 2011, the Penn State Ag and Environment Center administered a voluntary survey of PA producers in attendance. These survey results were used to develop a starting point for future conversations. Here is a brief overview of what we learned about PA farmers and conservation practices:

Priorities

  • Increased availability of field-level technical assistance from NRCS and partner organizations to help private landowners access and implement Farm Bill conservation programs
  • More than half of survey respondents indicated they had utilized NRCS technical assistance in the past.
  • People have very strong feelings about targeted initiatives, like the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative. Not surprisingly, a person’s support level is strongly correlated to their location – farmers in the Bay watershed generally support targeting funds, while farmers located outside of the watershed are less supportive. However, only just over half of survey respondents had heard of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative.
  • Of active conservation practices funded through the Farm Bill, PA farmers are most heavily participating in those to prevent erosion (conservation tillage, cover crops, contour farming), grazing management for maintaining/restoring pasture and grasslands, and managing nutrients and sediment runoff.
  • Cost share opportunities – Almost 60% of survey respondents had participated in cost-share agreements for restoration or management practices.

Concerns

The majority of survey respondents (84%) indicated that they felt like they had minimal or no influence as an individual on federal conservation programs or policies. This lack of faith in their ability to enact change was often related to the belief that smaller family owned and operated farms could not compete with the larger agribusiness operations.

Despite their views on participating in policy as individuals, however, 50% of survey respondents indicated that the organizations they belong to effectively carry their perspectives into Farm Bill and other policy discussions in Washington, DC.