Pennsylvania might have been made famous by coal and oil, iron and steel, but the industry that actually built the state was agriculture.
Rolling hills and wide fields and their crops and livestock have been the powerhouse of the Keystone State since its Colonial days and remain a major building block of the economy. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are 7.3 million acres in operation on 52,700 farms. The dairy industry alone produces $1.95 billion a year.
But how long will that last?
It isn’t that fewer people are eating the bacon cheeseburgers whose parts are being raised on Pennsylvania farms or the apple pie that starts out in the state’s orchards. Mushrooms and potato chips, chicken wings and ice cream — the products are still in high demand.
It’s the producers that are in short supply.
The average age of a Pennsylvania farmer is getting older every year because those farmers are aging and not enough new ones are starting in the profession. According to a 2019 report from the Pennsylvania Young Farmers Coalition, that average farmer in 2017 was 56.5. In 1997, it was 52.
The problem there is that those aging farmers are getting closer and closer to the end of their careers — years of work that can be physically demanding.
Agriculture needs new people getting involved to keep the industry blossoming. The state has a $59 million tax credit program to encourage that, and the best part is that it benefits those veteran farmers.
Someone who rents their land, equipment or other assets to a new farmer is eligible for the tax break. That’s good because those farmers may have spent decades — or their families spent generations — accumulating those assets that could then lie fallow.
Some are concerned that there is no upside for the new farmer. But there is.
Buying a farm is expensive, with the state average coming in at $225,000. But that’s just the property. It doesn’t include machinery, fuel, seeds and fertilizer, livestock and more. Farms often operate on thin margins, stretching through lean times to get to harvest.
Being able to rent instead of buy could make it possible for young farmers to get their start. That makes the tax credit beneficial for both sides.
It can also make it easier to keep a farm in operation, rather than have it sold for other purposes after an estate passes to family members who don’t farm.
The only thing that will preserve Pennsylvania’s rich agricultural tradition is a new crop of people to do the job. That has to be encouraged and supported.