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Warren AGRICULTURE In The News


UNDERSTANDING THE FACTS IN THE FOOD MARKET By Juliette Enfield, Penn State Extension Educator in Warren County
Printed in the Live Fresh Live Local Tab of The Times Observer
July 16, 2014

Today making the decision about what food to buy is a challenging one. There are many concerns about human health and the health of the environment. One study found that 92% of consumers consider healthier lifestyle habits and effects on the environment when making purchases (Hartman, 2011). Of course, some customers are more heavily involved in sustainable purchasing than others. But what exactly does sustainable mean? There is not an easy answer.

Eating Locally Grown Foods
Eating locally grown foods is a way to support local businesses and eat high quality food. It also means eating with the seasons: strawberries in June, pumpkins in October, and maybe even giving up those tasty items that cannot be grown locally such as pineapple or avocado. In terms of economics, how do you determine whether local purchases really keep money locally or not? Several economic analyses have addressed this question. They have found that small local businesses do provide greater long term economic growth than their larger national or multi-national counterparts (Penn State News, 2011). Small local businesses (10-99 employees owned by residents or businesses with headquarters in the same state) tend to hire within the community and rely on other small local businesses for their business needs. Large companies tend to be self-reliant when it comes to accounting, manufacturing, shipping, legal needs, etc. However, this is not just a case of good guy versus bad guy. The economic benefit of locally owned businesses diminishes as the business grows. This is a natural part of business growth and expansion. Another natural part of business growth and expansion is the shift from high quality to high quantity. This is why the food at large box stores is cheaper than when you purchase it directly from a local farmer, but it may not be as flavorful or unique. Large businesses and small businesses definitely have their distinctions, and it is up to you to decide what kind of food purchase you are willing to make.

The GMO Debate
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. A genetically modified organism is created through a laboratory process in which genes with desirable traits are inserted into plant genes in order to create resistance to diseases which could otherwise devastate a crop. Genetically modified organisms in agriculture include plants such as corn, wheat, rice, soy, cotton and many fruits and vegetables. Humans have been breeding plants for desirable traits for thousands of years, so why is genetic modification so controversial? Genetically modifying foods is a revolutionary technology that started being used in the 90s, and since then many profound questions have been raised about where exactly this movement is headed. These genetically modified organisms are patented by the companies that create them. Concerns include gene ownership, few players in the seed patenting industry, and the effects of GMO plants on the environment. Because of these concerns, consumers are currently pushing for the labeling of genetically modified foods and food products so that they can choose whether to purchase them or not.

Food Safety
Every year 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from consuming food or beverages that are contaminated with bacteria or viruses. These bacteria and viruses can come from humans, from animals, and from the environment. There have been many incidences of bacteria and viruses being spread from food that is moved in large volumes and passed through a complex supply chain. In 2011, 100 people in 26 states became sick from eating cantaloupes tainted with the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. Officials said that the likely cause of contamination was from cleaning equipment that was not properly sanitized (LaJeunesse, 2014). Incidents like this have weakened consumer confidence in our global food economy, in which the consumer is far removed from the farms where their food was produced. Concerns like these have caused consumers to want to see where their food is coming from, which is one reason why small locally farmed food has grown in popularity. However, there are still food safety concerns even with small local producers. Food safety is a very real concern, and any business must have the confidence of their consumers to be successful.

What are Organic foods?
Consumers are not only concerned with bacteria and viruses making them ill, but there is also a concern about pesticide residue creeping in to our bodies or our ecosystems without us knowing it. "Organic" is a term that was not officially recognized by the US Government until the 90s. Today, for a farm to be called organic, they must follow certain procedures that enhance biodiversity on the farm and minimize off-farm inputs such as fertilizers or pesticides. The farm must also go through a rigorous ongoing inspection process through the USDA and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. There are also requirements for eggs to be labeled as "cage-free", chicken to be labeled "free range", and for beef to be labeled "grass-fed". Because of the time and money involved in gaining to rights to this label, or because some farmers disprove of the requirements, farmers have created their own certifying labels such as Certified Naturally Grown, or Pesticide Free. And there are many more labels than just the ones that I have mentioned here, each one with its own set of standards and practices. Are you confused yet as to what you will accept and what you will not? All businesses must have competition, and in the process, these marketing messages can be confusing. One of the best advantages of shopping at a farmers market or farm stand is that you can actually talk directly to the farmer and ask them about their farm practices.

As you can see, the answer to sustainability is a complicated one. However, there is one common thread through all of these issues, and that is the desire of the modern consumer to know where their food is coming from. If it has been a while since you were at a farm, I recommend making a trip to meet a farmer soon. In Warren County, there are 830 farms, and many of them belong to our friends and neighbors. Seeing the farm and meeting the farmer will give you greater confidence when considering what kind of food to buy. For a list of farms in Warren County, visit the WarrenAg website at

Hartman, H. 2011. "Trends in Consumer Demand". The Hartman Group. Accessed June 30, 2014.
LaJeunesse, S. "Outbreak". Penn State AgScience Magazine. Spring 2014. The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Penn State News. "Locally owned small businesses pack powerful economic punch." August 2011. Accessed July 3, 2014.

February 3, 2014

Direct payment programs are out, expanded insurance programs are in.

A 600-plus page, five-year farm bill is well on its way to passing after more than two years of negotiation was capped by a joint House-Senate conference committee's agreement on measures to reconcile the two chambers' differing bills Monday.

The compromise measure, officially titled the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act, passed the House on Wednesday and now moves to the senate. If the Senate assents to the compromise agreement, the reconciled farm bill will move on to the President for signing.

While much of the discussion of the measure has centered around changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps, the measure makes significant changes to programs more in line with its popular title, namely farming.

The bill will put an end to the controversial direct payment program, in which farmers receive subsidies whether they grow crops or not. The direct payment program subsidies have grown to account for approximately $5 billion in government spending in recent years.

Left in place, and in some cases expanded, are insurance programs meant to help shield farmers from unexpected crop losses and market fluctuations.

A similar approach was taken with livestock and dairy production.

Rep. Glenn Thompson, who represents Warren County and was chosen as part of the joint House-Senate conference committee, said the change represented a shift to a more "free-market" approach.

"We did eliminate a number of subsidies," Thompson said. "In exchange, we implemented more of a free-market approach. Actually, a risk-management approach of margin insurance."

Thompson, who sits on the House Committee on Agriculture, discussed the shift and how it would impact dairy production in particular.

"It is the number on segment of agriculture in Pennsylvania and it's one that, I think, is probably one of those at highest risk," he said. "Between 2001 and 2009 in the nation, we lost one-third of our dairy farms. They became fallow ground. They became housing developments, parking lots. That's a fast way to insecurity."

Thompson attributed the losses to market fluctuations.

"A big part of that was the volatility in the payments that farmers received for fluid milk. That's measured as a hundred weight, a hundred pounds of fluid milk," Thompson noted. "Subsidies is how we were trying to manage this. It was just broken. Because of volatility, sometimes prices would be high enough to cover costs. Sometimes it would be low. So my goal with dairy was to take that volatility out of milk. So that they (dairy producers) can have some certainty to make a decent living after working so hard, like they do, seven days-a-week."

Approaching that issue through insurance wasn't a universally popular move, according to Thompson.

"We had some controversy with that," he recalled. "There were some in Washington that wanted to attach supply management to the policy. Basically, the government would dictate to farmers how much milk they could produce and, essentially, when they had to slaughter their cows, because you can't turn a cow off. It's got to be milked every day if you have it. So we did prevent supply management and we did successfully, with what we passed out of the House and I think next week the Senate is going to concur with this, some really positive changes to dairy."

The bill also provides expanded programs aimed at providing incentives for individuals to enter agriculture, including expanded farm ownership loans and changes to requirements to qualify for loans for operational costs and first-time farmers and ranchers.

By way of further cost-saving, the bill introduces new income limitations for payment of agricultural benefits, including lower yearly income caps for those receiving such benefits.

In general, Thompson noted passing the farm bill is an important step, especially for rural Pennsylvania.

"I got involved in this, probably, the same way I got involved with the forestry committee," he said. "The chairman knew it was important to my congressional district and Pennsylvania. I have a lot of things that I'm very proud that are now, when the Senate passes it and the President signs it, that will be enacted as legislation.

"It's a food bill and jobs bills, especially in Pennsylvania where one-in-seven jobs, those are jobs directly or indirectly contributable to farming. It's the number on industry in PA. So I'm very excited for what this means for the economy, for jobs, and, quite frankly, to have access to high-quality, affordable and safe food. Not just in Pennsylvania, but throughout the United States."


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