More than 2,000 people were in downtown Lancaster last week for the 29th annual Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conference.
The Harrisburg-based association brought together farmers, community gardeners, food justice activists and soil lovers of all ages committed to a more equitable food system.
The four-day conference included a trade show, deep dives for working farmers, two nationally known keynote speakers and panel discussions covering more than 100 topics, from carbon sequestration to urban farming. Here are four takeaways from this year’s conference.
Acknowledging Native American land
Before each keynote address, there was a formal acknowledgment and blessing of the land and to its original inhabitants. Although Pennsylvania was home to 11 tribal communities, the state does not formally recognize them. In her dedication, Dana Harris-Yates, of The Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-op, mentioned the “Susquehannock of Conestoga Creek from Indian Rock” here in Lancaster.
Mabari Byrd, who works with urban youth in Philadelphia at the Sierra Club, noted “the land of the Shawnee, Lenape, Susquehannock and the Iroquois,” the majority tribes in Pennsylvania who were forcibly removed by settlers. Many members of those tribes relocated to Oklahoma.
Pennsylvania Farm Bill
Last summer, Gov. Tom Wolf approved $23.1 million in funding assistance for food and farming initiatives throughout the state, the first of its kind.
“Pennsylvania is the only state attempting to have its own farm bill,” Cheryl Cook, deputy secretary of agriculture, told the audience. “And it was a bicameral and bipartisan expression of faith” from the state Legislature, with 100 percent support from elected representatives. The farm bill funds several initiatives:
— Farm to School and youth programs.
— Agriculture business development that includes a realty transfer tax exemption of preserved farmland to a beginning farmer.
— Animal agriculture, including dairy investment and reimbursement grants for some start-up costs for very small meat processors.
— Disaster readiness assistance.
— A deeper commitment to specialty crops (not funded by the federal farm bill) and organic production, including the establishment of the Pennsylvania Preferred Organic Program.
Grants opened on a rolling basis last summer. The Farm Vitality Program, a reimbursement grant of up to $7,500, is currently accepting applications until April 3.
In his proposed 2020 budget, Wolf recommends $23 million to continue the farm programs.
Of the 53,000 farms in the state, only 1,200 — or 2.3 percent — are certified organic. At first, those numbers, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Agriculture Census, seem small, but when compared with other states, Pennsylvania ranked fourth in the country in 2016, when it had 803 organic farms.
It is among the top five producing states for organic mushrooms, eggs, chicken broilers and cow’s milk.
King Whetstone, the northeast regional director for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, told conferencegoers that Pennsylvania’s appetite for organic is exploding. After California, Pennsylvania is the number two state for organic sales. The demand for organic doubled between 2015 and 2016, to the tune of $660 million.
With the help of the state farm bill, more farms are transitioning to organic and will be reflected in the 2019 Agriculture Census, published this October.
“The solution is right under our feet,” said keynote speaker Josh Pickell, a filmmaker and soil activist, who delivered an impassioned call to action for cover crops, no-till farming and “pumping carbon back into the ground.”
As one of the five worst emitters in the country (235 million net carbon tons in 2016), Pennsylvania is particularly poised for carbon sequestration.
You don’t have to be a farmer to be part of the carbon sequestration movement.
Backyard gardeners also can plant cover crops for the winter months, as they nourish the soil, and the early flowers invite pollinators in spring.
Other suggestions from the audience at Pickell’s panel discussion with Eric Sauder, of Team Ag Inc. in Ephrata, include planting perennials, which develop deep roots and invite earthworms; using leaves for compost rather than bagging for collection; and planting daikon radish, “even if you don’t like them,” said one grower. “They grow 20 inches long and develop deep roots and make good soil.”