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Reap what you sow: Somerset County farmers try to overcome a tough year

April 26, 2019 GMT

As Tom Croner drove by crop fields close to Berlin, he lamented the state of the agricultural economy. One owner of a nearby dairy farm declared bankruptcy four times. Croner, 76, sees a much different world than from his youth.

“I know I’m old because I remember the good old days when farming was profitable,” said Croner, who harvests corn, soybeans, wheat and hay.

There have always been peaks and valleys in the commodities market. But overall, agricultural observers can’t escape the fact that there are fewer farms now and the ones that are left are much larger operations, according to Sally McMurry, an agricultural history professor at Penn State University. Most of the operations in this state are funded by farmers working jobs outside of their fields and barns, according to McMurry.

“Half the farms in the state are in the red for the farming part of their household income,” McMurry said. “It’s been a long time for Pennsylvania farms in keeping it going with crops being an ancillary part of their income. The farm economy might be worse than we think because people are finding ways to stay on the farm by working off the farm.”

Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said that 2018 was the worst year that many farmers could remember insofar as producing food, due to the substantial amount of rain that they received through the planting, growing and harvesting seasons. The yield was down for corn, soybeans, hay and other field crops, while vegetable and fruit growers also were negatively impacted by the historically wet season.

Farmers face a variety of challenges, including depressed commodity prices, labor challenges, trade issues and unpredictable weather conditions.

Dairy farmers have been the hardest hit over the past five years with declining prices for the milk they produce. An oversupply of milk, the loss of whole, 2% and flavored milk in schools, and trade issues have all taken a toll on dairy farmers. The latest statistics from USDA reveal that Pennsylvania lost 370 dairy farms in 2018, dropping the total of dairy farms to 6,200, according to O’Neill.

In addition, exports of soybeans dropped dramatically because of a prolonged trade dispute with China. Many grain bins and storage facilities across the U.S., and especially in the Midwest, are brimming with soybeans and corn.

“Farmers are doing their best to put 2018 behind them,” O’Neill said. “Farmers are hopeful that trade negotiations with Japan and China will result in positive outcomes for American agriculture, while farmers are urging members of Congress to quickly pass the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (the NAFTA replacement deal) when it comes up for a vote over the next few months.”

When touring the county’s dairy farms, one of the apparent things is the presence of people who don’t speak English. That’s because local farmers depend on labor from south of the Mexican border. Many have expressed to the Daily American that they are superior workers to those who have long resided in the area. The sentiment is these employees want to do jobs undesirable to many of the people here. But there aren’t enough migrant workers.

In March, U.S. Rep. John Joyce, a Blair County Republican, introduced legislation to allow farmers to hire more temporary foreign-born workers.

The Dairy and Sheep H–2A Visa Enhancement Act would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to include dairy workers in the H-2A nonimmigrant visa category.

“It is clear that one of the reasons our dairy farmers in Pennsylvania’s 13th District are struggling is because they are lacking the manpower that they need to produce their goods and get them to market,” Joyce said in a press release.

“Milk production in our country relies heavily on our migrant workers, and for far too long Congress has harmed the dairy industry by failing to fix our broken immigration system. This small change to the H-2A visa classification will come as welcome news to our dairy farmers and will give them the flexibility that they need to be more efficient and profitable.”

Most farmers who spoke to the Daily American in the past year were reluctant to express that sentiment publicly because of the debate over the Mexican border and the politically charged atmosphere in Washington, D.C.

Croner thinks it’s possible that farmers could have better days ahead.

“In the spirit of optimism, we are hopeful that day will come that the next generation will enjoy the fruits of their labor,” he said. “You can’t stay in the red too long without something changing.”