Every day at Schrack Farms in Loganton, Pennsylvania, Jim Harbach tends to his 1,300 milking cows. The farm’s been in his family for nearly 40 years, and he runs it alongside members of his wife’s family. Though his business isn’t struggling yet, Harbach has recently noticed that rising operation costs are affecting farms across the region.
The costs of fuel, fertilizer and repairing vehicles and milking equipment have all risen within the past year, he said. Farmers, he said, have two options in such a situation: They can go deeper into debt, or they can buy less feed and fertilizer, making for lower yields. “It’s probably our biggest challenge,” he said. Like many dairy farmers across Pennsylvania, Harbach would also like the federal and state governments to relax environmental rules that add to his financial burdens.
In this fall’s midterm elections, he and other Pennsylvania dairymen will have the opportunity to choose a new governor and senator. While the farmers are hoping for a retreat on government regulations, few candidates have presented detailed plans for the agricultural sector or any other proposals that will help the dairy farmers cast a meaningful vote related to their work. That may be due to the fact that less than 1 percent of Pennsylvanians work for the agriculture industry, giving the sector less political weight.
In the Senate race, for example, neither the Democratic nominee, John Fetterman, nor the Republican candidate, Mehmet Oz, have spelled out measures to help farmers. According to Fetterman’s campaign website, he supports farmers’ right to repair their own equipment as they see fit, wants “small farmers” to have a “fair shot” and believes that choosing between protecting the environment and creating jobs in the sector is a “false choice.”
Oz’s campaign website makes no mention of agriculture or the dairy industry. Neither campaign replied to requests for comment.
According to the Center for Dairy Excellence, a state dairy industry group, Pennsylvania ranks eighth in milk production nationally. Unlike operations in other dairy-producing states like California, farms in Pennsylvania tend to be a bit smaller. Harbach’s farm is midsize compared with others in the state, he notes. But like other producers, he is always looking to improve his bottom line.
John Dotter, whose dairy farm in Mill Hall, Pennsylvania, milks about 1,200 cows, has also fretted about rising costs. More than that, though, he finds the state’s approach to managing transportation during the winter months frustrating. When snowstorms hit, major highways can get shut down as part of a state Department of Transportation policy on commercial motor vehicles operating in such conditions.
Dotter said that those shutdowns increase the time it takes to transport milk. Since milk is a perishable product, he adds, the delays can dent income. Harbach, too, has found it exasperating: “That micromanagement of our transportation system has gotten way out of hand,” he said.
Dotter is also fed up with a state Department of Environmental Protection requirement that he draft and implement a nutrient management plan to control the amount of manure he is allowed to spread on his crops. Those rules are in place to limit pollution from nutrients like manure and other agricultural runoff from farms, which contaminate local waterways and threaten wildlife. But Dotter says the plans are “a huge amount of paperwork” and cost him thousands of dollars each year. “It’s getting out of control,” he said.
Caroline Novak, the deputy director of the Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania, an industry group, meanwhile points out that many Pennsylvanian dairy farmers have adopted sustainability strategies. She cited mechanisms like no-till, a soil management strategy meant to keep carbon contained in the earth, and anaerobic digesters, which capture methane from cow poop and then convert the potent greenhouse gas into more environmentally friendly biogas for sale or use as fuel.
Schrack Farms has a digester that partially powers the farm, which Harbach says helps “immensely” with energy bills and heating. He notes that the technology is not very common among Pennsylvania dairy operations: According to the USDA, just 25 dairy farm digesters have been installed in the state, which has over 5,000 dairies. Novak said the digesters have not proved feasible for many because of the costs of upkeep.
Novak’s dairy managers organization is one of the partners in a new federally funded research initiative at Pennsylvania State University to study dairy farm sustainability, called the “climate-smart agriculture that is profitable, regenerative, actionable, and trustworthy” project, or CARAT. According to Armen Kemanian, the project’s leader and a professor of agricultural sciences at the university, the goal is to research the carbon footprint of the various processes at dairy farms, from production to sales. Eventually, he said, the project will propose sustainability strategies that are good for both the environment and the farmers’ businesses.
Last month the university announced that the project would receive up to $25 million from the USDA’s Climate-Smart Commodities Initiative, a broad federal funding effort intended to expand markets for products from farms, ranches and forestland that operate sustainably. Notably, it is one of five conservation programs run by the federal department that have been criticized for lack of financial transparency.
Novak said one of the goals of the CARAT project is to eventually make way for climate-smart product labeling or climate credits for Pennsylvania dairy farms that are practicing sustainable strategies. “This is data we wanted to capture for some time,” she said. “We’ve been clamoring to know what it is we’re doing right, and what that’s worth.”
Novak said that her dairy managers group has members who believe their farms are carbon-neutral already. To her, it therefore makes sense that the state’s farmers would prefer fewer regulations. “You don’t necessarily need legislation to encourage people to do the right thing,” she said. “Our members don’t need to be legislated; they don’t need laws requiring them to do these things.”
Few would dispute that agricultural pollution has been a problem for Pennsylvania ecosystems, however. Nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, for example, has threatened wildlife and led to excess algal blooms. According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, the state is tasked with achieving 69 percent of the reductions in nutrient pollution that the federal Environmental Protection Agency is mandating for the bay by 2025.
Requiring that dairies adopt nutrient management plans is part of the state’s strategy for making those cuts. Last year, Pennsylvania did not meet its pollution-reducing targets.
Still, ahead of the high-profile elections on Nov. 8, both Dotter and Harbach are looking for candidates they believe will meet the needs of dairy farmers—which in their words, means less regulation.
“I would vote for the governor that’s gonna cut the red tape and the regulations that we have,” Harbach said.
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The campaign website for state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor, says that if elected, he will slash regulations, including those aimed at the natural gas industry. Mastriano also opposes current Gov. Tom Wolf’s cooperation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector. Among other carbon-offset benefits, the initiative awards allowances to dairy farms that operate manure digesters.
The Democratic candidate for governor, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, has been endorsed by multiple Pennsylvania environmental groups. He also supports maintaining the state’s natural gas industry, although he has called for greater regulation of the chemicals involved in natural gas drilling and fracking. According to the campaign, Shapiro will also “invest in agricultural infrastructure and ensure that farmers have the financing and investments necessary for agricultural production.”
The Green Party candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, Christina DiGiulio and Michael Bagdes-Canning, support the installation of more manure digesters and would like to see more research initiatives that focus on sustainable practices, like the CARAT project.
In Dotter’s view, though, none of the candidates have offered satisfactory plans for helping the dairy industry. “We haven’t really gotten them pinned down on agricultural issues,” he said.
He feels that Mastriano is “too far right,” but he nonetheless plans to vote “conservative” across the board. Harbach does, too.
“I think you will find that 95 percent of farmers that are in business will take the conservative route,” Harbach said. “And I’m no exception.”