Soaring Costs Put State's Farmers at Crossroads

Article excerpt

HARRISBURG -- In the winter days before the spring thaw sends them back into the fields, Pennsylvania's 59,000 farmers are considering important decisions about their work in the state's leading industry.

As they choose their crops and compile budgets, they are facing escalating costs for fertilizer, higher prices for fuel to run their equipment and haul their products to market and the likelihood of narrow profit margins despite good prices for commodities such as corn, soybeans, wheat, milk and eggs.

Agricultural experts insist that farmers must embrace new technology and renewable energy sources to adapt in an industry on the brink of dramatic change.

This week, two events in central Pennsylvania will offer them a place to start.

The 2008 Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, the nation's largest indoor agricultural exhibition, runs through Saturday at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center. More than 400,000 people are expected to attend the event, which will feature nearly 8,000 animals, 10,000 competitive exhibits and 270 commercial exhibitors.

The Keystone Farm Show will be held Tuesday through Thursday at the York Fairgrounds. The event, which is expected to draw 10,000 full-time farmers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Northern Virginia, will feature equipment exhibitors, seed suppliers and other agrimarket vendors.

Although vastly different, both shows are important to the farming community for the innovations they offer, according to state Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff, who said this is his "favorite week of the year."

"One of the most critical issues in farming today is getting farmers to embrace new technology. They also need to be open to changes," Wolff said. "Our farmers should be looking forward to growing fuel, in addition to food and fiber."

The state-sponsored Harrisburg event, which features youth livestock competitions, meetings, entertainment, food booths and skill demonstrations, offers the public an inside glimpse of the farming way of life.

But tucked into a schedule that includes molding a 900-pound butter sculpture, square dancing and performances by the Pennsylvania State Police mounted drill team are displays and educational forums on the state's latest renewable energy efforts, technological advances and programs that benefit the farming community.

"It's a great way to showcase the No. 1 industry in Pennsylvania," Wolff said. "It puts a different perspective on agriculture."

He said the show offers farmers a chance to network and to learn ways to improve their operations, even if it's something as simple as trying new varieties of drought-resistant seeds or taking out a crop insurance policy for the first time.

The York event is more commercial and caters to full-time farmers who are interested in purchasing seeds, machinery and other farming equipment. Wolff said many farmers attend both shows.

Successful farmers are necessary to keep the economy going in Pennsylvania, where 7.7 million acres are dedicated to farming, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Agriculture generates more than $4 billion in cash receipts annually, making the state's farmers and agribusinesses the leading producers in the northeastern United States.

Agriculture fuels jobs in related services, including food processing, marketing, transportation and farm equipment. The department estimates the industry pours as much as $45 billion annually into the state's economy.

The two farm shows fall at a time when Pennsylvania's farmers are making plans that will set the tone for the year ahead and determine their measure of success, according to John Vogel, editor of American Agriculturist magazine. He expects that fuel prices -- after oil hit the $100-a-barrel mark last week -- will affect their decisions when it comes to crop choices and the money they will spend on equipment purchases. …