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Russell Redding addresses dairy’s struggles, hemp hopes

Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Russell Redding, Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture
LEADING AGRICULTURE: Russell Redding is entering his second consecutive term as Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture.
The Pennsylvania ag secretary sat down with American Agriculturist to discuss the Pennsylvania Farm Bill.

Having just been officially inaugurated for a second-consecutive term as Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture — third overall — Russell Redding has a lot to be happy about.

The recently signed Pennsylvania Farm Bill, a package of bills to increase investments in agricultural programs, has been described as “historic.”

“I am humbled by it. It is the most comprehensive investment in ag in my 20 years” of being involved in government, he says. It’s a lot different than in years past when agricultural programs were cut during years of tight state budgets.

Redding sat down with American Agriculturist for an in-depth interview on the state’s agricultural industry. He provided his insights on dairy, hemp, African swine fever and other pressing ag issues.

You can listen to the full interview, uncut, at Podbean: 


Future of dairy

The Pennsylvania Farm Bill provides $5 million for the Pennsylvania Dairy Investment Program for research and development, value-added processing and marketing grants; and $1 million for the Center for Animal Agriculture Excellence to help expand processing capacity in the state.

Dairy farmers in the state have been pummeled the past few years. The total number of dairy farms has dropped from 7,829 to about 6,200 farms, according to recent data from the Census of Agriculture.

Redding says that he hopes the funding will benefit farmers by opening more markets for dairy and providing help to farmers who want to transition to direct-market sales or organic production.

A separate Pennsylvania Dairy Future Commission will meet for a year and come up with proposals to address dairy’s future. Members of the commission will include legislators, farmers and representatives of the Center for Dairy Excellence, the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board and Penn State, among others.

Redding says that data from the Pennsylvania Dairy Investment Program, which started last year, shows that more farmers are interested in direct-market sales and adding more value-added products.

On the commission, he says, “The central question is two-fold: One is the competitive footing of Pennsylvania dairy farms; and two is the competitive footing of Pennsylvania and looking at where we go. Those are the two key points.”

“I think there are a lot of things we can do here. It's not in the price-support side. I think it's in the competitive footing and in the investments on farms at large.”

Growing season concerns

Unlike areas of New York and the Midwest, farmers in Pennsylvania are doing much better. Still, Redding says there are areas where farmers are in bad shape.

“I’d say that overall, we’re in fairly good shape but there are pockets of pain,” he says. “The western part of Pennsylvania, from the Allegheny Plateau west, has gotten too much rain.”

Forage quality and late hay making are an issue, and in many places, soybeans were planted late or not planted at all.

“A lot of acres aren’t planted out there; a lot of people are not doing second-crop soybeans,” he says. Redding doesn’t expect a lot of farmers to receive payments for prevented planting acres, though, since many farmers likely planted late forage or silage crops.

Growth of hemp

Redding has been a proponent of hemp growing in the state, whether it be for cannabidiol or fiber.

“We have subscribed fully to hemp being real,” he says. “We rediscovered a crop that was central to Pennsylvania, and really, America.”

More than 320 hemp permits have been approved this year in 828 locations. The acreage cap has also been taken off.

But there is still uncertainty over what markets will be available for CBD hemp, of which roughly half of the permits are approved for.

Under current federal law, CBD and THC can’t be added to a food or marketed as a dietary supplement. The Food and Drug Administration has regulatory oversight of food, cosmetics, drugs and other products. The agency hasn’t come out with clear rules as to what products containing CBD or THC will be approved for sale.

“We’ll figure out the supply chain, but you need to address this issue of the legality of CBDs,” he says. “We think the CBD is certainly a market.”

Hemp fiber is also critical, he says, but he sees lots of potential for hemp in livestock feed, especially since a lot of feed infrastructure is already in place to handle it. Redding says it will be key to get buy-in from existing feed companies on hemp as livestock feed.

“From a protein standpoint, it rivals some of our primary crops,” he says. “On nutrition and yield, it is there. We think that’s a really important piece of Pennsylvania’s animal agriculture.”

Impacts of trade

In the Midwest, the current trade issues revolve around China not buying soybeans. In Pennsylvania, the effects are being seen in hardwoods.

“That China market (for hardwoods) is disturbing,” he says, adding that the industry has seen a quick slide in market access. Redding says that 49% of hardwood exports from Pennsylvania go to China, being used in anything from furniture to flooring.

“When I look at all the agricultural products of concern for Pennsylvania right now, that hardwood industry for us in China is A on the list,” he says.

African swine fever alert

The department enacted new requirements this year for showing swine at fairs.

Market hogs being exhibited must go directly to slaughter after show, and breeding and market hogs can’t be on-site at the same time.

According to reports, some shows have outright cancelled their hog shows for this season or have scaled back significantly.

African swine fever is highly contagious in pigs, causing high fever and death within five to 10 days of symptoms being seen. Pigs get infected by direct contact with infected pigs or by ingestion of unprocessed, infected pig meat or products. Biting flies, ticks, contaminated farms and fomites can also spread the virus.

There is no treatment and no vaccine.

According to a recent article in National Hog Farmer, the virus has spread rapidly in China and has been confirmed in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and North Korea. Taiwan has also found infected pig carcasses from China washed onto the shore of the Kinmen islands.

The disease has a short incubation period of three to seven days, followed by a high fever and death. Redding says the department has gotten a lot of criticism for the fair quarantine, but he says that the state is being proactive in trying to prevent a possible infection from spreading.

He says state officials are actively surveilling for it, but nothing has been found.

Highlights of the Pennsylvania Farm Bill

Here are some of the provisions in the recently passed Pennsylvania Farm Bill:

  • $2 million for the Pennsylvania Agricultural Business Development Center to help farmers create a business plan, transition plan or farm succession plan.
  • Realty transfer tax exemption for any transfer of preserved farmland to a qualified beginning farmer.
  • $5 million for the Pennsylvania Dairy Investment Program to fund research and development, organic transition assistance, value-added processing and marketing grants.
  • $1 million for the Center for Animal Agriculture Excellence to expand processing capacity, technical assistance and provide resources for food safety compliance.
  • $500,000 to incentivize access to meat processing inspections.
  • $2.5 million to the Conservation Excellence Grant Program to provide financial and technical assistance to farmers to install and implement best management practices.
  • $500,000 for the Agriculture Linked Investment Program to re-establish this low-interest loan program for the implementation of BMPs.
  • Resource Enhancement and Protection Tax Credits expanded by $3 million to increase the lifetime cap and increase availability.
  • Expands the allowable width of farm implements on roads from 16 feet to 18 feet.
  • Amends the Ag Area Security Act to allow for subdivision of preserved farms.
  • $500,000 to re-establish the Agriculture and Rural Youth Organization Grant Program to fund agricultural and rural youth organizations to help increase knowledge and awareness of ag issues.
  • $500,000 for the Pennsylvania Farm to School Grant Program.  
  • $5 million for the Pennsylvania Rapid Response Disaster Readiness Account to allow for a quick response to agricultural disasters, including utilizing animal or plant health officials to contain an outbreak or threat.
  • $1.6 million for the PA Preferred Organic Initiative.
  • An additional $1 million for the PA Preferred Program.  
  • $500,000 for the state-level Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.
  • $500,000 for urban agriculture to improve agriculture infrastructure in urban areas.
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