Farmers face a perfect storm that could impact harvests, lead to food shortages

Written by on June 23, 2022

Farmers face a perfect storm that could impact harvests, lead to food shortages

By Stephanie Sigafoos
June 23, 2022

The Seed Farm in Emmaus. (Photo | Stephanie Sigafoos / WLVR)

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Many Americans are feeling the pain of historic inflation, and they’re paying more these days for just about everything. But there’s one group in a whole different world of hurt.

Farmers in Pennsylvania and across the nation are feeling the effects of rising prices, rising interest rates, weather conditions, equipment shortages and more.

It’s left the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture in a permanent state of both monitoring the issues and looking for ways to ease the situation as quickly as possible, said Kyle Kotzmoyer, a legislative affairs specialist for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

“I think the biggest shock is that we maybe saw this coming or anticipated this coming in the fall during harvest when all the farmers are trying to get corn and beans off,” Kotzmoyer said. “But to have it happen right now … sort of opened everybody’s eyes.”

In testimony to state lawmakers on June 14, Kotzmoyer described the farming industry as “teetering on the edge” as it faced record diesel fuel prices, which powers most farm equipment. There have also been rolling fuel outages and fertilizer costs that have jumped more than 300% over the last several months.

Those issues have also been compounded by something else farmers can’t control.

“The real kicker is going to be weather,” Kotzmoyer said. “If we see a drought this summer, or even an extreme wet summer, farmers are really, really going to be in for it come this fall.”

Farmers, politicians share concerns

There are more than 52,000 farm operations in Pennsylvania, according to federal statistics. Several of them were cultivated through training and incubator programs at The Seed Farm in Lehigh County.

The primary goal of the organization has been to support farmland preservation and train new farmers to strengthen food security and the local economy while protecting natural resources.

With rising costs, those farmers have almost no margin for error before they start losing profit, said Neil Singh, the Seed Farm’s interim manager.

“For most farms that are established, weather patterns affect them more. And most people that are starting up, it’s figuring out how to handle their market and finances with supply chain issues,” Singh said.

This year, weather wreaked havoc on the early growing season and increased input costs. Equipment and parts have also been harder to find and maintain.

“We had a pretty rough spring, we had a very late frost,” Singh said. “We had a bunch of inclement weather and for certain crops, it was too saturated [and] we got too much rain, especially for [things] like stone fruit.

“When situations like that happen and you’re already on the edge of not being able to pay your bills and then you have repairs and all these other issues, you’re falling behind a lot,” Singh said.

The perfect storm of factors has caught the attention of veteran legislators concerned about the harvest of crops and the potential for food shortages in the coming months.

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild (D-Lehigh Valley) recently voted in support of the Lower Food and Fuel Costs Act, which passed the House on June 16 and now goes to the Senate for consideration. The bill is designed to tackle price increases by assuring fair competition in the meat and poultry sectors and provide other needed support for the food supply chain.

“Keep in mind that a lot of things included are not just short-term solutions, but long-term problem solving I think will absolutely improve things as we go forward,” Wild said Tuesday.

Additionally, she’s invited Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to the Lehigh Valley to speak with local farmers as soon as he can get here.

“I’ve invited him to hear concerns and address specifically some of the things the federal government is doing to help our farmers. He certainly understands the exigency of the situation,” Wild said.

Helping farmers now

The Wolf administration recently announced a suspension of the state’s biodiesel requirement, which will allow out-of-state diesel to be sold in Pennsylvania for a limited time.

Other states have no requirement for the substance — made from things like vegetable oils, animal fats and restaurant grease — and lawmakers say allowing it here will open up fuel capacity in the state.

But Katzmoyer said it’s frustrating to pinpoint other things that can be done right now while bills overcome typical legislative hurdles.

“I think that’s kind of where we’re at is there are some things happening. But is it going to be a little bit too late?” Kotzmoyer said.

In the meantime, Singh said there are several ways people can help area farmers, including buying from farmers markets and CSAs, as well as supporting agritainment and other farm-related tourism or activities that can boost annual income and provide education about agriculture.

“I think education is a major component,” he said. “Like learning how our food system works, and how much it takes to get a tomato from the field to your grocery store is huge.”

Singh said it’s important for people to understand why small family farms in the state (defined as those bringing in less than $350,000 a year before expenses) are less viable and nearing extinction.

“There’s a lot of issues that we need to address in terms of who has access to growing spaces, as well as [questions like], ‘Why do we have places where you can’t grow food in urban and suburban settings?’ Having that ‘not in my backyard’ mentality is also one of the single most important things hurting farmers in terms of land access and inequity.”

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