February 27, 2024

Removing Obstacles to Opportunity: Growing Pennsylvania’s Agriculture

Pennsylvania's agricultural sector has long been a cornerstone of the state's economy, providing sustenance, employment, and a cultural identity deeply rooted in rural communities. However, recent years have seen farmers grappling with a myriad of challenges, chief among them being the burden of overbearing regulations and onerous permitting processes imposed by state bureaucracy. On February 27, 2024, Rep. Stender hosted the Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee for a crucial hearing in Northumberland County to highlight the concerns of our agricultural community. The hearing aimed to address the pressing concerns facing the state's farmers, explore legislative solutions, and inspire hope for a future where Pennsylvania's agriculture can thrive unhindered.

The testifiers that joined the Policy Committee were as follows:

William Fink - Facilities Manager, Country View Family Farms

Adam Pritts - Owner, Laurel Hill Trout Farm

Grant Gulibon - Regulatory Affairs Specialist, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau

Robert Garrett - President and CEO, Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce

Questions for Testifiers

Agenda, Bios, & Testimony

William Fink, Facilities Manager at Country View Family Farms, provided invaluable insights into the practical challenges faced by agricultural businesses in navigating the state's permitting labyrinth. To move swiftly through the permitting process Country View Family Farms has, on their own time and volution, formed relationships with state agency staff to expedite the permitting process. When a new permit is needed, Mr. Fink and his team conduct pre-permit application meetings to discuss the best path towards receiving the permit before the actual application. Country View Family Farms’ relationship with agency bureaucrats is abnormal, and in an ideal world unnecessary, but has served their operation well in the permitting process.

Even with Mr. Fink’s relationships with state agencies the regulatory and permitting process is far from easy. Some permits require public notice and comments, but the process for achieving this requirement is not standardized across permits and causes delays. Furthermore, the sheer number of regulations and permits to navigate requires large operations like Country View Family Farms to hire full-time employees purely to cover compliance issues, which is a cost not all agricultural operations can afford. Finally, even with a permitting/regulatory expert on the payroll there is no singular place to find all the permits needed or regulations to comply with.

Mr. Fink did note the success of the ACRE (Agriculture, Communities, and Rural Environment) program which disallowed local ordinances from exceeding or conflicting with state law, thus easing the regulatory landscape. He also called for continued flexibility in permitting application methods, including the retention of paper-based options, highlighted the importance of accommodating diverse operational needs within our agricultural sector. Navigating PA’s permitting and regulatory landscape is certainly not easy for Country View Family Farms, but thanks to their dedicated staff and the relationships they’ve formed with state agencies they are able to maintain a healthy and growing agricultural operation.

“Consistency and transparency really help throughout the permitting process.”

William Fink
Facilities Manager, Country View Family Farms

Adam Pritts, Owner of Laurel Hill Trout Farm, shed light on the regulatory hurdles confronting aquaculture operations in Pennsylvania. Aquaculture, the farming of fish, uses a significant amount of water and is in a grey area of Pennsylvania’s regulations and existing permits. Because 11 total state agencies have some degree of oversight of aquaculture, and DEP and the Department of Agriculture can inspect a farm at any time without reason, Laurel Hill Trout Farm complies with regulations and permits to their utmost ability. Half of Laurel Hill Trout Farm’s efforts now go towards maintaining regulatory compliance, severely limiting the productivity and potential of the small family-owned aquaculture operation.

Mr. Pritts emphasized the disproportionate burden imposed by NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination Systems) permits in particular, hindering the expansion of aquaculture farms and stifling innovation within the industry by placing unachievable and costly water regulations on farmers. He wants to expand his PA operation, but the NPDES permit makes expansion impossible for nearly all aquaculture farmers in the state. Instead of expanding his PA operation, where the market for his fish is lucrative, Mr. Pritts instead expanded in Virginia where the regulatory climate is more collaborative.

Pennsylvania’s permitting and regulatory systems are difficult to navigate and onerous for our farmers, but Mr. Pritts had some suggestions to help ease the process:

  •   Seats on the board for Fish and Boat Commission and the Game Commission should be allotted to farmers.
  •   DEP interprets a “may” within a law as almost always a NO. Many “mays” should be a “shall”.
  •   The attitudes of our state agencies must change. Be collaborative, not punitive.
  •   NPDES permits, and many permits for agricultural operations, should be free or low cost for farms.

“A natural disaster won’t put me out of business, but one more government regulation might.”

Adam Pritts
Owner, Laurel Hill Trout Farm

Grant Gulibon, Regulatory Affairs Specialist at the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, articulated the broader challenges facing Pennsylvania's farming community, including the looming threat of declining farm profits and the financial strain imposed by regulatory compliance. According to future projections, American farmers are looking at a less lucrative future and cannot afford to operate under both oppressive agencies and a troubling economy. With future finances in question, it must be noted that the Governor’s call for a permitting “money back guarantee” will do little to ease financial woes. In truth, it is not possible to “get your money back” from the permitting process because state agencies will never compensate a farmer for the significant cost and time needed to prepare the initial permit.

Mr. Gulibon's call for legislative intervention to curb unnecessary regulations and provide financial relief to farmers came directly from the guidance of farm bureau members across the state. The Bureau consults their farmer members frequently, compiles their concerns and needs into policy proposals, and then provides a platform for farmer’s voices to be heard. If just one action is taken, the Farm Bureau asks the legislature to recognize and use their authority to disapprove unnecessary regulations. Its far easier to combat a regulation in the proposal stage instead of waiting for damage to be done to our farmers.

“Today’s regulatory horror story was decades in the making.”

Grant Gulibon
Regulatory Affairs Specialist, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau

Robert Garrett, President and CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce, emphasized the symbiotic relationship between agriculture, affordable energy, and economic vitality in rural communities. Garrett underscored the need for energy policies that support agricultural operations and advocated for a regulatory framework that incentivizes responsible stewardship of farmland while fostering economic growth. Proposals like RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, would increase energy prices for all Pennsylvanians and in turn increase the cost of PA derived farm products. Agriculture and food preparation operations, with their large tractors, warehouses, and machines, require tremendous energy to operate and cannot afford to pay increased energy costs. New farmland is not being produced, and we cannot squander the bounty of Pennsylvania through regulation, taxation, and excessive permitting. If anything, the Commonwealth should find means to reward and incentivize the good behaviors of our agricultural community and address the bad actors instead of harming everyone who wishes to grow and sell products to sustain Pennsylvanians.

“They’re not making any new farmland anymore.”

Robert Garrett
President and CEO, Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce

Throughout the hearing, a common theme emerged: the need for collaborative, pragmatic solutions to address the regulatory burdens stifling Pennsylvania's agricultural sector. From streamlining permitting processes to promoting regulatory clarity and providing financial relief to farmers, the insights gleaned from the testimonies presented underscored the urgency of legislative action to remove obstacles to opportunity and unleash the full potential of Pennsylvania's agriculture. As the Policy Committee deliberates on the path forward, it is clear that by working together, policymakers, stakeholders, and local communities can cultivate a future where Pennsylvania's agricultural heritage thrives, driving economic prosperity and nourishing generations to come.