We Are .......One State!
Posted: August 28, 2015
Is western PA a viable option for large agriculture operations? Picture furnished by Department of English, Clarion University.
I drive about an hour to and from work each day, from Juniata County to State College. As I leave the productive Juniata Valley, glimpse the fertile fields of Big Valley in Mifflin County, and drive past nice stands of corn and soybeans to the West of Route 322 in Centre County, I can’t help but marvel over the wealth of field crops and livestock in the mountain and valley province of Pennsylvania, including Bedford, Blair, and Huntingdon Counties. However, if you drive over the Allegheny Front West of Altoona, you’ll find a slightly different set of agricultural circumstances.
In Western Pennsylvania, concentrated agricultural pockets are more scattered. Notable, tillable land bases exist in Somerset, Indiana, Cambria, Armstrong, Butler, Southern Jefferson, and Westmoreland Counties. Where Pennsylvania meets Ohio the counties of Lawrence, Mercer, and Crawford are home to a relatively strong field crop and animal agricultural industry on fairly level ground. Portions of the Southwest, notably Fayette, Washington, and Greene Counties are noted for rather steep pastureland.
It’s difficult to generalize about agricultural production in an area so vast, but if we were to do so, we could list the following characteristics of Pennsylvania farms located West of the Allegheny Front when compared to Eastern Pennsylvania farms:
- Smaller average field size
- Higher proportion of woodland
- Higher average slope to cropland (especially in West central and Southwest counties)
- Less concentrated and smaller-scale feed, fertilizer, and equipment vendors
- Lower average farmland prices
- More sub-fertile open areas (re-claimed coal strip mines or land that isn’t intensively farmed)
- Higher percentage of open acres devoted to forage production (hay and pasture) for existing dairy and beef operations
- Fewer large scale animal operations, particularly swine, poultry, and beef feedlots
- Western Pennsylvania’s agricultural areas are generally economically depressed
My perspective is that numbers 5 through 9 offer agricultural and economic opportunities to our state.
You have probably read that Pennsylvania agriculture is under pressure to reduce nutrient deposition in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Given current nutrient management regulations and restrictions, there are areas in Eastern Pennsylvania where available manure nutrients exceed those that can be applied as fertilizer to local field crops. In those cases, manure must be trucked to areas that can use the nutrients (usually still within the Chesapeake Bay watershed), or sold to the mushroom industry for composting (dry manure only).
In addition, the intense concentration of animals in a few Southeastern Pennsylvania counties raises biosecurity concerns in the event of diseases such as the recent avian influenza outbreaks in the Midwest.
Finally, dairy and beef operations often don’t produce enough manure to fertilize the forage crops they need for feed production. Larger swine and poultry operations on the other hand, are often produced under contract and need additional land on which to apply the manure nutrients produced. Contract swine and poultry operations are currently limited to the area of Pennsylvania East of the Allegheny Front.
Thus it seems logical that the region of Pennsylvania outside the Chesapeake Bay watershed should be part of a serious discussion for future swine and poultry expansion.
The reasons are as follows:
- Swine and poultry manure produced and applied in Western Pennsylvania would limit nutrient loading in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
- Swine and poultry manure would improve soil health and fertility on Western Pennsylvania’s existing high-forage land base and help bring strip mine acreage back into agricultural production.
- Expansion of swine and poultry production in Western Pennsylvania could be accomplished on moderately priced land.
- Swine and poultry production in Western Pennsylvania would be less geographically concentrated and more biosecure, leading to fewer herd and flock health challenges.
- Contract swine and poultry operations could provide a stable secondary source of income for smaller dairy and crop farmers in Western Pennsylvania. Manure production would reduce costs for commercial fertilizer and that savings would be spent locally, bolstering local economies. New construction could augment the local tax base.
- Jobs created by expanding swine and poultry production to Western Pennsylvania would further enhance local economic development. Building crews, manure haulers, truck drivers, implement dealers, feed industry employees, and service / maintenance personnel would be welcomed new sources of employment.
Are there stumbling blocks to such an expansion? Of course, or it would have happened already! One of the biggest stumbling blocks is a lack of adequate infrastructure, particularly feed milling capacity for contract swine and poultry operations. Can that infrastructure be built or enhanced in Western Pennsylvania? I think so, but it will take cooperation, coordination, and planning, among current industry leaders, state government, Penn State Extension, and agricultural organizations. One individual or company isn’t likely to start and complete a Western Pennsylvania expansion on its own.
Animal manure and productive field crops form the core of a sustainable agricultural system. Each feeds the other and the result leads to improved soils, profitable farms and economically healthy rural communities. Pennsylvania, the Keystone State, is uniquely positioned to provide locally produced agricultural products for a swelling population up and down the East Coast. We have a vibrant agricultural economy in a large portion of the state, but nutrient and density issues are likely to limit future livestock expansion in traditional animal production areas. The Allegheny Front is simply a geographical barrier. Our ancestors overcame many such barriers to settle our Commonwealth. Let’s work together to press our advantages, overcome the challenges, and grow animal agriculture to it’s potential within Pennsylvania’s borders. Because We Are….One State!