What's In It For Me? Farmers and Local Government
We look at some of the barriers to involvement in local government and three ways to have an impact, as an informed citizen, a volunteer or an elected official.
- [Judy] Welcome to this presentation on farmers and local government.
We talk a lot about how to encourage local governments to be more responsive to agriculture.
This video will look at the other side, encouraging agriculture to be more involved in local government.
Before we get started let's define what we mean by local government.
It's basically any level of government below the state level.
In Pennsylvania there are 67 counties, which are considered to be local governments.
In each county, except Philadelphia, there are boroughs and townships, and sometimes cities along with school districts.
All of these are local governments.
They provide services such as road maintenance and snow removal, garbage and recycling, parks and recreation, land use, law enforcement, and sometimes even libraries or cemeteries.
Not every local government provides all of these services, and school districts have their own list of services related to education.
Local governments have laws and regulations that affect many aspects of your farm operation from the size and placement of signs, to where you can put buildings, and what they can be used for.
Local governments levy the bulk of the property taxes you pay and probably own the local road next to your farm.
With the power to regulate these and many other aspects of your farm operation local governments can directly impact your livelihood.
Many local governments recognize the importance of agriculture to their community, their way of life, and their tax base.
They understand agriculture and try to keep pace with changing practices such as the increase in on-farm retail activities.
They plan for agricultural expansion and land use and zoning regulations.
They welcome new farms and new farmers to their community.
And most importantly, they make sure their actions don't create problems for agriculture.
Many communities think they are farm friendly, but because they don't really understand the needs of agriculture they sometimes cause more problems than they solve.
For instance, a township may think it can help sustain farms by requiring a minimum of 100 acres.
The township does not understand that 20 acres can be a viable agricultural operation for a vegetable grower or of a specialty crop producer.
The township size regulation can actually make it harder for small operators to farm.
So how do we help townships and boroughs understand agriculture?
We want to create more local governments that are farm-friendly.
We hope to do that by getting more farmers involved in local government.
We conducted focus group research listening to farmers, growers, and producers.
Many of them hadn't given much thought to their local government.
Unless there was a specific issue, usually around permitting, local government just wasn't on their radar screen.
They didn't see the value in getting involved.
They asked, "What's in it for me?" which became the title for this video.
There isn't any hard data on farmer involvement in local government.
But many of the farmers in our focus groups told us the numbers are down.
Many spoke of the involvement of their grandparents and parents but said the tradition of public service often doesn't continue to their own generation.
There are a lot of reasons for this.
In many areas the number of farms has decreased, so there are fewer farmers in the community.
When residential development occurs in farming country new residents often have specific issues that they want local government to address, and more time to get involved, especially if there is an influx of retirees.
Local government is more complex than it used to be, and some farmers just don't feel they have the time to devote to it.
Finding enough time to get involved is a major factor.
Monthly township or borough meetings are hard to fit in on the calendar during growing season.
But there are other barriers too.
Many farmers told us they don't want to get involved in controversial issues that could put them in conflict with neighbors and customers.
They are uncomfortable with the confrontational tone of many local governments.
And young farmers in particular feel like outsiders at township and borough meetings.
Many farmers told us they don't think local government effects their operations directly, and that may be true until you try to spread manure, spray fruit trees, increase herd size, or open a retail farm venture.
It may not be your own farm that's effected, but if enough of your neighbors are impacted the local farming community may shrink.
In today's world more than ever farmers need to know their communities will support them.
When a local government understands and values agriculture it's much more likely to have farm-friendly policies.
It's up to farmers like you to make that happen, and it's not just about your farm business.
It's part of being a good citizen, and it sets a great example for your children.
You can jump right in to public office, or take it slow.
Just being an informed citizen and following local government issues can make a difference.
If elected officials know you care about local policy, they may come to value your opinions.
Let them know that you're happy to talk farming with them.
You might even invite them out for a farm tour.
You can volunteer to serve on a local government board or commission known as an appointed office.
Planning and zoning is where the action is that will have the biggest impact on most farms.
But water and sewer authorities also have a major impact on where growth will occur in your community.
Find the board that fits your interests, such as parks and recreation, or historic preservation.
There is no standard process for appointing citizens to boards so you need to ask your township or borough how they find interested citizens.
Many local governments struggle to find people willing to serve so your offer to volunteer will probably be well received.
The most effective way to directly impact local government policy is to run for office and get elected to a position of governance, township supervisor, or borough council member.
Many rural township and borough go unfilled because there aren't enough people interested in running for office, and even more seats go to the incumbent because no one runs against him or her.
Remember, when you run for office you're helping to preserve farming as a way of life.
Local government officials are elected every two years in Pennsylvania.
Make your decision by January and you'll be in good shape for the primary elections in May.
If you're registered to vote you can run for office.
It's that easy.
There's no special training to be a local government official.
Once you're elected you can take advantage of workshops, conferences, webinars, newsletters, and other opportunities to learn and network with fellow elected officials.
Here are some qualities we'd all like to see in elected officials.
Are you a good listener?
Do you really care about your community?
Can you keep an open mind about issues?
Then you'd make a great candidate.
Your first step is to get to know your local government.
Have you been to a township or borough meeting?
You might be surprised how many local officials get elected without ever having attended a meeting of their local government.
Show up for a few meetings.
Find out what the biggest challenges are in your community.
Do officials work well together?
Would you be a good fit?
We talked earlier about being an informed citizen.
Follow your local government in the news.
You might also find a website, Facebook page, or a Twitter feed too.
Most local governments who have websites post their meeting minutes so be sure to look for them.
It's not hard to run for office, and usually not expensive either at the local government level.
Check out resources like Penn State Extension, and your county elections office to learn the nuts and bolts of running for office.
Do you know a township supervisor or borough council member, or someone who used to serve?
Those people can be a great source of information too.
We heard a lot about the tradition of public service in our focus groups and about how it died out in many families.
Is it time to start a new tradition in your family and your community?
A farm-friendly community is a great legacy.
We hope you'll be a part of it.