The program is almost overwhelming, but seasoned attendees at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention arrive with a strategy that allows them to attend sessions that pertain to their operation.
The four-day event, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, drew growers from throughout the Northeast and features quick-paced, timely sessions aimed at helping growers increase their knowledge base in a variety of topics, from soil fertility, irrigation, water quality, weed management and pest control to the intricacies of growing sweet corn, tomatoes, leafy greens, onions, tree fruit and small fruit.
A preconvention farm tour appealed to growers interested in seeing other operations in the Hershey, Pennsylvania, area. Workshops prior to the convention focused on ag literacy for growers, irrigation water, GAP training, a USDA-AMS grant writing workshop, and a new organic vegetable producers school.
Growers looking for an edge in technology garnered new information from sessions ranging from tomato grafting and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to apps for farm use and orchard automation. Business tracks include employee management, income tax planning, addressing consumer needs and farm market layout.
In a general session, newly appointed Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding addressed critical topics that affect growers. Although weather, immigration, government regulations and consumer preferences are common top priorities for growers, Redding believes the biggest issue is the need for people who are willing to undertake the hard work of farming and enter agriculture as a career.
“Farm owners are concerned about the potential to hire people of all skill levels who are willing to work in the industry and keep farms moving ahead,” said Redding. “No matter how proficient growers are when it comes to production and marketing, if we don’t have the right employees and managers to run the operation with an eye on the next generation what good will it do?
Redding discussed the critical need for human capital now, tomorrow, and for the next generation. “As fruit and vegetable producers, you think in seasons,” he said. “What should I do to get the crop in the ground now; what will consumers want next season; and what is likely to change in the industry in the next five years, and how do I get ahead of that in terms of capital investment, land management, the regulatory environment and the market dynamic?”
The goal of farmers has always been to raise nutritious food that meets the needs of a growing population. However, a more informed population and new generations responsible for selecting and purchasing food add a new challenge that growers must address.
“We have a growing world population and less land and water resources, along with [an] increasingly interested consumer base and great opportunities for value-added offerings in the marketplace,” said Redding. “There’s a renaissance in community development and rural/urban connections—all great challenges and opportunities that will test all of us as farmers, scientists, policy makers and citizens.”
Sam Kieffer, director of government affairs and communications for Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, addressed legislative issues and concerns. “Tax reform is a favorite buzzword,” he said. “A lot of the discussion is around business tax reform that’s going to create jobs and help the economy. But from the lens of the agricultural community, keep in mind that 96 percent of farms in the United States are taxed under IRS provisions for individual taxpayers. We [Pennsylvania Farm Bureau] are going to pursue federal tax reform; it should include reform for individuals, not just for corporations.”
When Kieffer brought up immigration, one of the most sensitive topics in ag, he stated that agriculture needs a long-term solution for immigration reform so that businesses can continue smoothly and transition to the next generation. He also noted that immigration reform is a divisive topic. “The agriculture community is very patriotic and wants to make sure that we follow our own laws and protect our nation,” he said. “However, we have the reality that many Americans don’t want to do the work that’s necessary on farms.”
Following the November election, the White House took executive action and offered incentives on immigration reform. However, the details did not address the needs of farm families and agricultural employers. “There may be a handful of individuals who can take advantage of the offers made in that executive order, but it’s less than a Band-Aid on a gushing wound,” said Kieffer.