FILE - PA Martin Causer 1-8-20

Pennsylvania state Rep. Martin Causer, chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, speaks Jan. 8, 2020, during a hearing at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg. Content Exchange

Strengthening Pennsylvania’s dairy industry, creating agritourism opportunities and expanding broadband access were among the issues representatives from statewide rural-based organizations shared with a House panel at a recent meeting.

Members of the Pennsylvania House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee took testimony last week from a number of speakers in the sector. State Rep. Martin Causer, R-Bradford, who chairs the committee, said the comments were designed to help the panel in setting its priorities as 2020 unfolds.

Several speakers, including Hannah Smith-Brubaker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, lauded lawmakers for their role in bringing the Pennsylvania Farm Bill to fruition.

“It is a fantastic start to addressing a number of things we talk about,” Smith-Brubaker said, pointing to investments in such new, innovative crops as hemp and programs to help entrepreneurs as examples.

In the year ahead, Smith-Brubaker said members within the organization she represents are hopeful further strides can be made in legislative circles, including the addition of an initiative that would grow the state’s organic dairy industry.

“We’d like to have the momentum to continue to the next phase,” Smith-Brubaker said.

Causer, in response, took a middle-of-the-road approach in his remarks about additions to the Farm Bill.

“I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not, but we have made progress in a lot of areas,” Causer said.

Support also was shared at the committee hearing for House Bill 1348, which addresses agritourism and limits the liabilities farmers would face by having people on their properties.

Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, runs a family farm. They key to sustaining operations, he said, is diversifying, which he is doing beyond his core dairy operation.

Ebert said he is investing in a greenhouse and sheep farming and said he is supportive of such as agritourism opportunities as farm-to-table activities on his land. However, Ebert said he and others in the state’s agriculture community tend to shy away from such proposals because of liability concerns.

“The consumer connection is key,” Ebert said. “The farmers that are surviving are interacting directly with their customers. But our farms are not shopping centers. They are working lands.”

The inequities of broadband access across Pennsylvania were discussed last year, and several speakers revisited concerns about the gap in coverage at this month’s committee meeting.

Wayne Campbell, president of fraternal organization Pennsylvania State Grange, said the lack of broadband access impacts rural areas of the state beyond agriculture. Education and health care also are adversely impacted, he said.

“It puts rural Pennsylvania way behind,” Campbell said of the coverage gaps. “It is absolutely essential.”

From a legislative standpoint, Causer echoed the concerns and said accessibility will remain on the committee’s radar this year.

“We can talk the rest of the day about broadband because it is important,” Causer said. “It’s one we’re going to continue talking about.”

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