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Dairy Farmers Get Lifeline from General Assembly
By Rep. Steve Mentzer (R-Litiz)
Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law as Act 15 of 2018, a measure I co-sponsored that waives storm water management plans for high tunnel structures, which are temporary buildings often used to dry tobacco and raise produce through the early spring and late into the fall.

Because high tunnels are generally only left in place for a few planting seasons – sometimes they get moved every year - they negate the need for storm water mitigation. So these new rules were pointless. In fact, high tunnels are not part of the farm. They do not get sold with the farm and they are not subject to property taxes because of the very fact that they are temporary structures.

In early March, dozens of local dairy farmers in the Lancaster/Lebanon area received word from Dean Foods and Swiss Premium that their milk will no longer be purchased by the local processor.

At that time, the high tunnel legislation, House Bill 1486, had long-since been passed by the House and was sitting in the Senate. After an emergency meeting with Republican and Democrat senators and representatives of the dairy farming community, it was determined that moving the high tunnel bill could actually act as a lifeline to these dairy farmers who will soon lose their main sources of income. The Senate then quickly voted 49-0 to approve the measure and send it to the governor’s desk.

Many dairy farmers typically have smaller plots of land, and most of that land is used for corn and alfalfa for feed and winter silage. With this quick action, we are still in the springtime and these farmers can go out and get some high tunnels and begin moving into produce or tobacco to quickly transition to another area of agriculture production in order to prevent bankruptcy.

In the long term, some of these farmers may want to move into poultry or pork production, which along with tobacco and produce, are the most profitable for small farm plots.

The problem with moving into pork or poultry is the long delay of obtaining DEP permits from the state to do so. In Maryland or Delaware, farmers tell us six months is the longest they have to wait for such permits, while in Pennsylvania it is more like two years.

That’s why these folks need to be able to start planting now. In addition, high tunnels also have the ability to support free-range chicken operations, which gives dairy farms at least three ways to quickly transition to other good-paying agriculture operations. Even during the winter months, these structures can allow farmers to grow produce such as kale and Brussels sprouts in raised beds.

The use of high tunnel structures is not limited to professional agriculture. They are also being used in suburbs – on empty lots and even on rooftops – to raise fresh food in decent quantities in an urban setting where larger crop plantings would otherwise be difficult. So, this new law opens up more possibilities for Pennsylvania’s hobby farmers.

Our food supply and the plight of those who provide for us so well are a delicate balance. The signing of this bill into law is a huge win for Pennsylvania farmers and will also help to keep the cost of produce down for consumers.
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