By Rick Hiduk
(Also published in the Susquehanna County Independent)
Though the amount of actively-farmed land in Susquehanna County has been slowly shrinking, agriculture continues to be a driving force in the county’s economy. Niche farming has picked up in recent years also, but the information available to small-scale growers has not kept pace with its development. The Penn State Extension recently received a USDA grant to assess and improve risk awareness among women, Hispanic and small-scale specialty crop growers in the region.
Growers of fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs and other specialty products are invited to participate in an informal focus group in Scranton at 10 am on Monday, Jan. 14. The first-time event will be held at Terra Preta Prime, 301 N. Washington Ave., a restaurant and retail outlet focused on “field to table” products and service. Participation is free, and lunch will be provided.
The USDA has published a risk management checklist that highlights personal finances, crop loss, home ownership and many elements of specialty farming that Penn State Extension educators want to implement. Information gathered on Jan. 14 and at subsequent meetings planned throughout the state will be used to help others through proactive risk management.
All growers are welcome to attend, said Penn State Extension educator Linda Falcone, who will facilitate the discussion with fellow Extension educators Judy Chambers and Lynn Kime. Kime will also direct a question and answer session on crop insurance.
“That’s on everybody’s minds after last year’s rains,” Falcone noted of the insurance session.
“I think that’s a great idea because we lost 75 percent of our crops last year, and we haven’t known what to do about it,” said Tina Carlin, co-owner of Four Season Farm & Market in Auburn Township. Especially hard hit by the relentless rains of 2018 was the Carlins’ potato crop. “We’re barely going to have enough to see us through the winter at our farmers market, so it’s going to be tough.
All growers are welcome to attend the gathering. The USDA Risk Management Education Partnership grant has targeted woman, Hispanic growers and small-scale niche farmers, Falcone explained,”because they are often under-represented, and specialty crops don’t always get as much attention.”
Carlin, who is also the president of the grass roots group, Farm Women United, is happy about that too. But she cautions that men interested in farming are also not receiving the support that they need. “There are a lot of farms that are run by women,” she related. “It’s not only women who can use the help, though. There are hardly any new farms being developed. Once we lose a farm, it’s gone.”
Kerry Foose, co-owner of the Funny Farm near Hop Bottom, is concerned also about state-mandated regulations that can discourage niche farmers. Rabbits used to be raised profitably at the Funny Farm, but new legislation in 2011 made that business model economically unfeasible. Foose now concentrates on her orchard, honey, maple syrup, and growing herbs and vegetables. She is optimistic about the impending deregulation of hemp farming. “It could be a huge boon for the community,” she suggested. “It grows really well in this region, and the demand is strong.”
Surveys will be sent to registered participants prior to the workshop to assess their awareness of risk management and so that the discussions can be geared accordingly. “Our hope is to find out what people know about and in what areas we made need more programs,” Falcone related. Hopefully, participants will finish the day with a better understanding of risk management and protecting their assets, she added.
Foose would be interested in hearing what the Penn State Extension and USDA have to say about hemp production, as well as better ways to connect specialty farmers with consumers. “I always thought it would be great if there were a database of sorts to help people seek out local foods,” Foose offered as potential topic. “That’s something that could be highly effective for both farmers and consumers.”
“It would be nice to go to this and see what their take is on things,” Carlin said of the opportunity.
Another session is planned for February in either York or Adams counties, and Penn State Extension educators will have an exhibit at the Pennsylvania Farm Show and Mid Atlantic Fruit Growers conference in January where they hope to enlist more members for focus groups.
Readers interested in the Jan. 14 focus group in Scranton should call Falcone at 570-996-2247 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.