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Ag Department Cuts Could Hurt Us All

Farm-combine-machines 

A guest post by George Wolff

Years ago, if you wanted to be assured of buying a good apple, it had to be a Washington state apple.  Research supporting the Washington apple growers had advanced that state to the forefront of producing, storing and branding their products.

With apples, the secret was using expandable gasses for storage, which kept the moisture in the fruit.  It didn’t become mealy between harvest and eating.  Eventually, Pennsylvania caught up to the technology.  Today, Pennsylvania apples are among the best you can buy – and eat.

Farming and farm-related enterprises constitute the largest sector of Pennsylvania’s economy, and yet the Rendell Administration’s proposed 2010-11 fiscal year budget would cut the department that supports that sector by another 8 percent, after nearly an 11 percent cut this year.

Agricultural research has been cut from $1.6 million just two years ago to zero in the proposed Department of Agriculture budget.  Included is research to head off problems such as late blight, the disease that caused the infamous Irish potato famine in the 1840s and is still very much a concern today, for tomato as well as potato crops.

Agricultural promotion, education and exports, along with food marketing and research – a combined $1.75 million two years ago – would be cut to zero in the next fiscal year.  This is the line item that includes the successful “Pennsylvania Preferred” program, which has helped improve the quality and popularity of state-grown produce and other perishables.

The reduction in the department’s General Government Operations (GGO) budget of nearly 6 percent could have a profound effect on food safety.  GGO encompasses the Bureau of Food Safety and Laboratory Services, which includes the Food Safety and Milk Sanitation Division, restaurant licensing, food dessert licenses, milk permits and egg, fruit and vegetable inspections, along with laboratory services to support each of these programs. 

If there is a problem with food safety, these folks are supposed to track the issue back to the source and help eliminate it.  They also inspect restaurants and food service facilities not under the jurisdiction of a municipal or county health department.

The Bureau of Plant Industry, another GGO function, ensures the quality of seeds offered for sale.  All packages have a germination percentage on the label, and inspectors make sure that any fertilizers bought for farm or landscape use contain the proper ingredients and no toxic elements. 

Additionally, the Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services issues health certificates before livestock is sold and monitors both where an animal comes from and where it is going. Because Pennsylvania has exceptional breeding stock, these animals attract a great deal of interest from foreign countries, and these exports help our balance of trade.  However, every animal must have a current health certificate before it is shipped.  

The Bureau of Rides and Measurement Standards is responsible for inspecting all amusement park, carnival and fair rides.  Although perhaps not as important as in the past years since there is no funding for fairs in this 2011 budget, it also inspects the permanent rides at the amusement parks.

The Ag Department is one of those almost invisible state agencies that benefit all citizens of the commonwealth.  We are approaching a point where further reductions could affect the competitiveness of our largest industry and have a serious impact on the health and safety of our citizens.

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