WYSOX - Providing mentoring opportunities for youth interested in going into farming, developing a Bradford County branding for locally produced products, and educating the public about the advantages of eating locally produced farm products were some of the many suggestions made Wednesday at a conference in Wysox on improving agriculture in Bradford County.

The conference, which was attended by 91 people, was the first step in developing a comprehensive plan for protecting and enhancing agriculture in Bradford County, said Tony Liguori, agricultural team leader at the Bradford County Conservation District, which helped to organize the conference.

"This is exciting," Mike Lovegreen, district manager of the Bradford County Conservation District said at the end of the five-hour conference. "People (who attended the conference) realize that we have common values and that agriculture is important in Bradford county. Unless we go about guiding where we are going, stuff will just happen on its own."

At the beginning of the conference, farmers, representatives of agricultural businesses, and others who attended the conference were divided up into five small groups, where they discussed their vision for what they would like to see agriculture in Bradford County be like in the next five to 10 years, as well as the challenges they foresee in making that vision a reality, said Bill Shuffstall, a Penn State Cooperative Extension educator who served as the facilitator for one of the groups.

After the sessions, which lasted for 1 1/4 hours, the attendees heard speeches by Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture George Greig and Jay Matteson, who is the agricultural coordinator of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency in upstate New York.

Matteson said that there had been a similar agricultural conference in Jefferson County in 1998 which led to major steps to improve agriculture in that county.

The Jefferson County conference led to the creation of Matteson's position, one of the few free-standing jobs in the United States that focuses at the county level on economic development for the agriculture industry, Matteson said.

Matteson said he has advisory council of 13 people that he gets direction from, including farmers and representatives of agricultural businesses.

The focus on economic development in Jefferson County, which stemmed from the 1998 conference, has led to new agriculture-related plants being located in that county, including a facility were chicken eggs produced in the South are hatched and the chicks grown, Matteson said. The chicks are then exported to Canada, where they are raised to become broiler chickens. In addition, a Great Western Cheese plant has been located in Jefferson County, giving the county's dairy farmers a stable location to sell their milk, which has in turn prompted the dairy farmers to increase their investment in their farms, he said.

Companies based elsewhere in the United States are now interested in locating facilities in the eastern part of the country, he said.

Soybeans, wheat and corn grown in Jefferson County are shipped by rail from Jefferson County, which borders Canada, to ports in New Jersey, where they are shipped overseas, he said.

"There is tremendous opportunity" at this time for agriculture, Matteson said. "In my 24 years in agriculture, I have never seen a more exciting time."

There is also now a radio program in Jefferson county on agricultural issues, which is geared toward the public, and which educates them about agricultural issues, Matteson said.

Liguori said he was pleased with the turnout at Wednesday's conference.

During the final portion of Wednesday's conference, the participants grouped the goals of the conference's participants under eight different themes, such as making farms profitable and sustainable, preserving farmland and protecting farms, ensuring that the next generation will be there to take over the farms in Bradford County, and marketing locally produced agricultural products.

The organizers of the conference, which included staff from the Bradford County Conservation District and Penn State Extension, hope to establish groups of interested volunteers to work further on the plan in each of the eight broad areas of goals, Lovegreen said.

Anyone who is interested in working on the plan can call the Bradford County Conservation District at (570) 265-5539 ext. 6, Liguori said.

The comments made at the focus groups, as well as a synopsis of the afternoon session of the conference, which established the eight "themes," will be posted at agcoalitionbc.org.

The Conservation District will be applying for government grant money to hire staff to do tasks associated with developing the plan, such as research needed to help write the plan, Lovegreen said.

The comprehensive plan is co-sponsored by the Conservation District.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.