WYSOX -

Officials recently unveiled a multi-pronged strategy for retaining and growing Bradford County's agriculture industry.

The strategy calls for, among other things, finding a broker to arrange for the sale of locally produced farm products to restaurants and grocery stores; the hiring of an agricultural economic development professional to help establish new agriculture-related businesses in the county and market the county's agriculture products; the creation of a mentoring program to help give local young people and others the knowledge they would need to become farmers; taking various steps to increase the likelihood that local farms will stay in operation after the current farmer dies; and the creation of an agriculture website for the county, according to Tony Liguori, who is the agricultural team leader at the Bradford County Conservation District.

"We could get a lot done that would be worthwhile" if enough people were mobilized to help implement the strategy, said Liguori, who added that Agriculture Coalition of Bradford County is looking for more people to help implement it. "It (the benefits of the plan) would be huge if more people were involved."

The strategy is really the recommendations of a newly completed comprehensive plan for strengthening the agriculture industry in Bradford County, Liguori said. The creation of the plan was co-sponsored by the Bradford County Conservation District using funds from Endless Mountains Heritage Region Inc., said Mike Lovegreen, a district operations specialist with the Bradford County Conservation District.

The strategy was unveiled at the recent Agriculture Strategy Summit, which took place at the Wysox Fire Hall.

Need for plan

The strategy is needed because agriculture is such a big part of Bradford County's economy, and yet many of the county's farmers are in a financial position where they could use some assistance, Lovegreen said.

"We (farms and agriculture-related businesses) are the major employer in Bradford County by a long shot," Lovegreen said during a presentation he gave at the summit.

Lovegreen estimated there are 3,000 to 5,000 people working on the county's 1,457 farms. And those farms together sell $121 million worth of agricultural products each year, he said.

And yet, the average yearly net income of a farm in Bradford County is only $21,000, he said.

Another indication of how important the local agriculture industry is is the fact that Bradford County is one of the larger producers of agricultural products in the state, Liguori said. "Bradford County is right up there with production numbers, compared with other counties," he said.

Another reason for developing the strategy is that on surveys, people say they love to live in Bradford County because of its rural character, Liguori said.

They want to live in Bradford County "because of its rural nature and small communities, and that is enabled by agriculture," he said.

History

One of the earliest steps in developing the comprehensive plan was a conference in November 2012 to get input from the public on what the plan should say.

During the November 2012 conference, the attendees - who included farmers, representatives of agriculture-related businesses, and others - were divided up into small groups, where they discussed their vision of what they would like to see local agriculture be like in the next five to 10 years and the challenges they saw in reaching that vision.

Numerous ideas for enhancing agriculture that were generated by these small groups were recorded by the organizers of the conference.

A group called the Agriculture Coalition of Bradford County has continued the work done at the November 2012 conference by developing and writing the comprehensive plan, Liguori said. Among the members of the coalition are farmers, representatives of agriculture-related businesses, and representatives of agencies and organizations, including Penn State Cooperative Extension, the Bradford County Conservation District, the Bradford-Sullivan Farm Bureau, and the Endless Mountains Heritage Region, according to the Conservation District.

The coalition has a steering committee, as well as three other active committees, including the Profitability & Sustainability Committee, the Farm Transition & Succession Committee, and the Education Committee.

Funding will need to be acquired to implement many of the recommendations of the comprehensive plan, Lovegreen said.

Recommendations

The mentoring program is needed partly because there are not enough opportunities locally for young people to learn about agriculture, Liguori said.

For example, there are no community colleges in Bradford County that offer courses in agriculture, he said. In addition, there are only four FFA (Future Farmers of America) chapters left in the public schools in Bradford County, "and not all of them are thriving," Liguori said.

"If we're not reaching out to youth, what future do we have?" Liguori said.

The need to train the next generation of farmers is particularly important because of the advanced age of many local farmers, he said.

"I think the average age of a farmer in Bradford County is 55 years old," Liguori said. "There are a lot of things people would like to try their hand at (in agriculture), but they don't know where to start."

The agricultural economic development professional could be based at a public agency, Liguori said. "For an industry as big as it is in Bradford County, why not (have such a position)?" Liguori asked rhetorically.

The strategy includes steps to better market local farm products, including the creation of the broker position.

"There is a lot we can do with marketing," Liguori said. "Right now, farmers are left to do marketing on their own."

One of the reasons why a broker is needed is because "restaurants don't want to deal with 20 farmers at the same time" in order to arrange for the delivery of locally produced farm products, Liguori said.

A broker, who would represent numerous farmers, would be in a position to deliver to a restaurant the diversity of local farm products that a restaurant needed, and provide the quantity and quality of local farm products that the restaurant would want to order, he said.

A broker would not necessarily have to be a publicly funded position, he said. It might be a self-sustaining business, he said.

The website that is being planned would have a variety of information, including a "clearinghouse" for agricultural land, where members of the public could find local farms to buy or lease, Liguori said. The website would also help people find mentors if they are interested in farming, and it would allow farms to list the types of agricultural products they have for sale, so that a member of the public could, for example, go to the website and find a farm nearby that sold tomatoes, Liguori said.

Still another idea for improving local agriculture is to process local grasses into "energy pellets," Liguori said.

Bradford County is the Number One forage-producing county" Liguori explained, adding that "forage" means "grasses."

"I don't think it would take that much" for the production of energy pellets to get under way, he said.

The Agriculture Coalition of Bradford County is now distributing a survey to the public that it says will help it to implement the strategy.

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