Growing up Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

Agriculture is related to almost every aspect of the Pennsylvania economy, but the industry’s role is changing.

“It is a big part of our economy; agriculture and agriculturally oriented businesses, which include everything from food processing to animal nutrition, farm equipment sales to landscape design and installation, generate significant cash receipts in the region,” says Judith Schwank, Dean of Agriculture and Environmental Studies at Delaware Valley College.

Smart Business spoke with Schwank about how the agriculture industry is changing and how those changes will affect other businesses and the economy.

How does agriculture affect area businesses?

Agriculture is extremely important in this area. The region is blessed with a temperate climate, good soils and a long history of farming as a valued contributor to the local economy.

There is a production side and a consumption side to agriculture. Production includes farming — the production and processing of food and fiber. The consumption side is the marketing and sales of those products, everything from grocery stores and farm markets, to consumer-supported agriculture outlets, restaurants and food service operations.

How is the role of agriculture changing?

Fewer people have direct ties with agriculture and most of the population has little understanding of how their food is produced and processed. That has an impact on consumers’ understanding of the importance of agriculture and how it affects their lives. Nevertheless, people are becoming increasingly interested in how their food is produced.

They have legitimate questions about the environmental impacts of agricultural production. Food safety has been an issue of great importance for some time. However, concerns about food security, or the availability of wholesome food products to consumers of all income levels, are also being raised.

In addition, the idea of purchasing and consuming locally produced foods versus food products that have been shipped long distances has also generated great interest.

Many of our best farmers and others involved in agriculture are taking this recent interest in food production and turning it to their advantage.

What are some of the challenges the agriculture industry faces?

People worry about environmental issues related to production practices in agriculture, the use of pesticides, how waste products from agriculture are handled and how they may impact our water, soil and air quality. Dealing with these issues can be challenging. In an area where there is so much development, farms are not isolated from residential areas and neighbors occasionally experience inconveniences related to modern farming practices. Suburbanites may be disconcerted by these issues if they have no prior knowledge or experience related to agriculture.

How can people involved in agriculture handle those challenges?

In this region, successful farmers have been on the cutting edge of finding solutions to the problems of farming in a densely populated area. They have been proactive in addressing environmental issues and building relationships with neighbors, primarily through keeping them informed about modern agricultural practices. Some have used community dialogues and created business opportunities through agritourism to get their neighbors better connected to agriculture and more understanding about how food is produced.

Despite these issues, there is great interest in food and farming. Parents want their children to have the experience of harvesting pumpkins at Halloween or cutting a Christmas tree. Many farmers have capitalized on that interest by opening their farms to the public and directly marketing products to consumers.

How can agricultural entrepreneurs turn these challenges into opportunities?

There is a large segment of the population interested in purchasing the freshest, most wholesome food products. Local farmers can capture that market if they are willing to work directly with consumers or via wholesale outlets that capitalize on this trend. The market appears to be willing to support local farmers and to pay for a premium product.

How can someone involved with agriculture take advantage of the current economy?

Outstanding business and marketing skills are critical. Being successful in an agricultural enterprise is no different than any other business. There is great diversity among farmers, their skills and the opportunities they may find in the market. Unfortunately farmers don’t have a great deal of flexibility on commodity pricing but they are persevering and when possible taking advantage of the opportunities that lie before them. Agriculture is a 24/7 profession and it’s a labor of love for many. The most successful farmers have a knack for finding that unique market or opportunity in which they can best use their skills and the products they produce or grow.

How can education help them take advantage of these opportunities?

Students will find a wide range of majors in agriculture, including areas of study such as turf grass management, dairy science, equine science and studies, ornamental horticulture and food science. Also, an important factor in a quality education in agriculture is hands-on, experiential learning. Students in agricultural majors need practical skills as well as classroom and laboratory experience. Interdisciplinary study is important for students who may not want to farm but want to be engaged in the business side of agriculture such as marketing or communications related to agriculture or agribusiness.

Judith Schwank is the Dean of Agriculture and Environmental Studies at Delaware Valley College. Reach her at (215) 489-4190 or Judith.Schwank@delval.edu.