Farmland in Narvon, Pennsylvania. The young trees and shrubs in the foreground were planted as a buffer for the small stream that flows through the farmland into Conestoga Creek.
At a House Republican Political Committee hearing in Lancaster County on Wednesday, state lawmakers heard from farmers and farm-related business owners about the challenges they face amid record inflation and the far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m a small, family-owned meat processing company located in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, and we’ve been in business since 1965,” said Mike Smucker, president of Smucker’s Meats, adding that inflation has increased the cost of ingredients and packaging supplies for his business, and also caused the suspension of the construction project.
“The cost of goods for the services we provide has increased by an average of about 15 percent over the past 12 months,” Smucker said.
To combat rising costs, Smucker said his business has had to get creative and find ways to improve efficiency, including by reducing the company’s waste and studying market prices.
Another obstacle shared with the committee was the difficulty of finding and retaining staff.
The commonwealth, which is a component of the Pennsylvania Farm Bill created in 2019, has capabilities known as “earn while you learn,” which, according to the state Department of Agriculture, provide employers with the skilled workers they need to operate computer equipment, and connect high school students and recent graduates with paid training at equipment dealers to learn how to service high-tech farm equipment.
Asked by state lawmakers if he had any recommendations to help solve the workforce problem, Smucker suggested creating a better path for people who are formerly incarcerated in Pennsylvania to find jobs in agriculture.
“The solution to our labor problem would be to create better initiatives for those who have been or will be released from custody,” Smucker said. “While these proposals may not seem like a direct cure for inflation, I believe we can best address the problems by addressing the problems that are a few steps away from the real problem and by addressing the underlying problems at the root of the problem. Access to jobs for underprivileged or underserved segments of our communities is an opportunity to begin to address some of the underlying issues.”
He continued: “In the past we have seen some of the hardest working people come out of prison and [they] it is necessary to start all over again with the desire to prove yourself. “I believe that the real path to rehabilitation is to provide opportunities for work based on self-respect and the simple satisfaction of completing a hard day’s work.”
Heather Lewis, a first-generation farmer who also lives in Lancaster County, said the uncertainty of the future is stressful for her and her husband, Mike, who have seen a 25 percent increase in crop inputs (such as fertilizer and pesticides) because of the investment in inflation.
“Sometimes it’s hard to sleep,” Lewis told the committee, “with farming comes a lot of uncertainty.”
Lewis said that while she’s grateful that her children are learning hard lessons about the realities of farming, she often feels stressed about finding a balance between securing their future on the farm and mitigating financial risk now by drawing on cash.
“I’m glad they’re here, learning these lessons now and preparing for future opportunities,” Lewis said of her children. “They need to know that tightening up now will hopefully bring opportunities later.”
For Bill Beam, president and owner of Beam Farms Inc. in Elverson, Chester County, the rising cost of equipment has made his farming more difficult.
Beam explained the sticker shock he experienced when he recently went to a John Deere facility to purchase new equipment only to find prices had gone up by 25 percent.
Similarly, Beam said that ordering parts to repair existing equipment has become expensive and less feasible, and waiting times for new parts are up to six months due to ongoing supply chain issues.
Beam said an employee shared with him that while the company typically raises prices once a year, it has already implemented three price increases in 2022.
“Unfortunately, inflation is here, it’s real,” Beam told the committee.