The 101st annual Pennsylvania Farm Show is in full swing this week, and, inside the mazelike show complex in Harrisburg, it’s business as usual.
Visitors slurp milkshakes. Ducklings slide down slides. Families camp out with their prize goats, cows and pigs. And, if you look closely, you’ll see the event also plays host to another breed: politicians.
The farm show floor is prime politicking territory for Pennsylvania’s state and federal lawmakers — and they take advantage of it.
From petting cows to discussing farm equipment, the show gives politicians a chance to get some one-on-one — and some photo ops — with the people responsible for one of Pennsylvania’s biggest industries.
As Gov. Tom Wolf noted — in between learning about potatoes and purchasing a chocolate milkshake — “agriculture is really important as a touchstone of American culture, but also as a centerpiece of our economy.”
Dressed casually in khakis, the governor did his best to match the show’s down-to-earth sensibilities.
“I went by a Massey Ferguson tractor over here — I used to work on Massey Ferguson tractors,” he said during his tour. “I mean it’s really nostalgic for me.”
Wolf was joined by state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who took note of the event’s political value.
“People will stop you and give you their opinion very directly. There’s no filter,” he said. “My experience of most of the last 20 years visiting the farm show is that people are very direct, but they’re also very polite, which isn’t always the case in Washington.”
Views from the farm
One of those polite, direct people is Brian Beck with Long Acres Potato Farms in Clarion County. He said he appreciates that politicians turn out for the show, but he’s often skeptical of whether they’re taking feedback to heart.
“I think our state government loves the thought of agriculture,” he said. “I think they’re committed in theory.”
In his mind, he said, the state often hurts more than it helps.
“We need less regulation,” he said. “Our taxes … most farms and agriculture today in Pennsylvania today are losing money. And what’s frightening is we’re losing our backbone in the state.”
Beck was joined at his potato display by his 10-year-old daughter, Eva, who’s adamant about going into the family business.
But according to lifelong dairy farmer Dale Hoffman and others, kids like Eva aren’t really the norm.
In the old days, Hoffman said, “you had a grandfather, a grandmother who had a farm or something, so the grandkids could go see it. They don’t see that no more, so we’ve lost all that grass roots.”
Hoffman attended a panel where a few dozen farmers and industry stakeholders got a chance to air their grievances directly to lawmakers.
He has about 900 cows at the Potter County farm he runs with his children and grandkids. And he pointed out the farm show can be a great time for farmers to let politicians — and the general public — know what they’re up against in 2017.
But Hoffman said even more important is getting politicians to see these challenges firsthand.
“It’s very important that you take them out to the farmers and walk them around and show them what you’re doing,” he said.
One of those politicians that Hoffman’s successfully gotten out to the farm is U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, who hosted the farm show panel.
“From listening, you know we find out what the issues are, the concerns, the challenges,” Thompson said.
He serves on the House Agriculture Committee, and he said he takes a lot of the input from farmers directly back to Washington.
It’s a wide-ranging mix of ideas, but the farmers on the panel tended to agree on a couple major goals: cutting regulations, like the clean-water restrictions on runoff imposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and driving up sales of American-grown food — particularly dairy.
Hoffman offered one solution.
“We need food in America. We’re importing a lot more than people realize,” he said. “And the consumer does not know that. You buy pants, shirts, whatever, it tells you where it’s made. Food should be the same way.”
Back out on the main farm show floor, Beck, the potato farmer, remained unconvinced state lawmakers will be able to walk the walk.
“I don’t think it matters what side of the political spectrum a person lies on,” he said. “I don’t feel that our Pennsylvania government quite gets what a goldmine we have. We have natural gas, we have water, we have a very large population of skilled workers that are moving out of the state … so yeah, so we need help.”
The farm show, with all its livestock, farmers, food — politics — is open for visitors until Saturday.