Developing a plan for the future of Chester County agriculture | Master Edition

Farming in Chester County is different from farming in other parts of Pennsylvania. Costs are higher and land is harder to find.

The Chester County Ag Council wants to tackle these issues. This meant first saying the problems out loud. Not just other farmers. To everybody.

“We know there’s less land and more farmers competing for that acreage,” said Gary Westlake, chairman of the council’s board of directors. “We know there is no solid infrastructure here. Most operators have to travel an hour or more to get their inputs, their parts, their specialists who come to the farm.

Understanding the obstacles was the first step. The second was to find solutions. The Ag Council believes it has begun this journey with a strategic economic development plan which was adopted at the Chester County Board of Commissioners meeting on March 22.

The plan is the first of its kind in the department. It focuses on labor shortages, access to land, development pressure and environmental fluctuations. The Ag Council wants existing farmers to have a better chance of success and new farmers to enter the market.

“This is the first time the county has done something like this,” said Hillary Krummrich, director of the agricultural council. “I really think the plan itself provides a foundation to help people who don’t know the industry very well get to grips with it. Have a better idea of ​​what it is. If they can better understand what it is, I think they can better understand what it needs to continue to thrive.

Some elements of the plan, such as Chester County Economic Development Council funding, will be implemented immediately. The timing of the other elements will become clearer in the coming weeks.

Chester County is in the southeast of the state, and suburban Philadelphia has been expanding into the county for years.

The county’s wealth and proximity to urban population centers separates it from many counties that depend on agriculture. The Ag Council believes this makes the industry even more vital to preserve.

Gary Westlake chairs the Chester County Agricultural Development Council. He is a third-generation Christmas tree grower and nurseryman in North Chester County, where his family owns and operates Westlake Tree Farms. He also sits on the USDA’s Christmas Tree Promotion Board.

Westlake has a specialist Christmas tree nursery in the townships of Warwick and North Coventry. Concerns about local agriculture are not abstract to him. They are part of his daily life.

“We’ve realized for decades and generations that we’ve been farming in this area that really doesn’t have all the infrastructure of all the other farming areas,” Westlake said. “But it has this fabulously robust market and it’s close to all the major metro areas on the East Coast. That’s what makes it so unique.

The Ag Council wants to increase access to markets, create a culture of innovation, educate consumers and officials, improve labor opportunities, maintain and expand available land, and meet municipal regulations.

An important part of the plan is to provide education and resources to municipal officials. Krummrich said farmers often don’t sit on these boards, so boards don’t necessarily understand the effect of certain regulations.

Despite its challenges, Chester County generated $710 million in annual farm sales in the last agricultural census – good for second place in Pennsylvania and 53rd nationally.

The county is a hub of mushroom production in the United States and has strong dairy and equine sectors.

“Preserving the industry is absolutely a top priority,” Krummrich said. “We are trying to do that as we continue to come under greater development pressure. We are a county with high agricultural production, but we are also under great pressure to grow. How do you balance that? Producers do it individually every day. As service providers, we all wanted to make sure we really understood how we could best support them. »

Krummrich said one of the goals of the Ag Council is to help people understand that the traditional model of a large 100-acre property is not necessary to thrive. Farmers can thrive on smaller plots of land. There are opportunities for expansion through this mindset.

Some examples of small-footprint farms include wineries that grow their own grapes, small produce farms, and even indoor farming.

The cost of competition and municipal regulations were the two main problems mentioned by farmers during the focus groups. Krummrich said success will be measured by the plan’s ability to implement programs desired by industry and deliver changes such as more agriculture-friendly zoning to farmers.

Westlake said the top priority should be keeping farmers in Chester County by providing infrastructure to make farms profitable and more likely to achieve generational success.

Without these improvements, more farms could become housing estates or shopping malls. That’s what this plan tries to avoid.

“Everyone knew agriculture was part of Chester County, but there was never a roadmap for its future,” Westlake said. “This is the roadmap for our future.”

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