Our opinion: Saving Pennsylvania farms

Some troubling statistics were released Thursday by the federal Department of Agriculture.

They’re troubling because they seem to indicate there is less agriculture going on in Pennsylvania than there was even as late as five years ago.

Farming, it would appear, is on the decline.

Make no mistake, agriculture is still Pennsylvania’s single most important economic engine, accounting for about $7.4 billion in products last year.

Nevertheless, there are dark clouds approaching the 7.7 million acres of farmland in the state, and, according to the Census of Agriculture, that number is down by about 100,000 acres.

The statistics paint a picture that farmers have been trying to express over the past several decades. They have telling who ever will listen that with each passing year the margins are thinner, and when mother nature throws a curve, farm ledgers can quickly go into the red. It’s not an environment that promotes confidence in the long haul.

The average farm in Pennsylvania, according to the report, produces about $124,000 in products, or just under $1,000 per acre. While that sounds like a good ratio of income to acreage, the figure represents a gross income before the costs associated with that production are counted. And, those costs, measured in supplies and equipment alone, are substantial.

But the most troubling statistic of all is this: The average age of a Pennsylvania farmer is 56 years and getting older with each new census.

Farming needs to attract a new generation of farmers, and to do that there must be some incentive for 12- to 14-hour workdays other than just fresh air and a sense of personal accomplishment.

Agriculture is too important to allow to just fritter away.

An acre of farmland lost to commercial or residential development will never be recovered for its original purchase, and more often than not, it is lost because a new generation is unwilling or unable to continue the tenuous business of growing food on it.

That’s why farmland preservation programs and price supports for certain agricultural commodities are so necessary. Without those programs the consumer price for commodities will rise significantly…just before they disappear from supermarket shelves all together.