Chamber aims for farmers

Organization ramps up efforts to include agricultural community

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec / Dave Hileman of Sinking Valley was the first farmer to join the Blair County Chamber of Commerce. While the chamber has more than 1,000 members, only two are farmers, something the chamber hopes to rectify.

The Blair County Chamber of Commerce has 1,070 members. However, only two are farmers.

David Hileman of Sinking Valley joined as Hilecrest Farm in 1993, and the Gerald and Linda Smith Farm of Martinsburg joined last month.

The chamber is ramping up efforts to entice more farmers to join.

“We feel a sense of obligation to do more to help Blair County farmers, if for no other reason, agriculture is Blair County’s No. 1 industry. As a business organization you would think they would align closely,” said Chamber President/CEO Joe Hurd.

Hileman said he joined the chamber because he appreciated what it was doing for the agricultural community.

“I appreciated the fact the chamber recognizes the agriculture community brings a lot of money into Blair County. They sponsor a number of agriculture events; that is why I was willing to support the chamber,” said Hileman, who is semi-retired but owns 450 acres and has a small beef herd.

Linda Smith said she is not sure why it took so long for her and her husband to join.

“I don’t know why we never joined. We need more farmers. People don’t realize how many people agriculture employs. Agriculture is so important; it is not like old McDonald’s farm any more. It is big business,” said Smith, retired superintendent of the Williamsburg Community School District, who has been active in the chamber for years.

Attracting farmers is a challenge.

“I’ve talked to other chambers to see what they do to connect better. Across the board the farming community is the hardest group to reach. Unless you can come up with a very tangible way of helping them to see the benefits of your agency, the struggle will continue,” Hurd said.

Farmers need a reason to join.

“We have to bring a value to them, a typical retail business finds that value. They are different from a farmer, we (farmers) don’t sell directly to customers, that makes it more difficult than how we approach a retail business. They have to look at it as a networking opportunity,” said Sarrah Lyons, dairy nutritionist at Mill Hill Farm Supply Inc. and member of chamber board of directors.

“The big issue is they have to do something that farmers see value in. Most all events are sponsored by businesses such as lending institutions,” said Valerie Detwiler, vice president and director of agriculture lending at CBT Bank, a division of Riverview Bank and a member of the chamber Farm-City Committee.

Hileman admits that benefits to the individual farmer are limited.

“The benefit for me is the networking opportunities. One of the issues that makes it a hard sell, most members have a service or a branded product they provide or want to sell to the community. As farmers we sell commodities such as milk, beef or grain, very few if us have a branded product. The opportunities to have benefits from the chamber for the individual farm business are somewhat limited,” Hileman said.

Hurd said the chamber has been doing a good job promoting agriculture.

“We’ve made a significant investment in agriculture promotion. We would hope that Blair County farmers would see that and be willing to invest more to allow us to do more things on their behalf,” Hurd said.

The chamber sponsors numerous events and the annual Agricultural Community Excellence (ACE) Award.

“We have recognized so many farmers throughout the years and justifiably so. We appreciate what they do for Blair County, and we would like to create a relationship that is more reciprocal,” Hurd said.

Chamber membership — now being offered to farmers for $175 a year — offers them other benefits as well.

“We have benefits that benefit our members such as our electricity program and other programs that can save members money. The Buy Here Bucks Program and Power Card program are among numerous ways beyond event attendance that would benefit farmers,” Hurd said.

The chamber may not have done a good enough job in the past to attract farmers as members.

“I understand the hesitation of spending the money. It has not been sold well to the agricultural community, that is the challenge,” Hileman said.

“Shame on us for not doing a better job reaching out to them,” Hurd said.

Although they have not become members, farmers have been cooperative with chamber events.

“When I consider the number of farms in the community who have agreed to host Down on the Farm events, it is not that the farmers are not cooperative. We would like to bring them into the organization to create a closer relationship and determine other ways to help them in an unbelievably difficult job,” Hurd said.

The chamber needs to create more farmer-friendly events.

“We need to meet them primarily on their terms because of the hours they are available, and we are willing to do that. We are trying to create an awareness among farmers of helping us to help them,” Hurd said.

“Many of the events are early in the morning and late afternoon, we need events that are more suited toward the farmers. Maybe a mid morning breakfast or lunch event with an agricultural speaker. We need to make it more convenient for the farmers,” Smith said.

The chamber will continue with its efforts to promote agriculture.

“We intend to continue to prioritize agriculture in as many ways as possible whether farmers join or not. We realize the importance agriculture has on our business community and the impact it has on our economy. If we were doing nothing on behalf of agriculture, their level of participation would be justified. We really feel we are doing a number of things to create awareness and call attention to the importance of agriculture in the community. Their membership would be a considerable investment in something that we’ve done for a long time on their behalf,” Hurd said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.