Group looks to strengthen ag

Project will include customized action plans for six counties in region

A farmer sprays a corn field along Cross Cove Road outside of Martinsburg on Monday afternoon. Strengthening agriculture is a key component of the Alleghenies Ahead initiative, a collaborative project between the six counties of the Southern Alleghenies region to find strategies for a stronger future. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Efforts to strengthen agriculture — Blair County’s largest industry — are a key component of the Alleghenies Ahead initiative.

Alleghenies Ahead is a 16-month, collaborative project between the six counties of the Southern Alleghenies region to identify implementable strategies for a stronger future.

The project will include customized action plans for Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset counties.

Agriculture has been selected as one of five priorities to be addressed in Blair County. The others include: broadband and cell service, collaboration and coordination of services, housing and blight, public health and safety.

“(Agriculture) is our largest industry and undergoing a transition. We have the signs that it is transitioning,” said Blair County Planning Director David McFarland.

“Not including agriculture as a priority would have been a disservice to the industry and to any planning process for the betterment of Blair County,” said Director Donna Fisher of the Blair County Conservation District.

In the past, agriculture has been identified as “cows and crops,” McFarland said,

“I am not sure what it is transitioning into. We have a hog farm outside Martinsburg and a chukar farm in Catharine Township near the Huntingdon County line. This is a good example of diversity. These are part of the transition,” McFarland said.

Blair County, at 525, has the smallest number of farms in the six county area.

“There has been little change in that over the last 10 years. Acreage has gone up 3 percent over the last 10 years. The average market value of our farms is twice as high as the other counties. We have many productive farms in Blair County, that is why we want to make sure they stay stable,” McFarland said.

Blair County’s plan identifies six “action items” to be addressed.

The conservation district and Altoona-Blair County Development Corp. will take lead roles in addressing the items.

– The plan calls for including an ag representative in the economic development agency to give ag a voice at the table, to make sure agriculture is represented as an industry.

“We want to make sure ag is represented at the ABCD level,” McFarland said.

The plan calls for:

– Actively recruiting new facilities to diversify the ag industry.

“Something like the chukars. Maybe we could grow some different crops as well. More vineyards may be a good idea,” McFarland said.

– Developing Altoona as an ag hub.

“Altoona is the population center. It should be a target market for ag products. We have some farmers markets, we need to make them more visible. We need to get our local products into stores and restaurants,” McFarland said.

The conservation district was awarded a grant from the National Association of Conservation District in 2016 because of the classification within Altoona as a “Food Desert,” meaning that the area lacked the availability of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products and other foods to support a healthy diet.

“With that grant, we attempted to organize the growers; increase the availability of fresh foods through the development of farmers markets; and increase the citizens’ knowledge of the use and cooking of ‘raw’ foods. Developing Altoona as an agricultural hub is the next logical step to keep the momentum going,” Fisher said.

ABCD Corp. is working to support Farm to Table options in local eateries.

“Connecting people with local agriculture by serving them ‘the goods’ is a basic, yet best, way to make that connection. Events like the Blair County Conservation District’s ‘Farm to Table’ dinners are a great way to experience our local foods and celebrate flavors unique to our region,” said ABCD Corp. President/CEO Steve McKnight.

– Collaboration with ag lenders to provide low-interest loans to farmers.

“We have two banks in the Martinsburg area that do that. We need to expand that and diversify that. We need access to capital and cash flow. We need to make sure the cash is there to impact the industry when the time is ripe,” McFarland said.

“Financing is fundamental. ABCD manages several low-interest loan programs for which ag-related industries and producers qualify. Getting that money onto the farm is a priority. That means production is happening and jobs are being created resulting in positive economic impact for the region,” McKnight said.

– Exploring development of an ag worker placement agency.

“We are looking for an industrial temp agency to place workers on farms. It is hard to attract skilled workers. This would be beyond the typical temp agency. We need to find people who are qualified to do the work, need people who have the training. We need something similar to Drill Baby Drill, like Farm Baby Farm, that is the kind of idea,” McFarland said.

“It’s critical that we build a strong talent pipeline of next generation agricultural experts of all types,” McKnight said.

– Involving municipal and foundation support of easement purchases — expanding the Purchase Agricultural Conservation Easements Program.

“Blair County is a region leader in the state/county partnership to preserve farms for perpetuity through the purchase of ag easements (land will be maintained in an agricultural use). However, we have not had municipal participation nor much success in getting private funds or nonprofit organizations involved for our farmers,” Fisher said.

The conservation district and ABCD will also play leading roles to implement the action items.

“We will create an overall coalition of people who are responsible to report back to the planning commission to make sure this is taking place. We need to know if they are doing it. In two or three years we will develop another set of action items to move this forward,” McFarland said.

Officials are optimistic the action items can be achieved.

“I am optimistic; we have found people we hope are champions of each of these items. As long as we keep the enthusiasm, I expect to get most of it accomplished. I hope we will see increased productivity and stability. The more diversified the industrial cluster is the more robust it becomes and the stronger it is. We’ve seen steady increases in ag over the last quarter century and I can’t see why we can’t continue with that,” McFarland said.

“I represented the district throughout the planning process and feel that the goals are reasonable and achievable. The group purposely concentrated on areas that we could make an impact. I am really excited to have the problem of sufficient farm labor tackled in this process. Although a lofty goal, I feel that any inroads into a solution to the farm labor crisis will be meaningful,” Fisher said.

McKnight said the growing demand for fresh food and a desire for locally sourced products is more than just a trend and reflects next generation lifestyles and healthier living patterns.

“Areas like ours that offer both rural and small urban living options are attractive to many people and the businesses they create. For that reason alone, we are optimistic that our agricultural community and the assets they represent will remain a key part of our economic development future,” McKnight said.

The Blair County commissioners are expected to adopt the action plan this month.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.