Officials hear farm concerns on tariffs, liability

Speakers provide insight into national issues

LORETTO — A tent surrounded by barns, farmland and rural pastures served as a platform for legislative discussion on Tuesday, when local lawmakers and agriculture leaders gathered for an annual meeting.

The Cambria County Farm Bureau’s annual legislative farm tour gave those gathered at Loretto’s Vale Wood Farms an opportunity to speak with legislators.

“We want to tell these elected officials … how this affects us on our farms,” said Matin Yahner, Cambria County Farm Bureau’s governmental relations director.

On the state level, concerns about royalties from natural gas wells, a proposed decrease in size of the state’s General Assembly and government-regulated milk prices were among Tuesday’s talking points.

Then Yahner and other speakers provided local insight into how federal issues like immigration and an ongoing trade war are affecting Cambria County farms.

And lawmakers heard those concerns — U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-5th District, as well as state Reps. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown; Frank Burns, D-Johnstown; and Tommy Sankey, R-Osceola Mills; and state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, were in attendance.

Yahner addressed Thompson specifically when discussing the farming workforce, which he said is largely reliant on immigrants who are willing to do hard work for a decent wage, which they often send to family members out of the United States.

“Americans don’t want to do that job for any price,” he said, claiming some have turned down offers of as high as $25 per hour.

Yahner stressed that immigrants should come into the country legally, and he explained that immigration is a complicated issue, with some drawbacks.

“Sure there is a criminal element,” Yahner said. “There is a criminal element in any part of society.”

In Pennsylvania recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have visited farms “with badges and guns and literally taken (immigrant workers) off the milking floor,” Yahner said.

“How do you run a business like that?” he said.

ICE has been a point of interest in the national media because of the controversial detention of immigrants, which has drummed up both support and criticism.

And ICE operations have led to increased revenue locally.

Last year, Cambria County received $717,780 for housing ICE prisoners at the local jail, and as of the end of last month, $328,790 was made by housing ICE prisoners so far this year. They are housed in Cambria County Prison at a rate of $70 per inmate per day, Cambria County Chief Clerk Mike Gelles said.

On Tuesday, Thompson, vice chairman of the U.S. House’s agriculture committee, agreed that steps need to be taken to ensure that immigrant workers are able to be employed on local farms — specifically through an agricultural guestworker program, which would provide visas to immigrants, who could become dependable employees.

Thompson said he is in favor of strong borders and even mentioned President Donald Trump’s proposed wall at the Mexican border, but he also said that those political discussions should be set aside when the agricultural workforce is at stake.

“We shouldn’t let any of that stuff get into this bill,” he said, explaining legislation is in the works. “This is our food security.”

Financial security was also a concern, specifically in terms of an ongoing “trade war” with countries like Canada, China and Mexico, which has led to tariffs on goods such as soybeans, Yahner said.

Yahner said he understands that the tariffs are intended to encourage more fair and beneficial trade practices between the United States and those countries, but “the near-term pain is significant.”

That pain is realized in a loss of value of up to 25 percent on soybean crops, he said.

“We are in a tight spot,” he said. “The trade war that we are in is bad.”

Not all issues discussed fell under the federal scope.

Carissa Itle Westrick, Vale Wood Farms

business development director, spoke about the need for strengthened liability protections as local farmers open their grounds to the public through agritourism, such as corn mazes, hayrides and educational tours.

At Vale Wood, a dairy farm with about 200 cows, thousands of people visit each year, Westrick said, explaining those visitors have occasionally grabbed electric fences and engaged in other dangerous behavior.

“The public doesn’t always have the common sense,” she said.

Yahner said farmers are hoping for legislative protections to shift liability away from owners, creating a “visit-at-your-own-risk” agreement with agritourists.

Yahner also called for the requirement of more farm-centric training for humane society police officers. The officers, he said, are often better trained to deal with domestic animals, like cats and dogs, than livestock.

If proper care is not taken, those officers could spread disease from farm to farm or create other dangerous situations, he said.

“We don’t want them to do damage,” Yahner said. “We don’t want them to get hurt.”

A tour of Vale Wood Farms was postponed as heavy rain fell shortly before noon.