HONESDALE – At the 41st Wayne County Ag Day on February 18, the region’s farm families celebrated the past, the present and, most especially, the future.

That’s because Wayne County is determined to take control of its own economic destiny, and a big part of that destiny is agriculture.

The annual event at Honesdale High School featured a visit from PA Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding. He honored Wayne County’s past with the presentation of a Century Farm award to the Dave Soden Family of King Hill Farm in Starrucca, founded in 1911 by Dave’s grandfather, James Soden.

To receive recognition under the program, the farm must have been in the family for more than 100 years, a family member must live on the farm on a permanent basis; and the farm must consist of at least 10 acres of the original holding.

‘Milk is good for you!’

State Rep. Jonathan Fritz (R-111) and the County Commissioners addressed the present. Rep. Fritz urged those assembled to “be proud to be a farmer” and emphasized the importance of standing strong together in the face approaching adversity.

Commissioner Brian Smith, a dairy farmer himself, made one thing abundantly clear, “Milk is good for you!”

He said a study, published in the UK-based “Lancet” medical journal, showed two servings of whole milk products a day reduces the risk of heart disease, cardio vascular disease and diabetes by 30 percent. The study followed 361,000 people in nine countries for 21 years.

Smith said a recent University of Texas study got the same results. “It is good for you, rest assured,” he said, despite common though unfounded fears among consumers about hormones and antibiotics.

“That’s how disengaged they are. We all know there is no way there is any residue in our products on the store shelf,” he noted.

However, the real gem in Wayne County’s agricultural crown right now is the Honesdale High School Future Farmers of America chapter, some 100 students who jumped at the chance to participate in an agriculture curriculum. That’s 100 students who want to see themselves in a future in agriculture.

Agriculture plan

To wrap up the daylong event, Consultant Phillip Gottwals discussed what those careers might look like, when he introduced the results of a yearlong study. The Wayne County Agricultural Development Plan assessed the current trends in agriculture like declining profitability, and the increasing age of farmers.

But Gottwals says there are some prime opportunities, not the least of which stem from the higher proportion of young people already getting involved in the agriculture industry, and not just students. The most recent statistics show a 15 percent increase in beginning farmers, and 30 percent of the new principal operators were between the ages of 24 and 35, bucking the national trend.

He also said they need the support of the industry to explore new approaches and new business models, and they need to equip the workforce with the skills of the future -- not just the past. Gottwals said, right now, the hydroponic growing operations popping up around the country need to recruit managers from places like Israel, Germany and Denmark, while American workers are recruited for the less skilled and lower paying positions.

Milk processing plant

The nearby markets of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut present additional avenues for Wayne County dairy, livestock and vegetable farmers to tap into consumers who routinely spend nearly twice as much money on food, some of whom are not having their needs met by the industry as it stands.

As an example, Gottwals said it became obvious during the many rounds of stakeholder interviews that the county would likely need to explore the feasibility of a local milk processing plant. Not, he said, to steal suppliers from the co-ops or other contracts, but to match opportunities with interested producers to serve unmet needs in the Latino community, for example.

His company, ACDS, LLC, has prepared a grant application for the US Department of Agriculture to explore the feasibility of an Oregon-like model that incorporates real-world processing with an educational/agri-tourism component. Gottwals said Wayne County has begun to build a brand through the many part-time residents, who may enjoy the farmers markets and the availability of fresh, local foods while they are here, and want to bring the experience back home.

Commissioner Brian Smith said, “We could seal its success by bringing in busloads of schoolchildren” to learn about where milk comes from, see the farmers in action and enjoy whole milk dairy products like cheese and ice cream. He said the consumers learn the truth about milk and, with any luck, will drink more of it. There’s a market for this at hand with the thousands of youngsters who already spend their summers at the many overnight camp facilities in the county.

Need to get involved

The possibilities don’t end there. Gottwals talked about clusters of businesses in agriculture and forest products that help bolster each other and about opportunities to supply produce to emerging health care programs and the tourism industry. He talked about craft beverages, meat and poultry production and someday perhaps hemp for fiber.

“A lot of this is about being prepared for opportunities when they present themselves,” he explained, noting some projects may take a year or two, while others may take decades before they come together.

Wayne Agriculture Tomorrow Work Group Co-Chair Bob Muller said farmers and other community members will need to work together to create these opportunities. Those interested in assisting Wayne Tomorrow with implementation of the Wayne County Agriculture Development Plan should contact Jane Bollinger at janebollinger05@gmail.com or Bob Muller rmuller@nep.net.

The study was made possible by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

-Link to full report (https://www.waynecountypa.gov/DocumentCenter/View/2380/Wayne-County-Agriculture-Development-final-Plan)