Darrell Becker of East Millsboro, Fayette County, who raises about 30 beef cattle and 30 sheep on his Krepps Lane property, realizes most people don’t know the state budget impasse has meant no funding since July 1 for Penn State Extension agriculture-related projects.
But this is an issue the entire Becker family follows as intently as a barn cat eyeing a mouse.
Becker, media representative and treasurer of Fayette County Farm Bureau and chairman of Fayette County Land Preservation Board, knows the $50.5 million being held up is the lifeblood ebbing away for programs for everyone from 4-H students to Master Gardeners and those who would stave off everything from avian flu, tomato blight and stink bugs.
“I think everyone is kind of up in arms about this,” Becker said. “Basically, without a budget, we miss matching funding from the federal government.”
According to Becker, that’s $22 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture capacity funds provided to Penn State and $56 million, mostly from the USDA, in competitive grants awarded to the college.
Becker’s daughter, Angela, now an agriculture student at Penn State, kept a herd of 40 goats when she lived at home. His son, Andy, 16, has begun lamb and steer animal husbandry projects with 4-H, and he may add a pig to the barnyard. Becker’s wife, Christina, is Greene County 4-H educator.
Becker spoke of Andy’s life on the farm where “you see life, you see death, you see everything. Kids get such an education living on a farm. There’s so much to do, he’s learning things he doesn’t realize he’s learning.”
Andy Becker came home from school the other day spouting off the phenomenal number of 4-Hers and Master Gardeners statewide – 92,340 – who risk losing funding.
“I may be a little bit behind the curve on this, but they have 10,000 signatures on a petition that’s circulating,” Darrell Becker said. “All 67 counties are faced with the same thing, Democrat and Republican alike. They got to get a budget. The next budget’s gonna be done and we don’t even have the last.”
Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, which has not received money this fiscal year, issued a dire prophecy that all extension offices will close and, if there’s no breakthrough by May 1, pink slips effective July 1 would be sent to 162 educators and program assistants and 202 staff members.
Extension offices act as a liaison to the farming community and related industries, such as horticulture, and help relay Penn State’s agricultural expertise to farm operators and families across the state.
Harry Reffner, secretary of Pennsylvania Association of County Fairs, said the 109 fairs themselves where 4-H members show animals could be jeopardized because the venues have not been reimbursed for 2015 expenses, determined by a formula involving both acreage and attendance.
He bristled when talking Friday about the governor’s veto pen because “agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Pennsylvania but the governor decided not to fund it. There’s a loggerhead between Republicans and the Democratic governor. Right now, there’s no movement whatsoever.”
Randy Naser, a Washington County fair board member for the past four years and leader of Vankirk Friendship 4-H Club, said, “As far as the fair, we’ll be able to handle it this year. As far as 4-H, I’m not sure. I think it’s going to affect a lot of the kids. All the kids pay in to join a 4-H club.”
The situation isn’t sitting well with State Rep. Peter J. Daley, D-California, former chairman of House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, who said Thursday of the impasse affecting extension programs and personnel, “It’s horrible. The governor needs to step up to the plate very quickly.
State Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, is also a former chairman of the House ag committee, and he voted in favor of a $30.2 billion general fund state budget last December that included a $24.5 million increase for agriculture over fiscal year 2014-15.
The governor, Maher said, had been requesting $30.8 billion.
“Generally, in representative government, if someone accomplished 98 percent of what they set out to do, they generally declare victory,” Maher said Thursday. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. There’s not that much difference between $30.8 billion and $30.2 billion.”
The governor, on Wednesday – the same day he began treatment for prostate cancer – said in a phone interview with the Observer-Reporter he supports agriculture in the state along with the Penn State program.
However, “if we don’t plug the (budget) hole, we won’t have much money for anything. We’re looking at a train wreck.”
Wolf had met with 4-H students who rallied at the Capitol that day, and he underscored his support for agricultural extension. The governor reiterated he was a member of the Peace Corps in India during the 1960s.
While he informed Washington County Commissioners of local children’s accomplishments at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, Joseph Conklin, director of the Penn State Extension District that includes Washington, Greene and Fayette counties, also let the board know “the university has been funding extension for the past eight, nine months. We were zeroed out in December.
“Pennsylvania is lucky in that we do have offices in all 67 counties, which is something that is hard to hold onto. In New York state, they don’t have an extension office in every county.
“This is an unprecedented situation. We are hopeful there is support on all sides for funding for the past year and, of course, next year, for extension, but it’s a matter of when is it going to come? Somebody has to pay the bills.
“I don’t think any of us ever saw this coming.”
Staff writer Brad Hundt also contributed to this story.