Industrial hemp, the opioid crisis and the future of the Farm Show Complex were among the disparate issues Pennsylvania lawmakers discussed with the head of the commonwealth’s Department of Agriculture.
Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding went before the Senate Appropriations Committee recently and fielded a range of questions as the legislators are combing through Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal.
Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., R-Rochester, asked Redding to weigh in on industrial hemp and its future as federal restrictions have been loosened.
“From what I’ve been hearing, it’s going to take off like wildfire,” Vogel said. “I believe it’s going to provide the niche we need for agriculture.”
Although there are some issues that still need to be hashed over with federal officials, Redding said he is optimistic industrial hemp will have a meaningful impact on Pennsylvania agriculture. When asked by Vogel, Redding said there will not be a cap on the amount of available acreage.
“We are hopeful – very hopeful – that we’ll have a good year,” Redding said. “We’re excited about the opportunities that industrial hemp will offer.”
The issue of Pennsylvania’s ongoing war against opioid abuse and addiction – a seemingly unorthodox topic in an agriculture-themed hearing – also was discussed.
Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport, said he was concerned about reports of pet and livestock owners using drugs that have been prescribed to their animals since prescriptions closely mirror those given to humans.
“We’ve actually heard reports of people injuring animals in order to take them to a vet and qualify to get whatever drug it is,” Yaw said.
Because opioids and other highly addictive drugs are typically outside the purview of the Department of Agriculture, Yaw said, “It raises some interesting questions about intergovernmental relations.”
In response, Redding said his office has been, and remains committed to, working with other state agencies to combat drug abuse.
“Whatever we can do,” Redding said. “It is concerning to all.”
The future of the commonwealth’s Farm Show Complex and Expo Center in Harrisburg also was raised during the nearly 2-hour hearing March 6.
Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lititz, asked Redding about the long-term financial viability of the venue amid reports of budgetary shortfalls and constraints.
Referring to the question raised, Redding said, “It’s one we spend a lot of time thinking about. The short answer is, ‘We’re OK for this year.’”
Beginning in 2021, Redding said projections reveal the complex will be in the red financially if changes are not made to the income and expense side of the ledger.
“We have looked at a number of alternatives, in terms of financing and revenue,” Redding said, pointing out raising rental rates and removing a discount for agriculture groups are two options that could be explored.