Agriculture and natural resources are vital economic sectors in Berks and Schuylkill counties. In Berks County, the total economic output of agriculture, food, wood and farm supply businesses was more than $1.2 billion in 2002. Schuylkill County’s more modest sector still totaled $444 million.
While the region’s agriculture remains profitable, farming increasingly faces challenges that threaten its future. Urban development pressure, stagnant commodity prices, rising input and labor costs, and onerous regulations may jeopardize the future viability of agriculture here unless actions are taken soon to ensure a sustainable future.
The Berks County Community Foundation (BCCF) received a grant from the William Penn Foundation to analyze the agricultural industry in Berks and Schuylkill counties and to determine what actions could be taken to sustain the industry over the next 25 years. In March 2005, BCCF contracted with American Farmland Trust (AFT) to conduct the study.
AFT conducted an eight-month assessment of agriculture in Berks and Schuylkill counties. This included quantitative and qualitative research and engaging farmers and local leaders in discussion to help identify the critical challenges facing agriculture and develop recommendations to address them. BCCF appointed an advisory committee, and AFT held a series of focus groups to ensure adequate public input and comment.
Based on this process, AFT identified three overarching challenges: declining farm profitability, competition for land, and lack of public appreciation and leadership for agriculture. To address these formidable challenges, AFT developed a comprehensive set of recommendations to sustain a viable agricultural industry in Berks and Schuylkill counties for the next generation. These recommendations are based on the local wisdom and good ideas of the many people who participated in the process, as well as the experience of other communities that have faced similar challenges. They form a blueprint of how farmers and agricultural stakeholders in both counties can work together, learn from their neighbors and reach out to the public. The recommendations include both short- and long-term actions that, if implemented, could have a significant and positive impact on the future of agriculture in Berks and Schuylkill counties.