Developing A Plan For Chester County’s Agriculture Future | Main Edition

Farming in Chester County is different from farming in other parts of Pennsylvania. Costs are higher and land is more difficult to find.

The Chester County Ag Council wants to tackle these issues. That meant first saying the problems out loud. Not just to other farmers. To everyone.

“We know there’s less land and more ag operators competing for that acreage,” said Gary Westlake, the council’s board chair. “We know that there’s not a strong infrastructure here. Most operators have to travel an hour or more to get their inputs, their parts, their specialists that come to the farm.”

Understanding the obstacles was the first step. The second was devising solutions. The Ag Council believes it has started down that path with an economic strategic development plan that was passed at the Chester County Board of Commissioners meeting on March 22.

The plan is the first of its kind in the county. It focuses on labor shortages, land access, development pressure and environmental fluctuations. The Ag Council wants existing farmers to have a better chance to succeed and new farmers to enter the marketplace.

“It’s the first time the county has done something like this,” said Ag Council Director Hillary Krummrich. “I definitely think the plan itself provides a basis for helping people who don’t know the industry very well to get their arms around it. Have a better sense of what it is. If they can better understand what it is, I think they can better understand what it needs to continue to thrive.”

Some elements of the plan, such as Chester County Economic Development Council funding, will be implemented immediately. The timetable for other elements will become more clear in the coming weeks.

Chester County lies in the state’s southeast, and Philadelphia’s exurbs have been expanding into the county for years.

The county’s affluence and proximity to urban population centers separates it from many counties that depend on agriculture. The Ag Council believes that makes the industry even more vital to preserve.

Gary Westlake chairs the Chester County Agricultural Development Council. He’s a third generation Christmas tree grower and nurseryman in northern Chester County, where his family owns and operates Westlake Tree Farms. He also serves on USDA’s Christmas Tree Promotion Board.

Westlake owns a nursery business specializing in Christmas trees in Warwick and North Coventry townships. The concerns with local farming aren’t abstract to him. They’re part of his day-to-day life.

“We’ve realized for decades and generations that we’re farming in this area that really doesn’t have all the infrastructure all the other farming areas do,” Westlake said. “But it does have this fabulously robust market and it’s close by to all the major metropolitan areas up and down the Eastern Seaboard. That’s what makes it so unique.”

The Ag Council wants to increase access to markets, build a culture of innovation, educate consumers and public officials, improve workforce opportunities, maintain and expand available land and address municipal regulations.

An important part of the plan is bringing education and resources to municipal officials. Krummrich said farmers often don’t serve on those boards, so the boards don’t necessarily understand the effect of certain regulations.

Despite its challenges, Chester County generated $710 million in annual agricultural sales during the last Ag Census — good for second in Pennsylvania and 53rd nationally.

The county is a hub of US mushroom production and has strong dairy and equine sectors.

“Preserving the industry is absolutely a top priority,” Krummrich said. “We’re trying to do that as we continue to experience more development pressure. We’re a high-ag-producing county but we also have a lot of growth pressure. How do you balance that? Producers are doing that individually every single day. As service providers we all wanted to make sure we’re really understanding how we can best support them.”

Krummrich said one of the Ag Council’s goals was to help people understand that the traditional model of a large, 100-acre property isn’t required to prosper. Farmers can thrive on smaller plots of land. There are opportunities for expansion through that mindset.

Some examples of farms with a reduced footprint include wineries that grow their own grapes, small produce farms and even indoor ag.

Cost of competition and municipal regulation are the two biggest issues farmers mention during focus groups. Krummrich said success will be measured by the plan’s ability to implement programs the industry wants and having farmers benefit from changes such as more ag friendly zoning.

Westlake said the top priority should be keeping farmers in Chester County by providing infrastructure to make farms profitable and more likely to achieve generational success.

Without those improvements, more farms could become housing developments or shopping centers. That’s what this plan is trying to avoid.

“Everybody knew agriculture was part of Chester County, but there was never a road map to its future,” Westlake said. “This is the road map to our future.”


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