There is a great deal of attention and discussion on the debate in Washington about the Biden Administration’s pandemic and economic recovery plans, and infrastructure has been at the center of the conversation. As we have learned, infrastructure is being defined by the Biden administration in very broad terms, starting with the traditional transportation-oriented view of roads, bridges, rails and trails ($621 billion), but also including broadband internet connection ($100 billion for the infrastructure of information technology, business and education), water, stormwater and wastewater facilities ($111 billion) to reduce the threats from severe weather-induced flooding, water pollution and land-use patterns; workforce development ($100 billion) to provide young and underemployed people with the skills needed to compete in a more technology oriented economy, and $300 billion to invest in upgrading manufacturing technology and processes to improve global competitiveness.
So why does this matter for PA Agriculture? AS ESI learned while completing its recent report on the economic state of Agriculture in PA, PA Agriculture will only benefit from expanded investment in a broad range of infrastructure affecting transportation, telecommunications, water, climate issues, technology and workforce training.
Here’s what we know:
Roads and Bridges matter to PA Agriculture
In 2019, Pennsylvania’s $81.5 billion agriculture sector supported 301,900 direct jobs and $14.5 billion in labor income. That means that in PA, agriculture jobs represent approximately 5.8 percent of all private sector employment in Pennsylvania. These jobs also support additional jobs in other industries through their indirect and induced impacts. The indirect impacts of agriculture from spending with companies outside the agriculture sector in Pennsylvania fall into a wide range of industries, with the largest impacts (in terms of jobs) in wholesale trade and transportation & warehousing. In fact, 1 in 10 wholesale trade jobs in PA are supported by PA’s agriculture industry.
What makes all of this work is Pennsylvania’s network of highways, roads and bridges that are the pathways from farm to table for the agricultural goods produced in PA. Every time a bridge is closed or highway speeds reduced on a road in need of repair, that delays and impedes the ability to get PA’s agricultural products to the market or processing facility.
Internet Connections matter to PA Agriculture
While internet access for PA farmers has grown, 31 percent of farms still did not have internet access as of 2017, down from 38 percent in 2012. With 25 percent of farms nationally lacking internet service, Pennsylvania lags compared to other states. The need for fast, reliable internet access for all communities has been accelerated by the COVID-19 disruption. Pennsylvania must prioritize expanded broadband access for all communities and explore the training and incentives necessary to support the competitiveness of the state’s small farmers and producers.
Climate Change and Water Matters to PA Agriculture
Heat and extreme weather patterns due to climate change are disrupting PA farms and adding costs due to new environmental regulations designed to reduce the threats to our economy. At the same time, we need to protect and improve water access, availability and quality. In Pennsylvania, we often take water for granted. But with pressure from suburban sprawl and climate change, we could use the federal help to focus and invest in farmers and producers to access clean and safe water, as well as to manage stormwater safely.
Infrastructure can also mean training new agricultural industry workers
In our research, we learned that the biggest long-term threat to Pennsylvania agriculture is the ability to attract and retain high-quality workers. A sustainable workforce requires a focus on addressing the need for advanced technological skills due to adoption and increased use of automation and technology. New certificate and training programs, delivered both on site and through high schools, tech centers and community colleges will improve the competitiveness of PA agriculture.
Technology matters to PA Agriculture
As technology becomes more important in agricultural production, processing and distribution, it is important to finance and support investments in new technology, as well as in needed cold chain distribution centers. In addition, continued investment in non-agricultural infrastructure, including roads, bridges, water systems and stormwater management, will support the success of the sector.
The bottom line – the definition of infrastructure has broadened to include physical, technological and human investments, all of them crucial to the future competitiveness of Pennsylvania and its most important industries. If we care about PA’s farms and rural economy, we need to invest in the infrastructure that makes it all work.
Steve Wray is a Senior Vice President and Principal at Econsult Solutions, Inc. (ESI). In this role, Steve focuses on the development and implementation of programs and projects that support ESI’s vision and short- and long-term plans. He leads the work of the firm’s principals and senior staff in developing new partnerships, expanding and building on existing practice areas, and integrating the firm’s strengths in economic analysis and thought leadership.