Acting Ag Sec. Redding faces questions about organics, dog law, avian flu at budget talks

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairperson Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, noted that the department’s proposed spending plan is a 2.1% increase from the current fiscal year

By: - March 28, 2023 5:19 pm

Acting Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, March 28, 2023 (Screen Capture).

Acting Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding heard questions from lawmakers on Tuesday about his agency’s $231.2 million budget request, and how it plans to address such issues as organic farming, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, and funding the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement.

Redding, who has overseen the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture for the last eight years, told lawmakers Tuesday that the agency’s budget request for the new fiscal year that starts July 1 prioritizes funding for organic farming, access to Pennsylvania produce, and combating avian flu. 

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairperson Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, noted that the department’s proposed spending plan is a 2.1% increase from the current fiscal year. 

State Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Beaver, who chairs the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, was the first to question Redding at Tuesday’s hearing. 

Vogel started the hearing by thanking Redding and the department for the soil testing it conducted on behalf of western Pennsylvania farmers and agricultural producers affected by the aftermath of the February derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying harmful chemicals. 

“We believe the foundation of a safe food system is safe air, safe water, and safe soil,” Redding said. 

Redding added that the department, along with its partners at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio State University, and Penn State University, will begin testing tissue samples from area livestock in addition to collecting and testing soil samples. 

When asked about livestock losses, Redding encouraged farmers affected by the train derailment to report their losses to Norfolk Southern.

Redding said the department has been advocating for Norfolk Southern to include agricultural losses in its compensation fund. 

 “It’s a real loss,” Redding said. “It’s a tangible loss of income and it certainly ought to be compensated for.” 

Vogel also questioned Redding about a $1 million allocation in the department’s proposed budget establishing an Organic Center of Excellence to centralize and coordinate services and support for organic agricultural producers in Pennsylvania. 

Redding told the committee that the sale of organic products in Pennsylvania totaled just more than $1 billion last year.  

“We think it’s a growth market for us,” Redding said. 

The state’s Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, which is overseen by the Department of Agriculture, was also a topic of discussion at Tuesday’s hearing. The bureau is allocated $9.3 million in the proposed spending plan. 

Redding said that funding for the bureau has been – and continues to be – an issue for the department. The bureau received a transfer from the state’s general fund the last two fiscal years in order to stay in operation. 

“We can’t keep making the case to take general fund revenue with all of the other pressing needs, and put it into dog law, which should be self-funded,” Redding said. “I’d like to get that behind us, but the only way to fix it is a fee increase.”

Redding said the bureau currently has eight vacancies for dog wardens that it cannot fill due to a lack of funding. 

A fee increase for annual dog license fees and kennel fees would get the bureau “on the road to recovery,” Redding said.

Asked by lawmakers about the avian flu and what the department is doing to combat it, Redding addressing the illness has been a “consuming task” for the department and its partners since the end of January. 

Redding said the department has recorded 27 reports of avian flu since January and 67 since last April. 

“We’re hopeful that we can keep it contained and suppressed,” Redding said, noting that early migrations are partly to blame for the spread of avian flu. 

Pennsylvania is the only state to have a $25 million fund to help farmers recover losses from the avian flu. 

Redding said that he was grateful to see efforts to combat avian flu allocated an additional $25 million in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s $44.4 billion budget proposal to help coordinate the commonwealth’s response and resources and ensure that they are deployed effectively.

The administration has said that the funding will be used to “continue improving biosecurity efforts and support Pennsylvania farmers.”

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