The days when dairy farms dominated Westmoreland County agriculture may be in the past.
But a greater diversity of options awaits those who raise livestock and grow crops locally — possibilities that will be explored at a Next Generation Farm Summit to be hosted by the Westmoreland Conservation District on June 29 at the Donohoe Center in Hempfield.
The free conference is scheduled for noon to 3:30 p.m. A light lunch will be provided.
District Manager Greg Phillips said the summit is a departure from the Conservation District’s traditional ag-related programs, such as farm tours, and is a conscious effort to address the needs of the youngest generation of farmers entering the industry.
“I could see in the future there might be a series of these,” Phillips said. “We wanted to make a special effort to reach the younger farmers,” a move recommended in the district’s recently completed five-year strategic plan.
The summit will look at emerging trends in agriculture. It will touch on strategies for success, including ways to diversify growing, connect farm products with local businesses and make operations more energy-efficient.
In developing the summit, Phillips said, “We convened this group of stakeholders, and it was pretty apparent they didn’t want to hear about our traditional funding sources and cost-share programs, so we went outside the box to try to draw in other agencies and groups and potential sources of income.”
One such source sparking interest among Pennsylvania growers is industrial hemp , a versatile plant that is the same species as marijuana but has a low concentration of the latter’s psychoactive chemical. Pittsburgh-based Commonwealth Alternative Medicinal Options, which recently leased a plot to grow the crop at a South Huntingdon industrial park, will be represented at the farm summit.
“There’s income to be had from industrial hemp,” Phillips said. In addition to textiles, kitty litter or a vitamin ingredient, “It can be made into a plastic type of product and resins,” he said.
Year-round growing of produce indoors is another non-traditional avenue that will be touched on at the summit. “In winter, it’s harder to get some of these fresher items,” Phillips said. “I think there is a market for them.”
Summit presenters include area farmers who have built a niche market for their products — Jessica Hoover of Jessi’s Chickens near Kecksburg, New Alexandria-area organic goat and free-range chicken farmer Richard Nolt and John and Sukey Jamison of Jamison’s Lamb Farm in Unity.
In business four decades, the Jamisons use a free-range approach and natural diet to produce about 3,000 lambs annually at their 210-acre spread.
When the couple started the farm in the late 1980s, Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene wasn’t as developed as it is now, John Jamison said.
“We developed our own market. We were within a two-day shipment of Washington, Boston, Chicago and New York.”
The Jamisons established credibility with an upcoming generation of chefs. Now, John Jamison said, they’ve found a good balance between larger orders from restaurants and mail order retail sales, which come in waves in advance of holidays.
He suggests vegetable farmers can likewise find a workable mix of sales formats, perhaps including a stall at a farmers market or advance orders through a community-supported agriculture program. “You have to do what works for you,” he said.
Agricultural agencies and partners will be on hand at the summit with information about their programs, including the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s new apprenticeship program that prepares journeyman technicians to work on agricultural equipment without the need for a college education.
Other summit participants include AgChoice Farm Credit, Peoples Natural Gas, Hollymead Capital, Chatham University’s sustainable Eden Hall campus, Republic Food Enterprise Center, Penn State Extension Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Westmoreland Land Trust, Pennsylvania Veterans Farming Project/Troops to Tractors, Southwest Project Grass and National Young Farmers Coalition.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development, Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service will be represented.
Advance registration is required, ideally by Wednesday. To register, visit www.wcdpa.com or call 724-837-5271.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter @jhimler_news.