2/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It’s been years since the Pennsylvania Farmers Union has been a force in shaping ag policy in the state.
But the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture hopes changing that will give its members a bigger voice at the policy table.
PASA is leading an effort to relaunch the Pennsylvania Farmers Union and is offering a familiar carrot, health insurance, as a reason to join.
Hannah Smith Brubaker, the Pennsylvania Farmers Union interim director and community outreach coordinator for PASA, said the farmers union officially reformed about three months ago and currently has 565 members, most of those returning members from the previous organization.
The state farmers union has been in turmoil for several years, and its charter has since been decertified by the National Farmers Union.
There are 26 other state farmers unions and two regional unions.
Kim Miller, board president of the newly reformed Pennsylvania Farmers Union and former PASA board president, said relaunching the state farmers union will give current PASA members a chance to have a voice in shaping ag policy at the state and national level.
“It’s an opportunity for us to create the kind of voice we would like Pennsylvania Farmers Union to have,” Miller said. “We need to reinvigorate the membership, build those numbers.”
Given its own federal tax status as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, PASA is restricted in the amount of money and time it can devote to political and legislative activities, and is prohibited from campaigning for any political candidate.
But these restrictions don’t apply to the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, whose 501(c)(5) status, the same as labor unions as well as other agricultural and horticultural organizations, gives it much more leeway to use its resources for political lobbying and campaigning.
“There is a real gap for legislative representation, clearly,” Smith Brubaker said.
She said the organization’s first priority has been meeting with local insurance agents to provide health insurance coverage for its members, much as the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau does, but which PASA can’t currently do.
Providing affordable health care coverage, though, may be a bigger challenge than Smith Brubaker anticipated, since the Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law in 2010 and requires the formation of health insurance exchanges by 2014, may challenge the viability of group health insurance plans.
“What we’ve known historically is that the more people you get in a group, the better health insurance rate you can get. That’s not really the case with the new health care law,” she said. “More and more insurance agencies are saying, ‘OK, you as an individual person, what is your picture? What kind of health care do you need? What can I get to you?’ ”
Even so, Smith Brubaker said the farmers union has a list of legislative priorities it hopes to get started on soon.
“We’re focusing mostly on food safety, labeling. We have a lot of farmers that are impacted by the Marcellus Shale drilling, so they are very interested in us having a state specific policy,” she said.
Leigh Slayden, vice president of membership for the National Farmers Union, said that while state farmers unions must have at least 1,250 members to receive an official charter, it’s not a limiting factor in terms of being active with the national organization.
“They still have a voice at the table. It’s more of an internal structural recognition than anything else,” Slayden said. “It’s a question of developing a state so that more and more people are getting involved, getting engaged, and it has activity at the state level as well as representation at the national level.”
Slayden said she’s confident the state farmers union will get its charter back and has the right representation to move forward.
The partnership with PASA, she said, is a natural symbiosis since many PASA members are already active in wanting to shape state ag policy.
“It enables PASA members to have their voice heard. They’re encountering so many concerns here, whether it’s fracking, whether it’s getting the non-GMO seeds,” she said. “Those are now things they can have an active voice in their state legislature through the farmers union connection.”
Miller said the state farmers union board will be member driven and will not be paid, unlike some state chapters in the Midwest, where board members are paid.
The 12-member board will be elected geographically in six regions, with another six members elected at large. The organization’s first state convention is set for Feb. 25.
Franklin County farmer Mike Tabor said he sees a bigger benefit than just getting access to health insurance.
“I think the primary benefit has to do with legislative priorities and getting people with integrity into office,” Tabor said.
Smith Brubaker said the state chapter’s policies currently align well with the policies of the National Farmers Union, although the state chapter’s policy on water quality, she said, may be more stringent given the current situation with the Chesapeake Bay.
She said the Feb. 25 convention will be a big factor in determining the direction of the organization.
“We’re just at the beginning stages of being able to move forward on the legislative front. We’ve met three times since October. I feel very excited about even this spring,” she said. “There is so much momentum to move forward. So we’ve needed these few months to get in here and say, what’s the situation, what are the priorities?”