Ag Sec Redding looks back on eight years of progress and challenges as Wolf admin winds down
Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding has served the commonwealth under the Wolf administration for the last eight years.
In that time, Redding, of Adams County, led efforts to create the first-ever state Farm Bill, bolster Pennsylvania’s agricultural workforce, support the mental health of farmers and agricultural producers, incorporate sustainable practices at farms across the commonwealth, make Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement self-sustaining, and to address food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Capital-Star chatted with Redding about his tenure as secretary, the administration’s agricultural accomplishments and challenges, and what’s ahead for agriculture in the new year under a new administration.
(Editor’s note: This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity).
Capital-Star: As we wind down the year, I wanted to talk about the administration, the accomplishments and how you’re feeling about everything that the department [of agriculture] has accomplished, not just this year, but in general.
Russell Redding: Yeah, you know, I came back, I was away for a couple of years. And I say all the time, it was probably the best gift that I could receive. And that was to simply step away and go to a campus with students who saw the world maybe a little different than I did. But they also helped me see new dimensions of agriculture, right, and I carried that back. And when I came back, it was really pretty clear in my mind that there were certain things that I personally wanted to do. They happened to be things the governor wanted to do, as well. And they were focused on some economic development and workforce. And so, that became sort of the platform.
(Editor’s Note: Redding is the former dean of the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Delaware Valley College).
I’m really grateful that we were able to do an economic impact study, and that led us to a farm bill, and that is the gift that keeps on giving, and it really is amazing. So, yeah, it’s been a really wonderful journey. And while it’s been eight years, it seems like 15 [years]. It just feels like it’s hard to believe in some respects that we’re here. Right? On the other side, it feels like it’s been a long run, I mean, just keeping everything together and all that we’ve dealt with from COVID to high path AI.
C-S: You brought up the pandemic and I wanted to talk about that because it changed a lot – even outside of agriculture – so I’m curious how did COVID impact your goals and what the department was initially prioritizing?
Redding: Yeah, I’ll say, I’m so grateful that the Farm Bill — discussion, consideration, passage — of that entire package happened in 2019.
(Editor’s Note: The Pennsylvania Farm Bill is a first-of-its kind legislative package to support farmers and agricultural producers across the commonwealth. It was first passed in 2019 and has been funded four times.
Right, because it gave us resources, number one, to do some things that it became really important during COVID, around food security, around, you know, some of the Conservation Stewardship work that we needed to do to help on the education side and the animal agriculture aspect. So, there were so many elements inside the farm bill that were, you know, hot topics at moments during COVID and during the pandemic, and we were able to address them. And there are many examples there. I’m just grateful that [it] happened, when it happened. And that the pandemic, if it had to happen, it happened a couple of years into that whole effort. So, that was really important.
I think your point, though, is what changed. And I have to tell you that from a personal standpoint, just the way we were asked to manage and to do remote work on a moment’s notice. And I’m just so thankful that we had the IT capacity to do that.
We had 4G computers that were deployed as part of the technology enhancements and upgrade that happened and started in 2017. But we saw the benefits of that in 2020 and beyond. But we were just asked to do things that, you know, are just really challenging to do when you’re asked to look at livestock, and to look at restaurants and to look at, you know, meters on all kinds of things. So that became a task. But the real challenge for us was on the food security side.
C-S: Your administration, well the Wolf administration, and your tenure as Ag Secretary, has placed a good bit of focus on sustainable farming and best practices with land usage and things like that. Do you expect that that’s going to continue with the new administration?
Redding: I do and probably amplified. In that I think we have, it’s taken some years to, I think, develop the right policy pieces to get the Farm Bill pieces sort of formed in the right way to finally get, you know, a significant, sustained at least near-term sustained investment in conservation for the [Chesapeake] Bay, you know, that we talked about for eight years, and finally happened this past July, where everyone understood this 2025 clock is ticking with the bay and what we are obligated to.
(Editor’s Note: Redding is referring to the deadline for Pennsylvania to the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint).
So, I think that is just one piece and on top of that you get, you know, the climate components and a significant presence in Pennsylvania, generally. Pennsylvania AG, specifically has inside the climate commodity proposals that the USDA unveiled the work that we’re doing in the forest area relative to that, so, yeah, I do, I think it’s only going to grow.
And I hope, I hope it continues to grow, because I think there’s really a lot of opportunity there.
And [the] final point, I would say is in the sustainability field, in the conservation areas;, one thing that’s really resonated with me, is that when we speak of climate, to me, it’s really a discussion about water.
And when you hear the news, read reports and talking about California or someplace around the globe, there’s usually a water element to it, right? So, I think as we think about the next, you know, the next administration work framing a lot of what we do relative to “the climate and sustainability” as a “water quality or water access” discussion in so many ways, because it helps also change the narrative about the Chesapeake Bay.
C-S: I’m curious, if, in your tenure, there any moments that stand out to you or any specific accomplishments? I feel like you’re going to say the Farm Bill, but if there’s anything else that stands out as your proudest moments, or the moments that kind of sit with you.
Redding: Yeah, yeah, I think there were several that standout. There are several that are tangible. And there’s probably one that I’m most proud of is intangible.
Right, and I’ll start with the one intangible, and that is in returning [to state government] … it’s not a criticism of previous administrations, but it just felt like, you know, the department had lost its relevance. Right, that it wasn’t respected, it wasn’t resourced.
So, now the eight years in, and to have a department where it’s incredibly well-resourced. You know, our general government budget has grown 40 percent in eight years. That’s the budget that just allows us to function.
And then to have the total budget increase 66 percent from where we were in 2015-16. It has resources, right. It can now do things that people are asking us to do in urban agriculture, in sustainability, in workforce [development].
So, having it resourced, having it respected, and having it relevant, again, to me, is like the most important accomplishment. I want the farm and the AG community to be respected for all of the contributions that it makes to the daily work and improvement of our lives. That is most important. And then you can have an intelligent conversation about “what do you want to do with the food system?” But first you have to respect it.
Two is the moment this past spring with a high path avian influenza.
(Editor’s note: On Saturday, April 16, 2022, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture confirmed the state’s first positive case of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in domestic poultry, in a flock of commercial layer chickens on a Lancaster County poultry farm).
So it’d been 38 years I think, since Pennsylvania, had an outbreak of high path AI. We had touches that were involved in the outbreak of 2015. But it’s different when it’s in your poultry houses and on your soil.
And so standing there and just being able to reflect on what has changed in our own capacity to manage dangerous transmissible diseases like high path.
You have an animal health diagnostic commission, you’ve got a laboratory system that’s linked to real-time between your vet school, your land grant [universities], and your regulatory agency to be able to have the testing that was developed by the scientists on your payroll that says were here as part of our institutions helping us. It’s just a really proud moment because that’s what people want us to do, right?
We’ve learned from COVID that we’ve got to move quickly, and contain and suppress the virus to have any hope of having this be a shorter experience.
I’m proud of that, because the command of what we did – the systems were revealed. And then to follow that we’re the only state of 43 states with high path AI, that went as far to have a recovery fund to bring these businesses back into business.
And I’m proud of that. And I think that was a reflection of both the residual of what people saw during COVID. In the needs and the capacity and the importance of that. But it was also recognition that this is a business. It is a business without walls, but every bit of business. And helping them get back in was both important from a business standpoint, but also a food security standpoint.
And then third, I would just say that yes, the farm bill. I will always talk about farm bill.
I think there was one moment when, you know, as the farm show last year when the pressures were such that people did not want us to do a farm. And we said, “Wait a minute, I think we’ve learned, a great deal. We can message this right. We can manage it tightly.”
And I hold that as a proud moment because both of the public listened. And we delivered. And I think that was everything that we had asked. For people who were assessing the risk, probably not the place to be. I’ve never in my career said: “Stay away from Farm Show.” So I think the messaging in that, the learning from this, the protection of public health and safety at the same time, finding the equilibrium between that, and the importance of bringing people together is a proud moment.
C-S: So what’s been the most trying part of being secretary?
Redding: Wow. I think there were several. I’ll just say, remember, when the [Gov. Tom Wolf] arrived, I may be off by a couple of minutes here, but there was enough money in the checking account to basically operate for 20 minutes. And I’m serious, it was like, maybe 25, may have been 30 minutes to fund this commonwealth. So we had no money. We had no money.
So trying times, well, all of a sudden, you’re into your first budget. It’s a protracted, torturous process, because you’re proportioning scarcity. There was nothing there, right? Nobody wants to talk about raising taxes. Nobody wants to cut anything. But everybody acknowledged that every fund that was available to the governor and the government, didn’t have anything there.
So trying, because it immediately got us into things like we can’t fund Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. We can’t fund our own veterinary medical school. Well, if you’re touching agriculture, man, you don’t touch the most important stakeholders elements, its education, its public health and safety. So, that was incredibly trying too because it wasn’t that the governor didn’t believe in the land grant for the vet school. He had no money. Yeah, that was trying. And on top of that, my wife, at the time, worked for Penn State Extension. So all day I would be peppered by “what in the world that you’re doing?” And then if I go home and sleep with it, right? You just couldn’t get away from it.
So we were talking about this last night with some of the folks who we were gathered with for the holidays. I put that in just you know, where you started and everyone has since forgotten about that because of COVID.
And we’re now at a point where you’ve got some billions of dollars in a rainy day fund. It is unrecognizable from where it was to where it is, but the trying time for me, that was one.
And then I have to say during COVID, that discussion of the everyday worries of the food system and making sure that we were resourcing appropriately for the tradable food system, folks who were never ever in a line for food, had access to larger systems worked. But inside of that, you’ll recall, call this conversation that was taking place about the constitutional authority of the governor to declare and extend declarations of disasters, right?
Well, we got caught in that. You can’t just turn these on and off in 30 days. Yeah, so the really important thing, to me, was to make sure that at all costs, we were protecting the authority vested in the Department of Agriculture to the domestic animal health law. That we could respond as needed to declarations of disaster.
And we took a whole lot of heat over that, because folks felt like I was being political. I was not. I was trying to protect a system that vests a certain authority in us and, by the way, expected certain deliverables, that we do everything in our power to contain and suppress diseases, whatever they may be.
But that was a very uncomfortable spot. It revealed the reach of the authority of a governor, but also revealed the reach of the department. And we’re vested with authorities that were granted to us by a legislature. We were exercising those. So, that was an uncomfortable time.
So, there have been times like that are really challenging. So, it makes the look back in the last eight years and the accomplishments for things we’ve talked about here even sweeter. It’s been a long journey. But having the governor’s support, having it and doing, with the exception of our last one around like the authorities of the government, doing everything in a bipartisan way. It’s really been very gratifying. And I think we’ve been the beneficiaries of that, by way of resources, by way of relationships. Yeah, so I think we put it in a really good place.
C-S: Is there anything, looking back, that you would choose to do differently?
Redding: I think just on the workforce to say that it’s not unlike where we were, in past years, with economic development, it’s taken so much time to try to get the system to accommodate the needs of the AG and food system, the workforce system, right? What would I do differently? I’d be less patient about that. A lot less patient. Because, again, COVID revealed it and pushed it into our face. You know, it would have been nice to have that sort of started back in ‘16,’17,’18.
That, looking back, yeah, I would have taken the workforce thing to a whole new level a lot faster. But we tried to work within the system and COVID occurred. So it’s not to overshadow other things. But I just think that the piece that now looms so large, in a better place, but if we started then, and more, I think, aggressive personally, we could have changed it.
That’s probably one. I think the issue around the environment, and particularly when we look at the Chesapeake Bay, trying to find more resources earlier, would have been helpful. It’s good that we had the conservation excellence grant program in the farm bill that set the stage for the what the House and Senate, and the governor did this past July, but there’s only so many seasons to get things on the ground in agriculture. In my lifetime, I’ve got 40 seasons to get it right. So, here’s the farm side trying to figure out how to, like, get practices on the ground. You know, we’ve gone through eight years. And that’s the pressure that we feel with what’s happening with the 2025 deadline.
So, that would be another area. We’ve made a lot of good progress, but they’re just two that stand out that take a lot of time, a lot of intellectual capacity and they’ve taken a lot of resources to get people to think and act that would have been on the shortlist. And quite frankly, I think we would have been there without COVID. It was almost there. Two years of mysteries. Yeah, they were there every day, but you couldn’t get to these other significant systemic issues.
C-S: Lastly, I wanted to ask: How is the transition going? Have you heard from the transition team? What’s that process been like?
Redding: Yeah. So you’ve seen that the governor-elect’s transition team. He’s got a personnel team, he has some transition advisory committees, there are two, particularly with AG and one is AG and rural. The other is energy and the environment. We’re engaged with them with that briefing set for next week. To talk about a range of issues, I think things like we talked about today will be central to that. So that’s all scheduled. And we’ve also, as the governor plans early for sort of all of the cabinet, executive agencies to do a briefing on their agency. That’s all submitted to the governor. And now it’s been been transmitted to the the governor elect.
So yeah, I think that’s working well. We do a leadership meeting with Penn State’s dean and his team, and they were talking about where they’re engaged, and things that the university is engaged with on workforce and education – higher ed. So I think that yeah, I think that’s all in a good place.