The agricultural industry has witnessed advances in technology in the past ten years. Some of this technology has resulted in new cultivars and hybrids that have greatly increased the per acre yields, while offering greater resistance to the effects of drought, disease or insect infestation. With animal husbandry, technology has improved breeds, yielding greater milk and meat production, while controlled breeding has resulted in improved equine stock. Mushroom producers have developed new specialty varieties, some of which command premium prices.

Much of the farming in Chester County is likely to be conducted using computers, global positioning satellites, and specialized equipment and production machinery. Some segments of Chester County agriculture have remained financially profitable because of the use of new technology to increase production and to enhance crop yields. This part of farming is capital intensive and requires high monetary investments in capital facilities and equipment, in new technology and in training of labor. In contrast, other parts of Chester County agriculture have survived by becoming even more low-tech, eschewing large equipment and mechanized production, by using draft animals and large amounts of family labor.

Chester County agriculture is diverse.

This diversity, however, has led to the fragmentation of farmers into specialized interest groups. Dairy farmers have different needs and issues than do mushroom growers or race horse breeders, which reduces the ability of the agricultural community as a whole to influence public policy or promote agricultural security. Some types of agriculture, such as the mushroom industry, are dependent upon migrant workers, which creates dependence of the industry on fair federal immigration and labor laws. The Latino population of southern Chester County is largely composed of Mexican immigrants, unlike surrounding counties where the Latino population is dominated by individuals of Puerto-Rican or Central American descent. This enclave of Mexican workers and their families has special needs for education and skill development, affordable family housing opportunities, health care, and community services. It has also contributed to the emergence of a Mexican-American business community with enterprises that are focused on the needs of the minority community.

Chester County farmers have an advantage in the proximity of markets.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the average vegetable travels nearly 1,500 miles from the farm to the grocery store shelves. Chester County's proximity to the markets of the eastern seaboard megalopolis means that the county's farm products can be transported to markets serving two-thirds of the population of the United States overnight. This creates a tremendous competitive advantage, especially for highly perishable foods such as milk or meat products, over other farming regions of the United States. This competitive advantage, however, is being damaged by rises in traffic volumes and congestion on the highways in the county that add additional transportation costs in a market that is now more time sensitive. Opposition by residents to transportation improvements that serve the farming community and food processors may add to the competitive disadvantage of farming in the high-land cost areas of Chester County.

The rise of the equine industry, which is part agriculture, part recreation, part retail (equipment and feed) is having a profound effect on agricultural and land supply in Chester County.

Overall, the direct and secondary contributions of the state's equine industry are estimated at more than $1.12 billion in output, of which nearly $615 million is value-added. This translates into 20,300 jobs that compensate state workers with $412.2 million. A survey conducted by Penn State University in 2003 indicated that this portion of the industry generated $197.4 million in output and $100.6 million in value added. This activity directly supported 4,740 jobs. Accounting for multiplier effects, the Pennsylvania racing industry supported an additional $147.1 million in output, of which $87 million was value added, and 1,690 additional jobs.

Top Five Counties by Total Equine Population

Rank County Number of Horses
1 Lancaster 20,396
1 Lancaster 20,396
2 Chester 15,504
3 York 12,089
4 Washington 8,572
5 Berks 6,241

Source: Department of Dairy and Animal Science, College of Agricultural Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University, "Pennsylvania's Equine Industry Inventory, Basic Economic and Demographic Characteristics", May 2003

The equine industry in Chester County competes with traditional agriculture for available farmland. Much of this land, however, has been previously subdivided and may be too small for conventional farm use or located in areas of the county where property values have risen to the point where only estates can support large acreages. This is consistent with statistics that demonstrate that over half (56 percent) of Pennsylvania's equine population is housed on properties under 20 acres in size. Only 25 percent of the horse populations in Pennsylvania are located on tracts of land consisting of more than 50 acres. Horse related tracts of land range from a few acre farmette to thousand acre estates. The total amount of farmland in Chester County used for equine related purposes is estimated by Penn State University to total 48,080 acres.
Good soil, abundant rainfall, and close proximity to major cities and seaports along the east coast make Chester County well suited for agriculture over the long term. Pennsylvania has the advantage of being close to major population centers; Chester County in particular. As a result, dairy producers typically gain $2.00-2.50 per Cwt on a positive basis over the Chicago Board of Trade (CBT) since much of the milk goes into the local fresh market. Milk demand has been extremely steady over the years, although producers have had to increase scale of operation to remain competitive; 100-120 cow herds for non-Plain/Amish producers and rather less for Plain/Amish farmers with lower living costs.

Many new residents have a positive but unrealistic expectation of rural life and do not understand the high-tech nature of farming, nor the tradeoffs essential to rural life.

Outside of very basic considerations, the impacts of more intense uses of adjacent property is not considered for agriculture as it is between other land use types such as residential and commercial, for example. This leads to problems as the land is developed and may often influence the sale of remaining agricultural property adjoining improperly buffered and more highly developed land. The influence of simple county based suggestions and recommendations regarding the preservation of agricultural rights and perhaps the unwanted impacts of inappropriately buffered agriculture on more intense land uses should not be underestimated.

The success of agriculture as a viable industry is dependent on issues not typically seen as rural, such as fuel costs, highways for truck access, affordable housing, and federal immigration policy.

As the size and traditional nature of county farms continues to change, it becomes more and more apparent that the remaining agricultural interests often cannot afford the proper seeding equipment for smaller fields, and few remaining private planting concerns (that were once available to assist) find it less and less profitable to consider work on small fields. For example, properly preparing a field and seeding alfalfa may only be required every four (or more) years. In addition, the long periods where specialized equipment will not be used, the same equipment is needed for a five or ten acre alfalfa field as is required for perhaps a 50or 100 acre planting. Many small Chester County farms are left unable to afford the equipment due to low profit margins and taxes and cannot find any private source willing to do the work and transport equipment for their smaller holdings. This usually takes such areas out of production and makes sale of the real estate for other uses all the more probable. Corn production has been an important element in Chester County farming but acreage has been declining recently.

Corn for Grain 1997 2002 Percent Change
Number of Farms 588 368 -37.4
Number of Acres 38,692 24,591 -36.4

Source: United States Department of Agriculture and National Agricultural Statistics Service, "Census of Agriculture", 1997 and 2002

Sweet corn is a $44.2 million industry in Pennsylvania. The state ranks 7th nationally in fresh market sweet corn production.

There are over 300 dairies still in Chester County and much, if not most, of the forage is grown by the producers who are unlikely to have sufficient extra land to grow more corn for ethanol production in addition to satisfying their own needs. Many of the 300+ dairy farmers in Chester County grow their own forage, corn, and silage, but still need additional supplies, particularly as herd size increases. Economically priced adjacent land is generally not available for expansion, except on a rental basis. To be successful and adequately profitable businesses, Pennsylvania dairy farms need to achieve high levels of performance in several aspects of their dairy enterprise. Profitability levels of 8 percent - 10 percent return on assets will only come through high levels of production per cow, high quality forages, keen management of inputs and their costs, and good management of capital. Milk produced in the Commonwealth generates $1.5 billion in income. The state's annual milk production equates to 201,240 tanker loads. Place these end-to-end and they would stretch from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Pennsylvania's dairy industry is the fourth largest in the country.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the annual economic impact of one cow on a local economy is $13,737. The impact of five 100-cow dairies is $1.6 million in total spending, of which it is estimated that 85 percent is spent locally. A multiplier effect of 2.5 yields $3.4 million per year in local impact. Over 10 years the impact of five dairies is $34 million. Other forms of animal husbandry in Chester County include hog, poultry, and other livestock production. This segment of the agricultural industry in Chester County had a total value of $62 million in 2002.

The 65 mushroom producers in Chester County grow 42.6 percent of all mushrooms produced in the United States.

This crop had a value of $266 million in 2006. While mushroom houses are the most visible evidence of the industry on the landscape, mushroom growers are dependent upon hay and straw production from more than 325,000 acres of Chester County farmland for the making of compost. The industry also consumes tons of animal waste, which reduces waste disposal costs for other forms of agricultural, including the equine industry and animal husbandry. Technology is also changing this segment of the agricultural industry with new systems to control odors and improve production facilities.

Few farmers make a living by farming alone.

Many, if not most, have a secondary business, often on the farm, and rely on a spouse with a non-farm job for benefits. In the Old Order community, large family sizes have forced the development of cottage industries and farm-related businesses, most of which are located on the farm or on separate parcels in the agricultural area. In many cases the success of these secondary businesses and cottage industries are critical to providing a cash income to the family and to creating capital for the purchase of additional farms. On the other hand, the continued growth of Old Order family sizes necessitates using more farmland to support more secondary businesses and cottage industries.

The costs of starting a new farm have made it extremely difficult for young people to get into farming.

Most young farmers have inherited their land, machinery, and buildings. Yet, 30 percent of new farm owners in Pennsylvania have not been raised in a farming family and must capitalize their farms with new investment. The price of agricultural land, the cost of equipment, and the availability of capital at reasonable rates are all factors that affect the viability of farming as a vocation in Chester County. If the price of farmland becomes too high relative to the value of crops that can be produced, an insufficient return on investment will force discontinuation of the traditional family farm.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms near residential areas are viable because there is a growing demand for locally grown crops.

Because Chester County forms a portion of the western metropolitan area of Philadelphia, farms on the edge of the metro area have a growing potential market. While community supported agriculture cannot fully meet the total demand of the surrounding population in place of supermarket chains importing products, new marketing opportunities are increasing. This is reflected in changes in the use of farmland. In 1997, there were 90 fruit farms in Chester County, encompassing 593 acres. According to the 2002 Census of Agriculture, this increased to 109 farms on 663 acres. Vegetable farming, which directly serves "buy fresh" markets, increased from 87 farms, totaling 664 acres, to 98 farms with 762 acres planted in vegetables. Local growers participate in an increasing number of "farmer's markets," many of which are located in boroughs or urban centers. Unfortunately, the growth of community supported agriculture may be limited because of the high cost of labor and USDA restrictions on the sale of meat or dairy products at home stores or farm markets.

The price of corn is now being significantly affected by ethanol production, and the use of bio-fuels is expected to have an increasing impact on the value of field crops.

This situation may help farmers selling corn and hurt farmers needing corn for feed. Corn prices have increased recently to $4.25/bushel and 2008 futures are in the $3-4/bushel range. The increased market prices for both corn and soybeans may raise prices generally as "a rising tide raises all boats" and even farm rents are increasing to reflect the expected higher revenue. Feed prices have increased, thereby forcing livestock producers heavily dependent on cheap corn to review feeding ratios. Since many foods contain starch and other components from corn, food prices are already considered to have risen slightly to reflect increased corn prices. The U.S. is the major global supplier of corn, so much so that CBT determines the worldwide price. Recently demand has exceeded actual production so that the increased demand for corn, now between 15-20 percent of total U.S. supply, has had the effect of raising the price of corn since the food, industrial, high-fructose corn syrup, and the livestock industries do not have alternate supplies. In the last three of the past four years, global demand for grains has exceeded supply.

The influence of the agricultural industry in local government is diminishing.

Farmers have decreasing representation by elected officials at the local level and have become less involved with unifying organizations, such as the Grange, which could promote farm issues. Coupled with this increasing isolation of the industry is the growth of suburban resident populations in formerly rural areas of the county. The needs of farmers and the needs of suburban residents are not always complementary. Commercial agriculture often involves dust, noise, odors, flies and other insects, chemical sprays, and other factors, which interfere with the peaceful enjoyment of adjacent suburban properties. Likewise, suburbanites often toss rubbish or grass clipping onto fields, allow landscape trees to shade adjacent cropland, permit children to ride ATV's and motorized cycles across fields, and object to late-night harvesting with machinery, operation of poultry or hog barns, and transportation of farm equipment over local roads. Because the suburban population of an area resulting from the conversion of former farmland to housing development often exceeds the farm population, more and more elected positions are held by individuals without a farm background and whose interests are in protecting residential property values, not normal agricultural practices. Increasingly, local ordinances restrict certain types of agricultural impacts on suburban communities. These restrictions may, for instance, restrict hunting, which may contribute to increases in the deer population and corresponding crop damage. Restrictions may also have the direct effect of limiting agricultural practices and limiting the opportunities of farmers to adapt to new markets.

The adoption and enforcement by some municipalities in Pennsylvania of ordinances that directly interfered with farming have resulted in a series of laws that curb township government authority.

Act 38 of 2005, for instance, is the result of the Agriculture, Communities, and Rural Environment (ACRE) program unveiled by Governor Rendell at the 2004 Ag Progress Days. Under Act 38 local government cannot adopt or enforce an ordinance limiting normal agricultural operations if it is not authorized to do so, or if it is prohibited or preempted from doing so under state law. The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code gives local government authority to pass zoning ordinances, but prevents local government from regulating commercial agricultural activities if the zoning restrictions exceed the requirements imposed on producers under the Nutrient Management Act, the Agricultural Area Security law, or the Right to Farm law. Township ordinances may also be preempted by other federal or state laws. Zoning ordinances may not restrict agricultural operations or changes to or expansions of agricultural operations in local areas where agriculture has traditionally been present unless the agricultural operation adversely affects public health and safety.

Act 38 also limits some form of agriculture as a trade-off for limiting municipal authority. For instance, state law provides that no concentrated animal operation or other agricultural operation receiving manure from such an operation may mechanically land apply manure within 100 feet of a stream, lake, or pond, unless the waterway is buffered by vegetation for a width of no less than 35 feet. Concentrated animal operations must also prepare odor management plans, which must be approved prior to building new or expanded animal housing facilities or expanded manure storage facilities.