HARRISBURG, Pa. -- At Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell's direction, the Department of Agriculture convened the first meeting of the Pennsylvania Fruit Task Force yesterday. The group is modeled after the successful Dairy Task Force the Governor created two years ago.

Rendell commissioned the task force to provide policy input to state officials on matters relating to this leading agricultural sector.

"Agriculture is critical to Pennsylvania's economy and we are working to support this more than $45 billion industry," the governor said.

Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff chaired Thursday's meeting, and said in order for the department to make informed decisions on the fruit production and processing industry, it must have thorough and timely information from those in the field.

"If we are to make good decisions, we need good information," said Wolff. "The industry partners we've assembled will be able to provide valuable information on issues facing Pennsylvania's growers and processors, so that we can begin to devise strategies that break down barriers to new markets, increase production and improve profits."

The Fruit Task Force consists of growers, processors, local and state officials, academic researchers, extension services and other interested organizations from across the state.

Before adjourning, members identified key areas demanding attention from state and federal officials, including:

  • Workforce availability. Despite improvements to technology, the challenge of retaining domestic workers and federal immigration policies hinder the productivity of fruit growers.

  • Research and Extension. More research is necessary to better understand how inclement weather and pests affect production. These efforts require additional funding and more effective means of delivering information to the producers.

  • Education. Industry leaders believe educating the public and prospective fruit growers is essential to growing this agricultural sector across the state.

  • Market Development. With growing competition from developing nations, domestic producers must dedicate greater resources to promoting local fruits and opening foreign markets to U.S. exports.

  • Management. As a whole, the industry must teach producers how to better manage their financial resources to weather downturns in the market or a poor crop yield.

  • Regulatory environment. Members of the task force intend to become more actively involved in federal and state policy-making on matters relevant to the industry.

  • The task force also decided to invite participation from other industry partners. Input will be sought from other state agencies, members of Congress and the tourism industry.

    According to Secretary Wolff, the timing of this task force coincides with issues facing elected officials and changing consumer preferences.

    "Congress has recently debated immigration concerns and, in the next year, it will begin work on the 2007 Farm Bill," said Wolff. "Additionally, as resources and efforts are coordinated more effectively, the industry will be positioned to capitalize on the growing demand for nutritious foods by an increasingly health-conscious society."

    Pennsylvania ranks among the top six states nationally in producing apples and grapes (4th), peaches and pears (5th), and strawberries (6th).

    The group is modeled after the Dairy Task Force appointed by Governor Rendell in July 2003. The Dairy Task Force serves as an integral resource to the agriculture secretary and the Center for Dairy Excellence. The original 40-member group has grown to more than 90 participants and has helped the dairy industry enjoy 14 consecutive months of production growth.

    For more information on the Fruit Task Force, contact Mike Pechart at 717-705-2122.

    SOURCE Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture via PR Newswire.