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Westmoreland County group will take 4-H fight to Harrisburg

| Monday, March 7, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

A busload of 56 people from Westmoreland County will travel to Harrisburg on Wednesday to rally for support of 4-H and other agricultural programs whose funding is being threatened by state budget cuts.

The group will attend the House Appropriations Committee budget hearing for the state Department of Agriculture, said Gary Sheppard, district director for the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Armstrong, Indiana and Westmoreland counties. The goal is to show lawmakers how much support there is for restoring funding to the extension, its agricultural research and programs like 4-H.

Dawn Dancey, organization leader for the New Alexandria Ag 4-H Club, called the budget impasse “just heartbreaking” for 4-H students.

“These kids are questioning whether they're going to be able to show at the fair or do their projects this year,” Dancey said.

Dancey, 40, of Unity said she's been involved with 4-H since she was 8 years old. She now leads 47 students from across Westmoreland County who complete 4-H projects involving animals, arts and crafts, shooting and baking.

“4-H to me is just as important as school. It all ties in together, and it makes the kids really well-rounded,” she said.

Without funding for 4-H programs, about 90,000 students statewide would be affected.

Members of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and Penn State University will have a news conference in Adams County on Tuesday to highlight these and other impacts a continued state budget impasse will have on agricultural programs operated by Penn State.

In addition to 4-H, the cuts would hurt gardeners if the Master Gardener program is shut down, said Linda Hyatt, the program's coordinator for Westmoreland County. She said her office offers classes in the spring and fall at the extension office on Donohoe Station Road in Greensburg, runs weekend garden classes at Westmoreland County Community College and maintains demonstration gardens throughout the county.

“We probably answer about 600 to 700 gardening questions over the course of the gardening season,” Hyatt said. “It would be very unfortunate to see the Master Gardener program go away because we do try to help folks with their gardening problems as much as we can.”

Funding for the agricultural programs was red-lined by Gov. Tom Wolf in December as part of a line-item veto that has left several billion dollars in state spending unresolved more than eight months into the 2015-16 fiscal year.

The Penn State programs were slated to receive $50.5 million this year, up from about $46.2 million last year. The university has spent $30 million of its funds to keep the programs afloat since state funding ran out June 30, President Eric Barron said in February.

But if lawmakers and Wolf don't agree to funding by May 1, Penn State officials said as many as 1,100 workers could be laid off, from faculty to part-time extension employees.

Extension offices — which serve all 67 counties statewide — would close, research would be shuttered and the popular 4-H and Master Gardener programs would be eliminated, Barron has said.

“This should be of concern to all Pennsylvanians ... especially those interested in buying fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers,” said Mark O'Neill, spokesman for the Farm Bureau.

Many of the services “made farmers more productive, which helps keep food costs down,” he said.

The agricultural research also helps farmers deal with pests and diseases, which can wipe out farming operations.

Support for restoring funding to agriculture has been growing. An online petition on Change.org asking Wolf and lawmakers to restore funding to Penn State's agricultural research and cooperative extension programs has garnered more than 12,500 signatures.

Jeffrey Sheridan, spokesman for Wolf, said the governor supports agricultural programs and has proposed a 5-percent increase in funding for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

“Gov. Wolf supports funding for these important agriculture programs, and he is ready to sign the bipartisan, compromise budget” that he and legislative leaders discussed late last year, Sheridan said. That budget framework agreement never made it to Wolf's desk.

“The governor looks forward to working with Republican leaders to pass a real, bipartisan budget that includes the revenue necessary to fix the deficit, invest in education and fund important areas like agriculture programs.”

Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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