The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 29, 2013

David Knepper | Farmers know how to grow economic development


JOHNSTOWN — “Ask five economists and you’ll get five different answers (six if one went to Harvard)” –  Edgar R. Fiedler, economist who served in the Treasury Department under Presidents Nixon and Ford.


During the Christmas season, an old friend or relative will call, wondering how I have been for the past year. This year was no exception when I picked up the phone one morning to hear my cousin Bob from Kansas, who still lives on the family farm dodging tornados and bankers.

After a few minutes of exchanging pleasantries, he asked how the local economy was doing since we had last spoken several years ago.

I’m generally upbeat when I’m asked about our region’s economic health. But this time, I knew that Bob would sense that I was equivocating if I said that we were “on the rebound” and “moving forward.” Bob had this uncanny way of sniffing out the truth and I just knew he would be neither impressed nor persuaded if I used circumlocution, however, cleverly crafted.

He hesitated for a moment and then asked if I had ever considered the similarity between ag-business and economic development.

Upon reflection, I knew that “Farmer Bob” was not a trained economist; but he was honest and a successful ag-businessman.

Of course, I wanted to learn more from Bob, if it would help to rev up the economic engine in our region.

At the beginning, he emphasized that growing an economy is like farming; both are dependent on changing conditions that require adaptation to be successful. Sometimes, he added, you have to be ready to take advantage of new technologies that will make your business more successful and competitive. He explained that four of his farm tractors now run on natural gas.

Immediately, I thought of two companies in the region, W.C. McQuaide and McAneny Brothers, that are moving forward to have their truck fleets operate on natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale deposits that are right here in Cambria County, the “energy county.”

Rather proudly, he told me that his farm was one of the first in the state to take advantage of wind technology. Although his wife was skeptical, that extra income in leasing his ground to wind energy companies has been helpful when he has had to buy new farm equipment or seed for spring planting.

Of course, I had to butt in to tell him that, we, too, have windmills throughout the county and region that are generating dollars for municipal governments and landowners as well. I could not let him take all the credit!

Last fall, he and his fellow farmers signed an agreement with the local county tourism council to place their farms on the list of tourism attractions that it would promote. He told me that, at first, he was a bit skeptical to open his farm to tourists.

However, he had to admit that seeing the excitement of children stroking cows or riding the hay wagon or running through his corn maze brought back a lot of wonderful memories of growing up on his father’s farm.

Hopefully, like that being done in Kansas to showcase farming in that region, Cambria County could open its doors even wider to attract new visitors throughout the world to come and experience our wonderful state and region. Visitors from throughout the world should be coaxed through “smart promotion” to visit Pennsylvania first, especially the Allegheny region.

According to the U.S. Travel Association, international travelers numbered 59.3 million last year, with 25.8 million of those foreign visitors coming particularly from China and Japan.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell hit one out of the ballpark when he stated that “one of the things that people don’t realize is that that natural beauty, those recreational forests, they have an economic development impact for the state as well.”

Many times, we causally overlook the rich tapestry that our own unique part of the world offers – both in natural beauty as well as in an exciting and diverse cultural history. We must work to more graciously welcome the visitors who may have a greater appreciation for what we often casually take for granted.

When I ended my conversation with my cousin Bob, I extended  to him and his family an invitation to visit us next year so that they could see that we are “planting the seeds” now that will create a harvest of new jobs, new businesses, expanded industry, more tourism and an improved, healthy, vibrant local economy – that is my wish for the new year.

Working together, we can make it happen!

David A. Knepper is currently the executive director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance. He holds a doctorate in educational administration from Penn State. His column appears monthly in the Sunday edition.