Out of all the counties in Pennsylvania, Lancaster has the most farmland, both by acreage and by percentage of the county’s total land. Yet for the first time in 57 years, there is not a single Lancaster County representative on the state House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.
According to Heather Deppen of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Archives, the last time Lancaster went without representation on the agriculture committee was during the 1965-66 session. After nearly six decades of always having at least one Lancaster County representative on the committee, the county has been passed over in the current House session, even though representatives from Lancaster did request appointment to the committee.
Committee assignments are based on the representatives’ skills and experience and the preference of their party leader. The representatives submit their individual preferences as well so the party leader can assess the options before making assignments along with the Committee on Committees, which oversees the placement of representatives on committees. This year, according to the rules set forth by the speaker of the House, Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia/Delaware), there are 12 Democrat and nine Republican representatives on each standing committee.
For the 2023-24 session, out of 21 total members who were assigned to the agriculture committee, only four have any background in agriculture. Only one, Rep. Barb Gleim (R-Cumberland), owns an operational farm. The committee members, as described in the biographies on their official, House-affiliated websites, are six business owners (including Gleim), four lawyers, two teachers, an educational technology consultant, a university professor and social justice activist, an environmental activist, a community and labor organizer, a staff member for former U.S. representatives, a chief of staff for former state representatives, a public relations expert, a marketing and sales director and sportscaster, and an account officer in the finance industry.
Agriculture is an important industry in Pennsylvania. According to The Economic Impact of Agriculture in Pennsylvania, a 2021 report commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and the nonprofit organization Team Pennsylvania, the state’s agricultural industry had a $132.5 billion impact on the state economy in 2019 and supports 593,600 jobs across the state.
Lancaster County boasts the largest acreage of farmland in the commonwealth — with over 90,000 acres more than the county with the second greatest farmland acreage — and farmland makes up more than 65% of Lancaster County’s land, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Lancaster County Agriculture Council reports that the county leads the whole state in seven main agricultural categories, including cow milk, poultry and eggs, grains, and vegetables. Out of the more than 3,000 counties in the entire United States, Lancaster is the fourth largest producer of poultry and eggs, ranks seventh in animal sales, and ranks 10th in the production of cow milk, according to the council.
While four Lancaster County state representatives have been assigned committee chairmanships because of their seniority, there is still a complete lack of representation for the county in this major industry. Rep. Mindy Fee (District 37) is now the Republican chair for the Liquor Control Committee, Rep. Keith Greiner (District 43) is the Republican chair for the Finance Committee, Rep. Steven Mentzer (District 97) is the Republican chair for the Aging and Older Adult Services Committee, and Rep. Mike Sturla (District 96) is the Democrat chair for the Housing and Community Development Committee. At least two other Lancaster representatives — Rep. Dave Zimmerman (R-Lancaster/Berks, District 99) and Rep. Tom Jones (R-Lancaster/Lebanon, District 98) — had requested to serve on the agriculture committee but were not appointed to it.
Of those, Zimmerman is the only Lancaster County representative with an agriculture background. His experience includes owning an agricultural business, working as a dairy farmer, managing sales and service for an international agriculture company, and serving on the Lancaster County Agricultural Preservation Board. He had also served on the agriculture committee for the previous four sessions since becoming a state representative in 2015 — but last May, partway through the 2021-22 House session, he was removed from the committee, leaving only Fee to represent the county there. The reason for his removal was not given, nor has there been an explanation for why he was not placed on the committee this session despite his request and experience. Instead, he was assigned to three other committees: Children and Youth, Insurance, and Health.
Rep. Perry Stambaugh (R-Perry/Juniata) was passed over as well despite his request to serve on the committee. Stambaugh’s qualifications include being a sixth-generation farmer with a 200-acre crop farm in Perry County and working as a rural and agricultural magazine editor for multiple local and national publications, including the Pennsylvania Farmer magazine.
House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster, District 100) is responsible for making the committee assignments for Republican representatives and submitting them to the Committee on Committees for approval. Nicole Reigelman, press secretary to House Speaker McClinton, told The Lancaster Patriot, “All recommendations made by the minority leader (Cutler) this session were accepted.”
In a March 7 press release, Cutler said, “Committees are the foundation of legislating, and Republican members have a lot to offer based on their knowledge, skills and abilities as well as their experiences.” He went on to say, “Our leadership team has worked to populate each committee to maximize conservative voices on important issues likely to emerge this term to ensure the voices of the people we represent are heard and we can offer true collaboration on the issues facing Pennsylvania.”
In this House session, the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee has only four representatives from among the 15 counties with the most farmland in acreage of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties — yet there are eight representatives from among the 15 counties with the least amount of farmland. Four of those representatives are from Philadelphia County, which has the least farmland in the state at only 284 acres, an especially stark contrast to Lancaster County, which has the most farmland at 393,949 acres.
Committee assignments can be changed throughout the session by the party leader.