No, Agriculture Isn't Pennsylvania's Top Industry

Jan 6, 2015

Dale Rossman climbs into his combine while harvesting corn on his farm in Spring Mills, Pa. on Oct. 28, 2007.
Credit AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The Pennsylvania Farm Show is set to begin the second weekend of January, giving public officials a chance to tout agriculture as the state's leading industry. But the data behind this oft-heard claim is fuzzy.

Agriculture isn't the state's top industry based on any ranking from the Department of Labor & Industry (L&I). The purported ranking is rooted in an assessment of the industry's economic impact: $75 billion, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

The figure's accuracy has been a matter of contention between federal and state employees for years. A statistics service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates that in 2013, all cash receipts to farmers were $7.5 billion. Then, state officials basically multiply that number by 10.

Jay Howes, a deputy secretary at the state Department of Agriculture, said he doesn't know where the multiplier comes from, but he defends it as a way to estimate all the industries that are bolstered because of farm products.

"The reason we like to think of agriculture being everything from the farm to the fork, as the cliché goes, is that we, as Department of Agriculture, have regulatory responsibility from the farms to the kitchen table, or the restaurant," Howes said. "If you look at agriculture as the food system, it's a lot bigger than just the cash value of farm gate sales."

"That's true, but that's also true of other industries," said Nathan Benefield, an economist with the conservative Commonwealth Foundation. "They all have what's called the multiplier effect. They all add to our economy in ways beyond simply the employment at one company or one particular industry."

Pennsylvania measures its other industries based on employment and wage data. L&I spokeswoman Sara Goulet said that can't work for all of agriculture because many family farms don't pay unemployment compensation.

Based on that data, a quarterly study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that the top three industries in Pennsylvania in the latter half of 2014 were K-12 schools, hospitals and restaurants.