Meet the legislator: Pennsylvania Senator Judy Schwank

February 17, 2017

This month’s featured CSG-ERC Agriculture and Rural Affairs legislator is Senator Judy Schwank of Pennsylvania.

Senator Schwank was first elected to the Pennsylvania Senate in 2011 after a long-serving and well-loved senator from Judy’s district unexpectedly passed away and the seat needed to be filled. Judy was on vacation with her husband when she got the call from the party asking her to run. Judy says her husband often reminds her, “You never said ‘no’.” He, of course, was concerned about the amount of time and energy this job would require. She would also be required to resign from the job that she loved — that of dean of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Delaware Valley College.

Even though she knew she would be out of a job if she lost the election, she signed up anyway. “I was very nervous,” she admitted, “but I had an incredible amount of help. Volunteers stepped forward to help.” And she gave her normal 110 percent to the campaign, doing everything she could, and then more. It paid off in the end, and she has been filling the large shoes of her predecessor ever since.

We asked Senator Schwank what the biggest issues are facing Pennsylvania agriculture today. “Pennsylvania is primarily a dairy state, and the biggest issue right now is that of dairy profitability.” She added, “Following that is the trade issue, especially with the uncertainty of the new administration, and the renegotiation of NAFTA, which is a big concern. Food processing is big business in my state, and the cost of food may rise as a result of the trade deals.”

When asked what the big non-agricultural issues are in the state, she immediately said, “The huge budget deficit. Our state has a $3.1 billion budget, and our deficit is $3 billion. The governor is committed to resolving this problem, but it will mean some very difficult decisions of what to cut and who will suffer.” She added, “The Affordable Care Act is a big issue as well. In Pennsylvania, 700,000 people are on expanded Medicaid. This is an important resource for the treatment of opioid addiction, which is a public health epidemic in our state. Overdose deaths have more than doubled. If ACA funding is taken away, we will lose the ability to treat so many people in need.”

When we asked about the state of the dairy industry in Pennsylvania, Judy noted that it is very precarious because of the low prices the farmers are receiving. Some are selling off their herds. However, she understands there is going to be an uptick in the prices, which will help. Dairy pricing is a problem that needs attention at the federal government level as well. On the positive side, Pennsylvania is seeing more automation on dairy farms, and more and more young and beginner farmers are interested in getting into the business.

We asked Judy how she first got interested in agriculture. She said she had always been interested in horticulture, even from a very early age. “When most kids at 8 or 9 are reading comic books, I loved reading horticultural magazines. I would look at the pictures of the flowers and plants, and just dream of one day being a horticulturist.” So it was poppy seed packets, not paper dolls, for Judy! She added, “I even studied Latin starting at age 11, not because I wanted to speak it, but because I thought it would help me with the botanical names of the plants and flowers I loved.”

It was only natural, then, that she study at Pennsylvania State University, where she received her B.S. in agricultural education, and a master’s degree in agricultural education with a horticulture minor. She went on to become an agriculture extension agent with the cooperative extension, where she worked on community development projects, including a developing a wholesale produce auction with Mennonite farmers to supply farmers markets in the state. Because of her work with the county commissioners as an extension agent, she decided to run when a commissioner’s seat opened up, and won.

We asked her which was her favorite of the many jobs she has had in her career. “This one,” she said without hesitation. “I love being a state senator. I love being in a position where I don’t have to run for my life or run to support my family, but I run to do the best job I can for my constituents.” She added, “I have found my voice as a senator, speaking out on issues. That is what I love the most, the public service aspect of the position. When someone pulls me aside and says, ‘Your staff just did an amazing job and helped me or my family members’, that makes me feel terrific.”

When we asked what Senator Schwank disliked most, she answered, “I dislike it when people disparage politicians so often. I wish they knew how hard my colleagues work, and how serious they take the work that they do. I may not agree with them politically, but to a person my colleagues are very sincere and want to do the best job possible for their constituents.”

Judy is an active member of CSG/ERC, and we asked her why. “I am just so thankful that CSG/ERC exists. I come from academia, where we have in-service education and continuing education opportunities where our colleagues convene and meet to discuss common issues. CSG/ERC makes sure we legislators have the same kind of high educational opportunities. Networking is valuable. A number of the bills I have sponsored have come from the discussions at our annual meetings.”

Senator Judy Schwank is just one of the many great members of our Agricultural and Rural Affairs Policy Committee. Come and meet her, and all of us, this summer at the Annual Meeting in Uncasville, Connecticut, August 13 through 16.


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