Despite difficulties, Pennsylvania farmers are pressing for better practices

Photo courtesy of Laura Deutsch Photography

Photo courtesy of Laura Deutsch Photography

The State of Sustainable Agriculture

by Alex Jones

While the current trendiness of the farm-to-table movement might lead consumers to believe that the businesses that grow our food are booming, that’s not exactly the case. 

Just ask Brooks Miller of North Mountain Pastures in Perry County. Miller and his wife, Anna Santini, raise chickens, pigs, cows and lambs on pasture at their 84-acre farm, selling the meat through a community supported agriculture (CSA) model to consumers in Central Pennsylvania and the D.C. area. The farming practices they use—moving pens and paddocks daily to give the animals access to fresh forage, choosing heritage breeds that take years longer to mature than conventional breeds, feeding the cows and lambs only grass and the pigs and chickens non-GMO grains—make for healthier soils, healthier animals and healthier eaters. 

But Miller acknowledges that growing, raising and selling sustainably produced food can be a tough business. 

“There are plenty of barriers in the pastured livestock industry,” Miller says. The first step, accessing land for grazing, has a high price tag: The cheapest land in Pennsylvania starts around $5,000 per acre. When land is closer to major markets, it typically costs double or triple that amount. 

Then there’s the labor-intensive process of raising animals with sustainable and humane methods, managing the logistics of transporting and processing the animals through a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, and the challenge of marketing a product to customers—all before a single dollar has come back on that investment.

With challenges like this, it’s no wonder that state and national trends show it’s an aging, shrinking population of people who know how to grow our food: According to the 2012 Agricultural Census, the average age of organic farmers is 47; 77 percent of Pennsylvania farmers overall are over the age of 45, and just over 33 percent are over the age of 65. Three-quarters of farms bring in less than $50,000 in sales per year, and only 48 percent of farm owners reported farming as their primary occupation. 

In light of the precarious economic state of farming in Pennsylvania, coupled with the looming threat of a climate that’s changing in unexpected and dramatic ways, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) is doubling down on its mission with the SOIL (Strategic Outreach for Innovation and Leadership) Institute, a program that aims to support the region’s farmers through education and networking.

“What excites me the most about working with the SOIL Institute is exploring the actual concept of sustainability,” says Miller, who serves as vice chair on the PASA board of directors. “I believe farmers working together to decide what factors make their farms sustainable is much more interesting and productive than using the word as a marketing term.”

Cross-pollinating ideas
In 1992, a group of Pennsylvania farmers formed a collective to learn from each other and share sustainable production practices that weren’t being promoted by conventional sources like Cooperative Extension, a support and research service provided by land-grant universities to regional farmers. 

The collective came to serve as something of an unofficial extension service, providing support to farmers who wanted to learn about and implement traditional and innovative practices to grow better vegetables, raise healthier animals, reduce or eliminate inputs such as synthetic fertilizer and harsh pesticides, or increase the profitability of their farms.

That small group grew into PASA, which has been working to address the needs of agricultural producers using sustainable methods for a quarter century. Today, PASA’s membership base—the largest of any state-based sustainable farming organization in the country—is about half farmers. The other half is made up of constituents such as educators, entrepreneurs, fellow advocacy organizations and consumers who understand that sustainable farming is inextricably linked to the health of our bodies, our environment and our economy.

A few years ago, as PASA staff began to prepare for the organization’s 25th anniversary, they began to think about the reason the organization was founded in the first place: farmer education and support. 

“We started understanding that to really build on that success and take things to the next level, we needed to get back to roots and reinvest in our educational programs,” says Franklin Egan, PASA’sdirector of educational programs. “That’s what the SOIL Institute is about.”

This five-year plan will focus on three areas: networking and learning; research and data collection; and new farmer training. PASA’s goals, and the goals of its members, are strongly tied to the success of these programs that aim to provide farmers and farmers-to-be with the tools and information they need to build sustainable businesses.

It all starts with SOIL
Part of the fabric of the initiative, true to its name, is a focus on healthy soils, which are key for just about any farmer.

Through SOIL, PASA will continue to connect farmers through networking events and workshops, from on-farm potlucks to daylong field day trainings on topics such as the economics of grass-based dairy and growing specialty crops—such as young ginger—in Pennsylvania’s climate. This will give its membership the opportunity to encounter and implement the newest techniques and build community through sharing knowledge from farmer to farmer. It also includes PASA’s biggest annual event, the Farming for the Future Conference, which brings thousands of members and nonmembers from across the continent to State College. It’s a vibrant gathering that brings urban and rural farmers together—probably the only place you can swap seeds, buy farm equipment, learn how packaging affects cheese marketing, and participate in a roundtable on the challenges unique to romantic relationships between farmers and nonfarmers.

Another SOIL priority is conducting scientific research at the farm level—gathering data on soil health, energy and land use efficiency, carcass yields and business profitability—from participating PASA members’ farms, many of whom are already tracking key information for regulatory or management purposes.

This key information will allow PASA to offer proven tools and techniques that will help its members and the sustainable farming community to better do their jobs: growing healthier soils, healthier crops and livestock, and healthier businesses that will, with luck, be able to withstand economic and climatic turmoil.

Of course, established farms can only get so far on education and data if they’re having trouble figuring out a succession plan for retirement, or if they want to expand their businesses and can’t find skilled employees to fill management roles. A key element of the SOIL Initiative aims not just to empower young and beginning farmers but also to strengthen established farm businesses with aging operators—starting with dairy farms.

“It’s something that PASA as a community has really seen [as a significant need],” says Egan. “We’re creating a pathway for highly skilled, highly competent new farmers.”

For example, the 4,000 family dairy farms in Pennsylvania need a better-trained labor pool: Professional managers and other skilled labor can help them maintain and grow their businesses as principal operators age out of farming or set their sights on growing the business.

Pushing plows—and pencils
Training the next generation to grow food and raise livestock—as well as manage the business of a farm—is critical to helping support new and established farmers. 

Dairy farmers, who have been hit particularly hard recently by federally mandated milk prices that fall well below the cost of production, are in particular need of support—especially with Pennsylvania producing the fifth most dairy of any state.

PASA members Jonathan and Nina White own and manage Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse in Milford, New Jersey. They’ve taken on farm interns, who receive training in herd management, cheesemaking and charcuterie, bread baking, and several more of the myriad skills required to manage the agricultural operation they started in 2002. 

Bobolink is the first PASA member farm to implement the official Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA), starting with its interns beginning in late 2016. The program was created by the Wisconsin-based nonprofit of the same name as the first federally registered and accredited apprenticeship for farm management in the U.S.; DGA is now a PASA partner. 

At the core of the DGA program are sustainable practices such as managed grazing. Also called rotational grazing, it’s a practice in which farmers plant the majority of their acreage with high-quality perennial grasses and other forage crops. Animal paddocks are strategically moved throughout the season to allow the herd access to nutritious grasses while other sections of land are able to rest while the grasses regrow—then the cycle begins again. 

It’s a closed-loop system that typically requires no inputs aside from occasional reseeding—just sunlight, rain and cows. The milk produced by grass-fed cows contains higher levels of beneficial nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids, or CLAs, which some evidence shows may possess anticancer properties. 

But herd management is just one piece, says Jonathan White. “If we only teach [apprentices], say, about cows, or cheesemaking, or pasture management, or selling, then we'd be turning out well-trained potential employees, not future agricultural entrepreneurs.”

The comprehensive nature of the DGA program appeals to White, who aims for participants in Bobolink’s internship programs to leave the farm with a complete skill set. 

Elizabeth Cornwell concluded her Bobolink internship just before the farm implemented the partnership with DGA for apprentice training. Cornwell has worked in dairying for several years, but she was intrigued by Bobolink’s herd management practices and cheesemaking business after reading about the farm in a grazing trade publication. 

“Coming with five years’ prior dairy experience, there was still much to learn in my time at Bobolink,” Cornwell said in an email. “We managed cows, but really we were ‘grass farmers.’ All our decisions had to be based on what was best for our cows but equally important was deciding what was also best for our grass growth.”

While farm apprenticeships are common in many industries, including the small farming community, Egan says that PASA and the DGA program will provide much-needed administrative support for farmers as well as the academic and technical coursework for apprentices to underscore and expand what is learned on-farm. And a perennial problem that would come up for farmers and the apprentices or interns working on their farms—lack of time and resources to specifically train apprentices in addition to hands-on learning—is addressed through PASA’s and DGA’s administrative support and the academic coursework requirements of the program. 

“We did some survey research with these farms last summer, and what we found was pretty familiar to my experience,” said Egan, who has worked on farms in the region as an apprentice. “There’s usually a lot of manual labor and not a lot of [focus] on the other management skills that you need to understand to successfully run a farm.” 

And farmers, Egan says, feel the same way—they want to give back, but finding the time to organize and manage that effort on top of an already packed schedule of farm and business duties can be challenging. But for many, it’s worth it.

Through training apprentices, Jonathan White said via email, “We can see how we have leveraged our life’s work by passing on our experience to others. Besides, someday we’ll be too old to work this hard, and we’d like there to be others making good stuff for us to enjoy.”

Pushing past the plateau
PASA is in the process of working with existing farms that offer apprenticeships and internships to develop a similar program to the dairy apprenticeship that would offer a more rigorous, federally recognized training for apprentices at diversified vegetable farms—that is, the ones you see at the farmers market with tables piled high with a wide, seasonally changing variety of vegetables. 

Egan and PASA are hopeful that the SOIL Institute’s focus on these education-based initiatives can provide a foundation for growing the market share occupied by small producers in the state; they also hope tostrengthen and build sustainable farming around the region. 

“Sustainable agriculture has seen a period of incredible growth,” says Egan, “but there’s a feeling of a plateau that’s been reached.”

Growth in sales outlets such as farmers markets and CSAs have not kept pace with the number of new farm businesses eager to sell their products this way, and reaching the larger scale required to access big wholesale customers such as Whole Foods can be challenging or a poor fit for small producers. 

The question now, Egan says, is, “How do we take this movement that’s had great success and support and give it a greater market share?”

Along with facilitating effective training for new farmers and managers that benefits established producers and research projects on production processes and soil health, gathering data to improve the financial health of these businesses will help our state’s small and sustainable farms to flourish. 

Egan put forth the example of diversified livestock farms that often produce pasture-raised meat and eggs—but do it on a small scale. 

“Do [these businesses] make money for the families that run them? What are [the] pain points? How could they be more profitable?” he asks. “Research over time will generate important info that opens up new ideas about how we break through the plateau.”

In the case of North Mountain Pastures, Miller is able to track information throughout the year well enough to get a “good estimate” of the percent yield he can expect per carcass after his livestock are processed. But better data would give him essential information that would make him a better farmer and make North Mountain Pastures a healthier business. 

“In order to get a better idea of our final meat yield, I have to do a significant amount of work when cases of meat are returned to the farm, and they don’t always return together as one carcass,” Miller says. “I would have to rely on my processor to give me information on final meat yield from different animals, which they generally won’t do.” 

Improving and streamlining this data-gathering process, ideally with cooperation from the processor, would make it easier for him to make decisions on the farm that could improve profitability and streamline operations. 

“All farmers know that every animal is different,” Miller says. “I would love to have [yield] information by breed, bloodline, feed, etc., in order to make better decisions on the farm.”