Small-scale farmers work to cultivate a productive, sustainable niche

Story posted December 6, 2012 in News by Nathan Pipenberg

On a gray October morning, Woody Wilson is multi-tasking. He’s in a shed on his hands and knees, trying to jump-start a rototiller; he’s contemplating how to water his crops until WestPenn Power restores electricity; and all the while he’s engaging in a conversation about the future of the family farm.

At noon, Wilson is waiting for a WestPenn rep to arrive. The tiller is still broken, the crops haven’t been watered and the discussion has petered out. He’s still busy, though.

In a field near the edge of the property, four college students are participating in a “work-share” program, devoting a couple hours of labor in exchange for a bag of fresh produce. They need guidance from Wilson.

In two hours, people from across Centre County will pick up their weekly share of produce. Before they arrive, Wilson has bags of onions, peppers and squash to count and separate.

A 2012 graduate of Penn State’s College of Agriculture, Wilson is passionate about traditional farming, where, he said, all you need is a “father, a son and three big tractors.” And Tait Farm just east of State College, where he is the head farmer, is a family farm in the classic sense. In the dilapidated barn, cloves of garlic hang from rafters 20 feet high. A John Deere tractor from the last century sits collecting dust in an old shed, but it’s not much older than the one Wilson will climb aboard a few minutes later.

Though only 22, Wilson, too, seems from a bygone era, one of scuffed leather boots and callused palms and weeds picked on hands and knees.

The truth is, Wilson is anything but traditional. He’s one of the small-scale farmers who are responding to the demand from discriminating consumers for food that is fresh, local and produced by organic methods. He’s part of a complex local economy, selling his harvest to restaurants, at weekly farmers’ markets and through community crop-shares.

Wilson says his focus on cultivating soil, growing a variety of crops and selling locally keeps his head above water economically. But he and farmers like him are fighting an uphill battle.

In Pennsylvania, there are 63,200 farms. Most are in the fertile south-central region of the state that stretches from Johnstown to Lancaster. The average farm is 124 acres, more than 10 times as large as Tait Farm. Since 2002, total farmland in Pennsylvania has decreased slightly, to about 7.9 million acres, a consequence of urban and suburban sprawl. But during the same period, farm production — measured in pounds of vegetables harvested, gallons of milk bottled, number of cattle raised — has doubled.

Those numbers reflect a shift toward large-scale farms using the newest technology and equipment. As farmland becomes scarcer, growing more food on the available land becomes the top priority. That means using pesticides rather than growing crops the organic way as Tait Farm does.

The trend toward larger farms using chemicals carries out the mandate—“Adapt or die”—that the late Earl Butz voiced when he was U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1971 to 1976. To mitigate the historical risks of agriculture, Butz urged farmers to consolidate, expand and use industrial pesticides. That large-scale approach is commonly called conventional farming.

Resisting the trend, Tait Farm and others prefer the organic method. Long a buzzword for sustainability, “organic” now is tightly regulated. For a farm to call itself organic, it must meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s specifications, including pesticide levels, soil quality and proximity to other farms. Any farm that wants the organic label — Tait Farm already has it — must undergo a yearly inspection and spend at least three years repairing any soil that has been sprayed with chemicals.

Staying local

Tait Farm’s business model is based on localizing distribution and selling a variety of crops. The farm’s steadiest stream of income is derived from its Community-Sourced Agriculture (CSA) model. It is a system that is taking hold across the country, and in Pennsylvania it is exploding in popularity. A national local-food database, Localharvest. org, lists 271 CSAs across the state.

In basic terms, a CSA is a shared risk-reward method of supporting a farm. Community members partner with a farm, paying a flat fee in the spring and taking home a box of produce every week during the growing season.

For consumers, CSAs can be a windfall. In an especially abundant year, CSA members may take home several pounds of food every week. Admittedly, that often can be pounds of a single crop, and members may have to freeze or can produce that spoils easily, such as green peppers. But Wilson said his CSA members appreciate seeing the fields where their food is grown, and feel a sense of shared ownership.

“If they get a bag full of zucchini, everyone starts talking about what they can do with it, different recipes they can try,” he said.

An individual share at the Tait Farm CSA cost $425 for the 2012 season. For Wilson and his farm, enough shares were purchased that the farm had a good sense of its revenue by April. That allowed Wilson to determine how much to plant, and when. Later in the season, Wilson said, he supplements the CSA income with sales at farmers markets and to local restaurants.

Sustainable solutions

One farmer who has maintained a successful organic farm over the years is Jim Crawford, 69, of New Morning Farm in Hustontown, Fulton County.

In 1972, after abandoning work on a law degree and giving up an urban lifestyle, he bought a half-acre of land. Since then, his operation has expanded to 95 acres. When the USDA introduced organic regulations a decade ago, he adopted them quickly.

Crawford says organic farming requires more attention to the actual process of cultivation. On roughly half of his land, he grows more than 50 different types of vegetables, herbs and berries. The remaining acres are used for composting and revitalizing soil—demonstrating his commitment to soil quality, crop rotation and carefully managed land use.

Years ago, Crawford sold his harvest at a roadside stand, a mainstay of family farms and a common sight on Pennsylvania back roads. Profits from that business model were enough to keep his farm operating, but not in comfort, he said.

In 1998 he set up a cooperative with other local farmers near Lancaster, and he realized he could not merely get by, but actually prosper, as an organic farmer. Rather than selling to wholesalers, he began marketing the fresh crops from his co-op directly to consumers in the Washington, D.C., metro area. He soon had so many buyers that he had to expand.

Today, the cooperative, called Tuscarora Organic Growers, distributes to restaurants, groceries and farmers’ markets—and is still growing. In 2010, it pulled in $2 million in sales.

Based on his own successful business model, Crawford said that any farm could be organic, even though there are inefficiencies. He accepts that his yields would be larger if he used conventional methods.

“It’s a fact that if you use those pesticides,” he said, “you will grow more food.”

However, he said he is making a rational decision for the long term by not relying on pesticides. If they are banned, or if certain diseases become resistant to the currently used chemicals, he said, conventional farmers would be the ones with lower crop yields.

“A lot of farmers have lost the culture of how to farm the old way,” he said. “It’s not smart if the whole industry forgets how to farm without using chemicals.”

Reassessing organics

One farmer who has resisted going organic is Barry Moser, a retired employee of Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, who has made farming his life’s work.

Moser farms six and a half acres of land in Centre Hall, about 30 minutes from State College. On his small tract, he grows enough food to fill one of the biggest stands at local farmer’s markets twice a week.

Moser runs what most people would call a sustainable farm. He pays close attention to the environmental impact he makes. He grows and sells more than 50 different vegetables, herbs and fruits. He only sells locally, and he reuses materials and does not waste land.

But in the eyes of many consumers, Moser said, he isn’t the ideal farmer. “I’m not organic. I want to be, but I’m not.”

In his experience, many customers value the organic certification obtained through a USDA farm inspection, a cachet his farm lacks.

His farm doesn’t look the way that the average consumer at a farmers’ market might expect. Many of his fields are covered in plastic sheeting. He uses shredded newspaper as mulch on his strawberry fields. These practices may look strange, he said, but they are sustainable. He thinks they ultimately work better than alternatives that might make for prettier photos and farm tours.
“They’ll ask me if I’m organic, and when I explain, they look around at other stands,” he said. “But they always come back because we have the crops they want.”

Moser said that tomatoes, a crop he has grown for more than 25 years, is particularly hard to grow in Centre County using organic methods. Late blight, the disease that caused the potato famine in 19th century Ireland, and another disease called downy mildew are his biggest concerns. They are capable of wiping out entire fields. Unless he uses herbicides that aren’t on the organically approved list, he thinks his crop yield would be in question every year.

“I run a small farm,” he said. “Ninety percent of my profits come from just one acre.”
And that single acre, he said, has to produce food reliably for his business to stay afloat. He doesn’t trust organic methods to ensure that his crops will stay healthy.

“I want to go organic,” he said. For certain crops, like blueberries, he is making the transition, since they are largely disease-free without adding pesticides. But for Moser, the bottom line is that he needs to show up at the farmers’ market every week with crops to sell.

“Until the latest technology in pest control improves, and comes down in price,” Moser said, “organic’s not going to be efficient enough for me.”

The case against organics

The Tuscarora Organic Growers is large enough that the risk of disease affecting the co-op’s entire yield is relatively small. But other organic growers in Central Pennsylvania acknowledge that Moser has a point.

At Tait Farm, Wilson was unable to save the majority of his tomatoes this year. Nearly all were wiped out by late blight, the disease that has scared Moser away from organic. Save for one hardy breed of tomatoes known as “Defiant,” Wilson had no tomatoes to offer to buyers.
In addition to farmers’ concerns about profits, there is growing evidence that some of the consumers’ health benefits from organics have been overstated.

A highly publicized study published by Stanford University in September concluded that organic crops on aver- age contain no more nutrients than conventional ones. The study also found that organic crops were no less likely to be contaminated by bacteria like E. coli, although organics did contain fewer traces of pesticides. Still, the study found that pesticide levels in conventional crops were within guide- lines set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The study is the latest piece of evidence that organic agricultural methods may not really be so different from conventional ones.

Under USDA standards, organic farms are permitted to use 20 varieties of naturally occurring pesticides and herbicides, most notably copper and sulfur. These herbicides, the same ones that Wilson found to be ineffective in saving Tait Farm’s crop of tomatoes, have been linked to a wide variety of diseases, including Parkinson’s disease.

Organic standards also prohibit farmers from growing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which many experts consider the latest and best development in agricultural practices.

According to former Penn State plant geneticist Nina Fedoroff, GMOs are often more disease-resistant and nutritionally dense than organic crops. At the same time, she said, they have been proven to be no less healthy than organic crops.

To consumers, genetically modified crops and organic crops may seem diametrically opposed. GMOs are seen as technology interspersed with agriculture, while organic production harkens to a return to traditional methods of past centuries. This, Federoff said, is not the case.

Even seeds that aren’t modified genetically are bred to grow quickly and resist diseases, and both conventional and organic farmers use the seeds. Breeding seeds is akin to breeding animals; the best traits from one plant and the best traits from another are combined through forced pollination, and the result is a superior crop. GMOs are different because the process is taken one step further. They are essentially created in a laboratory by splicing and inserting genes to alter the genetic makeup of the seed. The new seeds are capable of boosting nutrient levels and developing immunities that breeding seeds cannot match.

For example, there are GMOs that boost antioxidants in tomatoes and calcium levels in carrots. In Kenya, sweet potatoes immune to a virus that usually decimates the crop have been developed through genetic research, according to Africa’s Center for Development Research.

Fedoroff said GMOs can dramatically increase yields, making them incredibly useful. They could ease famines and ultimately be the biggest factor in reducing the environ- mental cost of agriculture, she said.

But they are off-limits to organic farmers, many of whom wouldn’t touch them even if the Agriculture Department allowed them.

For all the good that GMOs are capable of, one of the most popular uses of genetic modification is to create pesticide-resistant plants. One GMO is known as “Round- up-Ready Alfalfa,” named for its resistance to glyphosate, better recognized by its brand name, Roundup, a traditionally effective weed killer that also is popular with homeowners.

But according to weed ecologist David Mortensen, some of the weeds that Roundup has historically decimated are now growing resistances to the herbicide. The result, according to a report Mortensen published, is that farmers are spraying more pesticides than ever on fields of crops where weeds refuse to die.

The hope for home farms

Wilson is not sure he’ll stay much longer at Tait, where he said the subpar soil requires extra care and the profits are shaky. He’s much more inspired by a side project he developed during his senior year at Penn State, which he calls Wilson’s Home Farms.

His goal is to start his own business, one that in some ways transcends the organic-versus-conventional debate. He already has five clients who pay to bring his small-farm experience directly to gardens in their backyards. His prices are based on square footage for each garden. He makes planting schedules for each crop and cultivates the soil. Homeowners wind up with gardens that are much better than they could have created on their own.

It’s a strategy that emphasizes local over organic – food that can be washed and eaten minutes, rather than days, after it is picked.

For now, Woody Wilson splits his time between Tait Farm and Wilson’s Home Farms, working 80 hours or more each week and sleeping in a small camper next to the greenhouses. It’s October, and the winter cover crops need to be planted soon. But first, he has to fix the old tiller, which is still sitting broken in the shed.