REAL TALES OF HIGH VALUE FARMING
Letter from Pheasant Hill Farm, #6, JUNE 3, 2003

His farm isn’t quite an acre . . .
but this ‘small farmer’ makes it work

After investing a whole lot of elbow grease and making his fair share of mistakes, Scott Kuntzer does more with less and makes a decent living.

By Melanie DeVault

Farm At A Glance

Scott Kuntzer
Smithfield & Furrow
Telford, Pennsylvania

Summary of Operation
• Pennsylvania Certified Organic
• 20 culinary herb beds
• Several 75- to 100-foot beds that are rotated to grow everything from broccoli and sugar snap peas to cabbage, fava beans, spring raab, close to 30 varieties of lettuce, flowers for cutting, and more
• additional berry beds
• 18 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, fennel, cippolini onions, eggplant, peppers, several pear trees and a couple apple trees
sells direct to restaurants, on-farm market retail sales, participates in area Farmers' Market April to November

 

 

Editor's NOTE

George DeVault was editor of New Farm® magazine from 1981 through 1991 -- and a long-time champion of local food systems and innovative direct marketing approaches to high-value farming.

He, his wife Mel and 23-year-old son Don farm near the village of Vera Cruz, PA, a little over an hour north of Philadelphia. They've been farming there organically since 1985. They extend their growing season with 6000 square feet of greenhouses, and sell cut flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables through farmers' markets and directly to customers on their farm through a subscription service.

George continues to edit the Russian language version of New Farm® magazine, and in their spare time, he and Mel have edited and published six books on farming and market gardening.

Almost immediately after I was hired to create the New Farm® web site, I called George for ideas and help ... and he responded.

He showered me with articles he'd written for the Russian New Farm® which had never been printed in the U.S.: a two-part series on Joe Salatin's poultry operation, and a great profile of Steve Moore's innovative greenhouse operation. And he snagged us a translation of a fascinating story about one woman's successful effort to homestead in Russia.

He also passed on many helpful observations, including a recent email note: "Looking quickly at NF web site, struck me that maybe it's a little heavy
on traditional crops, livestock and marketing." "You're right," I answered, "we haven't gotten up to speed on high-value crops, diversification and
direct marketing. Want to help us get started with a monthly column?" And so was born this Letter from Pheasant Hill.

George and Mel will also be working with us on developing a series of articles on the basics of sustainable farming to help beginning farmers get a leg up. Many of you asked for this in email notes, and we'll get it up and running as soon as we can.

A final note: Earlier this year George was selected as a Food and Society Policy Fellow. This fellows program brings together leaders in health, consumer education, aquaculture, local food policy, nutrition, sustainable agriculture and organic farming. Fellows use the media, scholarship, public education and outreach to promote food systems change through the creation and expansion of community-based food systems that are locally owned and controlled, produce goods and services needed by residents, exercise environmental stewardship, and provide quality jobs. Click here for more on the fellows program.

For more on Pheasant Hill Farm, click here.

 

Greenhouse magic: Don't have acres of land? Take a lesson from small farmer Scott Kutzner and do some greenhouse growing. Note: Planks braced with rebar keep the beds tidy.

JUNE 3, 2003: Nestled between two small businesses on a rural road off the Telford (PA) exit of Rt. 309, Scott Kuntzner is proprietor of Smithfield & Furrow, a dream farm -- on a little under an acre of land.

On that small plot, he grows fresh certified organic produce, herbs, berries, cut flowers and fruit, which he sells to several restaurants in the trendy Doylestown/New Hope area, and Lambertsville, NJ. He also sells retail on his farm and, for the past five years, at a Saturday morning Farmers’ Market in Doylestown from April to November.

He keeps his sanity (most days) AND makes a living. (Okay, Mom helps with health insurance and taxes, he admits). But that’s not bad, huh? He’s content with his lifestyle and loves the work. Like most farmers, he’ll tell you there’s always too much of it. But life is good.

How does he do it? With high-value crops, crop rotation, lots of hard work -- and learning from his mistakes.

Scott’s journey began several years ago, and was supposed to play out in California. Scott moved to the Sonoma Coastal Mountain Range from the Philadelphia area and loved living in California. He worked at several restaurants out West, waiting tables and working in kitchens, mostly salad staff. “I’d see people with lettuce and say, ‘My gosh, I could do this,’” he laughs. “I always had a garden.” He realized he really wanted to seriously “market garden” there.

“But the cost of land . . . and with no land, no car, no house, no well, no fence -- you crunch the numbers,” he says. It just wasn’t doable. So he returned home to Pennsylvania. “My father died six years ago, and owned the building (machine shop) next door,” he says. Scott says he sort of inherited the field alongside the shop that has become his farm.

A salvaged two-holer outhouse makes the perfect toolshed. Bubba the dog watches on as Scott shows off his three-tined cultivators (key to weed control in narrow intensive beds).

He has gradually transformed that field into a farm and part-time home (in season) for himself and Bubba, his dog, with long hours and lots of elbow grease. “I got an outhouse and shed at a poultry farm they were tearing down,” he explains, pointing to two of his charming, weathered structures. “I contacted the developer and was able to get the buildings, which I moved in large pieces.” The outhouse serves as an equipment shed, and the other shed is used for storage. A larger building, like a little fishing lodge, has also been moved to the site. “That’s about 12' by 12', has a coal stove and it’s where corporate decisions are made,” he quips.

Fun on the farm: From the toy cap pistol holstered on a post to the bevy of birdhouses on his recycled shed, Scott's artistic and eclectic personality is reflected throughout his farm.

He has created pathways, added perennials and scores of eye-catchers in between the buildings. The Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO)-certified farm also consists of 20 culinary herb beds, and several 75- to 100-foot beds that are rotated to grow everything from broccoli and sugar snap peas to cabbage, fava beans, spring raab, close to 30 varieties of lettuce, flowers for cutting, and more. He has other beds for berries. There are 18 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, fennel, cippolini onions, eggplant, peppers, several pear trees and a couple apple trees, too.

Two hoophouses also allow for season extension and his hobby. “The first house, a 13- by 32-foot small hoop, is mostly for me. I compete in horitculture classes at the Philadelphia Flower Show,” he explains. He’s won several ribbons, last year taking a second in the foliage competition and miniature foliage competition. This year he entered the Chinese cultivar classes. He does a lot of plantings from cuttings and dotes on this heated house.

Floating row covers, intensely planted beds and quick hands produce bountiful yields. Two hoophouses (one seen in the background) also help make the most out of the season.

The other hoophouse he constructed three years ago. The 17- by 96-foot structure serves as his seed starting house and has beds for growing tomatoes and peppers out of the wind, and, with the help of shade cloth over a portion, growing greens and pea shoots.

Pointing to a small, healthy apple tree in a container in the structure, he says that tree inspired him. “I figured if I could put a stick in the ground and have it grow, I must be going down the right path.”

He also has some chickens to create that real farm setting, of course. But he cautions the beginning farmer, “Too many pets can be a problem if you raise vegetables. They take too much time.”

Of his philosophy for market gardening, he says simply, “You learn as you go. Every year you get smarter. You say, I won’t grow that again. How much you can make depends upon the weather cooperating.”

Scott is quick to caution those who want to chuck their day job and make big bucks off the land, however. “It’s a hard way to make a living. I make enough to live on now, but I was below the poverty level a couple years ago,” he admits. You have to love it.

His advice to the beginning farmer:

Don’t overshoot when you start. “I grew everything when I started, and it was a big mess I couldn’t maintain; I didn’t know how to maintain. I had to reel in,” he says.

Grow money crops. Don’t go for 800 feet of eggplant or radishes, scallions or other cheap crops, crops that don’t generate money and take a lot of labor. Go for shallots and gourmet onions like cippolini, lettuce mixes, heirloom tomatoes -- high-value crops.

Sell only quality stuff. “I won’t sell it if I wouldn’t put it in my mouth.”

Do what you can yourself. Stay small because it’s hard to find good help! And hey, do you want a payroll? If you do hire a helper or helpers, have them work on things that will make money, not waste time doing things you can do much faster. “I put in all the lettuce and onions, for example, because I slam it in fast.”

Irrigate your crops!

Start with a hoophouse. You’ll learn as you go, and extend your season.

Don’t Fall plant berries in Pennsylvania. (That’s a lesson Scott learned for himself: Deer got most of the 200 feet he planted.)

Wear sunscreen. That sun will get you.

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