people have such an idealistic picture of farming that
it bears almost no relation to the reality. I would think
that this is particularly true of organic farming, though
truthfully, I believe we often benefit greatly from this illusion.
I would like to share the picture with you as I see it.
Neither Becky nor I grew up on a farm. Her dad was a coal
miner; mine, a machinist for NASA. We are both college grads.
I have a hard science background with a degree in Psychology!
When we began growing organic vegetables thirty years ago
on rented land near Greensburg, the two of us did all the
||"That first year we grossed $2000
and thought we did very well."
We began by growing two acres of vegetables, half in tomatoes
and half in sweet corn. We cleaned horse stalls, manured the
land by hand, and the landlord plowed it. We sold tomatoes
to local stores and restaurants. The corn was a total bust.
We were both just out of college, she worked part time at
a commercial greenhouse, and I worked in the off-season for
a remodeler. That first year we grossed $2000 and thought
we did very well.
Two years later we purchased a 1940 John Deere A tractor,
drag plow, and disc with $1700 borrowed from the Farmers Home
Administration. And we hired our first employee -- a 14 year
old neighbor boy -- for the summer. (He now grows and sells
his own organic vegetables near Greensburg.) At that time
we became founding members of several Pittsburgh area farmers'
markets and marketed most of our produce there. After spending
one morning cleaning onions, Becky gave birth to our first
daughter, Anne, in July 1978.
When our planted acreage had increased to about 7 acres we
began looking for our own farm. However, every year in the
late 70's when we thought we were doing well enough to buy,
the real estate prices rose as well. In the fall of 1978 we
looked at a nice farm on the other side of Pittsburgh, held
our breaths, and decided to purchase our present farm. We
were 'limited resource' borrowers with the FmHA again.
|"Since 1993, we have gradually
shifted from retail marketing at the farmers' markets,
to marketing via subscriptions delivered to the subscribers'
neighborhoods. We have found it is more convenient for
the customers and it allows us to serve many more people
desiring organic produce who had previously found it impossible
to get to a farmers' market. We still wholesale about
25% of our produce to stores, restaurants, and suppliers
in the Pittsburgh area."
After adjusting to the new location, our farming efforts
continued to prosper. At one time we were going to farmers'
markets six days a week. We planted a small orchard, built
a pond with which to irrigate our crops, built a greenhouse
to expand our season, and for diversity got a few beef cattle.
High school and college students provided our farm help.
Two more daughters, Maria and Grace, were born in 1981 and
1985. At first the girls were great cute little PR bundles
at the markets in mom or dad's baby backpack, but by the time
they were old enough to walk they were filling containers
and soon they were experienced salespeople. As the girls got
older and school started, the farmstand complexion changed.
We began to hire town help to sell. Becky really liked the
idea of staying home with young Grace and I would take the
two older girls and sell with our hired helpers. It had always
been difficult for the whole family to return from the evening
markets at 10 or 11 P.M., but during the school year, it became
impossible. Now, come September, it was a lonely trek into
Years of picking peas, tomatoes, and beans were beginning
to take a toll on Becky's back, and her outdoor farmwork days
were clearly numbered. She went back to school, becoming a
certified elementary school teacher with her M.A. In 1988,
she got the opportunity to teach full time and took it. Since
then we have had a divided family agenda. Don-the-farmer,
Becky-the-teacher, and the girls somewhere between school
and the farm. Little by little, Becky has bowed out of the
farming operation, limiting her participation to advice, answering
callers, packing veggies and editing the newsletters. Vacations
are always a bit of a problem--summers are difficult for me,
winters impossible for her. Out of the girls, Anne and Grace
enjoy the farm the most. Anne has worked several summers full
time with our farm crew. Maria wants to live in the city.
We now employ four Mexican workers from May to October; two
to four other full time helpers who also do most of the delivering,
and several other workers for shorter periods of time. The
Mexicans are really hard workers and view farmwork as their
profession, taking great pride in it. One has been back fifteen
years and his daughter just started college.
Since 1993, we have gradually shifted from retail marketing
at the farmers' markets, to marketing via subscriptions delivered
to the subscribers' neighborhoods. We have found it is more
convenient for the customers and it allows us to serve many
more people desiring organic produce who had previously found
it impossible to get to a farmers' market. We still wholesale
about 25% of our produce to stores, restaurants, and suppliers
in the Pittsburgh area.
||"The very stable customer base
of subscribers has enabled us to broaden our variety,
extend our marketing season, and educate our clientele.
We have followed the larger market trends toward more
adventurous eating. And we have solicited and passed on
recipes with new ways to prepare old ingredients with
a flair toward the gourmet. "
The last several years have been ones of great opportunity
and adaptive change for our whole operation. The very stable
customer base of subscribers has enabled us to broaden our
variety, extend our marketing season, and educate our clientele.
We have followed the larger market trends toward more adventurous
eating, i.e. mesclun greens, fresh herbs, exotic vegetables.
And we have solicited and passed on recipes with new ways
to prepare old ingredients with a flair toward the gourmet.
We think we have been able to harness years worth of growing
experience and experimentation to fill the food needs of our
With an eye toward reducing my personal workload and enjoying
a more 'normal' family life, I have attempted the last several
years to shift some farm responsibilities to others. Hence,
there is an ongoing campaign to recruit and keep good help.
This should also pay dividends for end-users of our farm's
products since decisions can be more deliberate.
"Do we work to live, or live to work?"
Sometimes we wonder, but just posing this question periodically
helps to keep us balanced and on-course. In the development
of our lives, we have taken great pleasure in music (Becky
sings with our church choir and plays the piano, I took up
the violin a few years ago.) We love to travel, appreciate
art, get into politics (I served eight years as a township
supervisor), and we always have an interest in education.
So there's what you have--a checkered past. And because these
farmers went to school too long, likely a checkered future.