No idealistic myth: The REAL Kretschmann Farm
Don Kretschmann describes the evolution of their farm and family life.

By Don Kretschmann
Posted June 10, 2003

Often 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 work.

"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 the city.

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 customers.

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.