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
|"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
So there's what you have--a checkered past. And because these farmers
went to school too long, likely a checkered future.