Not just a farm, but a creative community
Roy Brubaker, his family, and six interns collaborate, innovate and share labor, food and meaning on the Brubakers’ 30-acre organic produce farm in western Pennyslvania.

By Jason Witmer

Village Acres Farm
Roy and Hope Brubaker and family
Mifflintown, PA

Location: Village Acres is located in the Allegheny hills of Mifflintown, Pennsylvania about 45 minutes southeast or Harrisburg

Size: 30 acres

Products: 70 varieties of produce including: asparagus, blueberries, cantaloupes, green beans, raspberries, rhubarb, squash, strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes, and watermelons

Marketing: Members Wholesale Organic co-op (TOG) and 104 member CSA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet the 2003 Interns

On the Brubaker's farm the yearly crop of interns that comes each summer has became just as important to the operation as what shows up in the fields. Above: Chris Below: Katie

The internship program began in 1991 with a son and two college friends looking for summer employment. Below: Matt

This summer the internship program took on its largest group to date bringing on six interns. Interns help with all aspects of the farm from planting to packing CSA boxes. In return for their labors they get food, lodging, and education, a small monthly stipend, a share of the profit and a summer outdoors. Below: Neil

 

On a warm July morning on Village Acres Farm (www.goshen.edu/~debrajb/villageacres/villageacreshome), four recent college-graduates were wading through a field of peas and oats with plastic buckets. Originally these plants were meant to serve only as a cover crop, enriching the soil with nitrogen and biomass. But a particularly wet spring left those at the farm looking for extra work and income. On a whim, they decided to try marketing the shoots of these pea plants to upscale D.C. restaurants as “organic salad greens.”

“The restaurants keep asking for more,” said Matt Lowen, one of the four interns in the field. He shrugged and smiled as he snapped off the top of a pea plant and tossed it in his bucket. “So we keep picking.”

You can almost taste the resourcefulness and creative problem solving here at Village Acres, nestled among the green Allegheny hills of Mifflintown, Pennsylvania. Roy Brubaker, the owner and manager of the farm, is the one behind many of these ideas. But he’s not alone. This year there are 11 people helping with the farm, including the Brubaker family and six interns. Together they market 30 acres of produce, employ a wide variety of chemical-free agricultural techniques, and eat three meals a day together.

Brubaker, a 62 year-old man who spends almost every hour of the day in the fields, was introduced to organic farming at a young age. “My earliest memories are of my father’s conversations about Paul Keen, a local organic farmer who visited us and brought books for my dad to read,” Brubaker said. His father struggled to make a living by farming with chemicals and stopped using them in 1944 for health reasons. Brubaker grew up working the farm with his father.

In 1966 he and his wife, Hope, married and subsequently spent 12 years in Somalia and Kenya doing mission work. Near the end of this period Brubaker contracted Hepatitis and the weeks he spent in bed provided time for him to contemplate getting back to farming. “I did a lot of writing and sketching during that time,” Brubaker said. “I had picked up a book about organic vegetables and had a lot of ideas.

Late Harvest Planting at Village Acres Farm

Wednesday, October 1
9:00am–12:00noon

Village Acres Farm Mifflintown, PA

Join PASA for a morning field day at Village Acres Farm, a 20 acre Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm that has been in operation for over 20 years. At Village Acres, managed by Roy Brubaker and his family, more than 70 varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs are grown.

They also work with several apprentices each year who help contribute to the success of the operation. Farm crops are raised not only for their CSA shareholders but also for the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative. The farm is certified by Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO).

Village Acres recently started a winter shares program for their CSA, which will be highlighted at this event. Sponsors: PASA, PCO, and Village Acres Farm. All PASA Field Days are open to the public and pre-registration is required.

Register online or call PASA to register for any event. • Online: www.pasafarming.org • Call: 814-349-9856 (ext. 6) • PASA Members $10 • Non-members $15 • Youth (Ages 5–12) $5 • Under 5 years old no charge

“I became aware that changes in farming might not be the best for our health. I wanted to grow safe nutritious food for us and others, and not be working around toxic materials. We thought (a farm) would be a good place for our children to learn. But we didn’t know what the market would be.”

In 1982 Brubaker and his wife moved their family of six to the farm in Mifflintown and began growing garden vegetables and selling strawberries. Early on, they struggled to make a profit selling locally and Brubaker was forced to take a job as a school administrator. But in the early 90’s Brubaker learned of Tuscarora Organic Growers (www.tog.coop) – a group of neighboring organic farmers who began cooperatively marketing their goods to Washington D.C.

In 1992, Brubaker certified his farm as organic and this enabled them to join the coop and sell vegetables for a higher rate. “Now we can market our products to people who are increasingly aware of the health benefits,” Brubaker said. “There’s a better market.” Village Acres now sells organic asparagus, blueberries, cantaloupes, green beans, raspberries, rhubarb, squash, strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes, and watermelons through the coop.

The Brubaker kids bring back new ag ideas from college … including a CSA

Brubaker was encouraged to keep expanding his organic endeavors by his two oldest children, who often came home from college talking about the importance of taking care of the environment. “They introduced me to Wendell Berry and the importance of valuing the land,” Brubaker said. “That whole movement that was happening in college filtered back home.”

Brubaker’s oldest daughter, Angie, helped start the CSA in 1998, which has grown from 37 customers to 104 this summer and 40 more through the winter. Though conflict initially arose over how to split produce between the CSA and Coop, Brubaker is now glad for the stability the CSA provides. Members pay a flat rate and receive extra produce on good years and less on difficult ones. Last year, for instance, the strawberry crop did poorly but that didn’t affect their income. “People from the CSA understood,” said Brubaker. “And other crops did exceptionally well.” This year, the money from customers enabled the farm to forego taking out a spring loan for the first time.

Besides providing stability, the CSA gives those at the farm an opportunity to interact with customers and educate people about the importance of buying local organic produce. Village Acres has begun sending out a weekly newsletter providing information about each week’s harvest, recipes and tips for using the produce, and news from the farm.

The main difficulty in running the CSA is that it requires growing a wide variety of vegetables. Village Acres sells over 70 different kinds, ranging from blueberries to eggplant to pumpkins. “The advantage of the coop is you can select a few crops and gain expertise and acquire equipment for them,” Brubaker said. “But I like to be involved with both.”

Their biggest challenge: improving the poor local soil

Growing such a variety of crops without the use of chemicals has forced Brubaker to employ a variety of techniques on his farm. One of his biggest problems comes simply from not having good soil. “The challenges we face are not necessarily because we’re doing it organically,” Brubaker said. “The challenges come mainly from the type of soils we’re working with.” Most of the fields are class 2 or 3 soils because of their rockiness and steep slope, which make them erode easily. Brubaker maintains that poor soil leads to weaker plants that are more prone to disease.

To increase soil fertility, Brubaker keeps cover crops growing on his soils year-round. These crops turn sunlight into biomass, add important nutrients to his soil, and prevent erosion. Brubaker also rotates plant families every year to ensure that nutrients are not depleted from soils and he composts religiously. He spreads poultry manure, old hay, mulching, wood chips, tree trimmings and has a lawn service bring leaves every fall. “I’m always on the lookout for things like that – low cost ways to improve my farm,” Brubaker said. “In the long term our farm will be healthier. Organic farming is not disruptive to soils.”

Brubaker has also constructed a greenhouse where he starts many plants and then transplants them using a “water wheel.” This implement attaches to the back of a tractor and inserts water and fertilizer into holes that it digs as it spins. Two people sit on the back and place plants in raised beds. This is an efficient way to eliminate the risk of untreated seeds rotting, especially in wet springs like this last one. Brubaker has found that recyclable black plastic, laid over these beds, holds in moisture, heats the soil, and controls weeds. He uses drip irrigation to conserve water and energy.

Nine years ago, Brubaker’s youngest daughter, Debra, built a bat house to help control pests for a junior high science fair. Two years ago the two of them sat on the lawn in the evening and counted over 400 bats flying out of it. These bats have especially helped control the lightning bugs, which used to take bites out of the raspberries.

As children and workers move on, Brubaker has begun to rely on interns

With his children getting older, and several workers moving away, Brubaker has begun to rely increasingly on the internship program for help. The program began in 1991 when his son brought a friend home from college to work for a summer. Brubaker has gradually added more help as he’s needed it, advertising in places such as the ATTRA web site. This year Village Acres has more interns than ever. The program works well for Brubaker because it provides labor and he can reward interns with food, lodging, and education, along with a small monthly stipend and a share of the profit.

The interns like it as well. “I like that we’re not just workers,” said Lowen. “Roy is very focused on make it a learning situation.” Besides leading field trips to other farms, Brubaker has offered workshops this season on topics including the building of a deer shack, soil science, farm finance, field plans for the year, and weed control. Additionally, each intern is in charge of a different aspect of the farm, such as “irrigation,” “asparagus,” or “the tomatoes.” One two-year intern is even running the CSA program this year.

These interns live and eat with the Brubakers, taking turns cooking meals. “Roy does a good job of letting interns be not just employees but contributors to the overall farming operation,” said Neil Stauffer, another intern. “We feel like a part of his family. It’s much different than just going to a job and punching a clock.”

The internship program is one way in which Brubaker is able to pass on what he has learned. “At my age I’m thinking of ways to transition to other people who want to carry on with the farm,” he said. “I want to help assist with that. And its already happening.”

It is indeed. That day fourteen people, including interns, friends, and family, had helped in preparing boxes for the CSA. The lot sat on the lawn in the evening eating a scrumptious meal of stir-fried vegetables with peanut sauce and fresh fish from the creek.

There was only one complaint, coming from Lowen. “I’m so sick of pea shoots,” he said, pushing them to the side of his plate with a grin. “Pea shoots have been in every salad since the beginning of the summer.” But Brubaker, who was sitting next to him, stuck a forkful of greens into his mouth and smiled contentedly. Apparently, he didn’t feel he had anything to complain about.