Agricultural groups responding to the needs
of Lehigh Valley's sustainable farmers
A recreational gardener wants to go beyond planting tomatoes and turnips but doesn't have enough land. A poultry
farmer wants to start raising free-range chickens. A dairy farmer wants to start making cheese and yogurt to sell
Whatever a farmer's need, agricultural organizations in the region are stepping up initiatives to help him or
This year, for example, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture plans to launch FarmFutures, a
program that regional director Marilyn Anthony likens to a combination of eHarmony and eBay.
FarmFutures will be a marketplace in which the seeker — the longing-to-be farmer — and the fulfiller — the
landowner with acres to spare — can come together online and face-to-face.
These endeavors are mostly aimed at a "new" breed of farmers, those who till just a few acres or produce meat,
cheese and eggs from animals that are fed grass and roam free or livestock with little exposure to hormones and
"We really see small farming as the future of farming in Pennsylvania," Anthony said.
Anthony spoke last week at Sustainable Food Production in the Lehigh Valley, a symposium organized by the Weston
A. Price Foundation.
The national organization promotes diets that are heavy on nutrient-dense foods. Its mission is based on
theories and research pushed by the late Price, a dentist who in the 1930s argued that native, unprocessed foods
boosted the health of teeth and body.
The foods Price promoted are the ones people increasingly want to make the focus of their diet, Anthony
Consider the explosion nationally of farmers markets, which grew from 1,000 in 1994 to 6,000 in 2009, according
to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That explosion includes the one in Emmaus, which since opening in 2003 has grown so popular that some vendors
are having a hard time keeping their stands supplied. Another Valley venue will open in the spring in ArtsQuest's
SteelStacks entertainment campus on Bethlehem's South Side.
There are more than 1,400 community supported agriculture programs in the nation where farmers bring fresh
produce directly to spots where members can pick them up. In 1986, there were a "handful" of such programs, Anthony
Unlike previous generations, many of today's new farmers don't come from farming backgrounds, and often lack the
skills or land to practice their trade. That's where programs such as FarmFutures come in.
The Penn State Cooperative Extension in Lehigh County also has boosted its offerings to meet demand.
About two years ago, rising interest in chemical-free farming led the extension to hire a sustainable
agricultural educator to work in Lehigh and Northampton counties.
This spring, the extension will offer five workshops on Exploring Your Small Farm Dream. In the past, it offered
the course twice.
"We're seeing a tremendous growth in that area," said Bob Leiby, extension director in Lehigh County.
Interest in farming has spread to the youngest adults. Enrollment in Penn State's College of Agricultural
Science has increase by 43 percent to 2,500 students over the past five years, Leiby said.
Education is a key to ensuring that sustainable farmers, using practices typically more expensive, are
Happy Farm co-owners Jean Nick and Tom Colbaugh raise turkeys, chicken and ducks in Springfield Township on a
diet of herbicide- and pesticide-free cracked corn, oats and wheat produced by a farmer about 60 miles away
When the partners decided to farm six years ago, they couldn't find a processor close enough to butcher their
chickens so they had to buy equipment and do it themselves.
And because no area manufacturer produces egg containers, Happy Farm is paying nearly 50 cents per container
once shipping is factored in, Nick said.
Stronger regional partnerships are needed, but Nick said they are lacking, in part because of government
policies that make it too cumbersome to, for instance, become certified to open a processing plant.
Changing public policy's a huge part of it, agreed Dan Sullivan, managing editor of BioCycle and former editor
of a Rodale Institute online magazine dedicated to farming.
"Land access is huge," Sullivan said, adding that public land should be considered an option for those who want
to grow sustainably.
John Place, a Philadelphia area native, opened Keepsake Farm & Dairy near Bath four years ago with his
Brooklyn-raised wife. The two sell raw milk, artisanal cheeses and eggs and raise grass-fed beef. They've developed
a devoted following, and have plans to one day add sausage and perhaps local beer to their repertoire.
"There's no telling where to go," he said. "Sustainability leads to creativity."
Nick said despite the challenges, 2010 was their biggest year yet. They couldn't produce enough to get through
even one week at the Emmaus Farmers Market without running out of food, and she predicts more growth.
"It's a very exciting time and place for our food system right now," Nick said.