Small Farm Dreams Can Come True in Pittsburgh
May 31, 2016 12:30PM
● By Jennifer Monahan
Garfield Community Farm
Have you ever dreamed of making and selling artisanal cheese or maybe growing your own hops and creating the best craft beer in town? It turns out that you are not alone. Small-scale agriculture is a growing national trend catching on in and around Pittsburgh.
Heather Manzo, a Penn State Extension educator who specializes in agricultural entrepreneurship and community economic development, recently taught a course in Pittsburgh called Exploring the Small Farm Dream. The class was designed to help people interested in starting a farm or turning an informal farming pastime into a business endeavor.
According to Manzo, Pittsburgh is ripe for such enterprise for a variety of reasons—not the least of which is Pittsburgh’s growing recognition as a foodie mecca where restauranteurs and their patrons place a premium on quality, locally sourced ingredients. The local food movement means that small-scale farmers in the area have real opportunities to connect with farm-to-table restaurants. The result is a strong regional market for farmers to sell their products.
Nationally, the majority of farms are small in terms of sales, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture report put out by the Department of Agriculture in 2012.* Three quarters of farms sell less than $50,000 in agricultural products and over half (52 percent) of current farmers have a primary occupation other than farming.
The average age of farmers in 2012 was 58, according to the USDA, and Manzo said that many existing farmers nearing retirement age are facing the reality of having no one who wants to continue the family business. The need is clear for a new generation of farmers to step in, and small-scale agriculture can help fill the void.
Though there is no universal profile for a person who has small farm dreams, Manzo has had many millennials (people born in the 1980s and early 1990s) take her courses. They do it, they tell her, because they are committed to making a positive impact on the community; because they are entrepreneurial; because they want to create something genuine and authentic or because they are looking for a supplemental income. Manzo’s classes also draw people who have been successful in one professional field but are ready to shift over to a second career. This group, like the millennials, is often motivated by a commitment to social justice issues and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Even with such positive intentions, making a small farm into a prosperous business is no easy task.
“Passion doesn’t pay the taxes,” Manzo explained, adding that the most successful people are those who approach farming like they would any other business. They do market research. They write a business plan. They pay attention to capacity and scale.
One remarkable small-scale agricultural success story in the heart of Pittsburgh is Garfield Community Farm, run by the Rev. John Creasy, associate pastor of the Open Door Church. Garfield Community Farm is a partnership between Open Door and Valley View Presbyterian Church.
In 2009, Creasy and his group started a small community garden in Garfield. Since then, the farm has expanded to 2.5 acres. It now includes fruit and nut trees, berry shrubs, annual gardens and a bio-shelter greenhouse.
“It’s a positive thing in an area that saw a lot of negative things over the past 25 or 30 years,” said Creasy.
The positive aspects are many. Garfield Community Farm provides access to fresh, organic produce for people whose socioeconomic situation would otherwise preclude it. The farm builds healthy soil through composting, and receives donations of wood chips and leaves from the City of Pittsburgh as well as coffee grounds from local coffee shops. Garfield Community Farm rests on top of what were once abandoned lots. Creasy offers educational events and classes to the community, and for the past four years has been able to provide summer camp experiences focused on nutrition and gardening basics. Creasy said the endeavor has strengthened Garfield’s sense of community.
Creasy is excited about this summer’s plans for a mobile market. The ‘farm stand on a trailer’ he described will offer even easier access to fresh produce for neighborhood residents.
In order to finance the farm and still offer fresh produce at the lowest price possible to those in need, Garfield Community Farm sells high-end salad ingredients such as microgreens and edible flowers to seven local restaurants. Creasy has also developed partnerships with other churches to support the farm; both the restaurant sales and church donations help offset costs.
Creasy’s creative approach to urban agriculture offers one vision for the future of farming. And every single farm—no matter how small—matters, according to Manzo.
“To be a stable society, we need farmers,” said Manzo. “Community leaders, city planners and land-use decision makers need to keep that in mind and balance it against development pressures when they are making decisions about access to land.”
For more information, check out http://extension.psu.edu/food/entrepreneurs and www.garfieldfarm.com.
*To see the most recent Census of Agriculture, visit: www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Farm_Demographics