A Tough Row to Hoe | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Tough Row to Hoe

Four beginning organic farmers plow through, plant and harvest their first season in Natrona Heights.

Farming is pretty simple. Someone buries a seed in dirt; moistened by rain and fed by the sun, it grows until it's ready to sell.

But standing where sunlight strikes earth on a hilltop near Natrona Heights, watching Greg Boulos kneel to pick a 100-yard row of peppers by hand, you begin to grasp how complicated simplicity can be.

It's about 8 a.m. the morning after Labor Day, overcast and humid in this field tucked between forest and a row of suburban houses. Boulos, in wire-rimmed glasses, a dirty-blond goatee and ponytail, is breaking little yellow peppers off their stems. He's also yanking weeds that have sprouted over the past couple of weeks, some now besting the pepper plants in size: purslane, foxtail, a towering pigweed whose stout taproot demands a two-handed pull.

Some of the season's flowering plants cause hay fever. Shortly, Boulos' sinuses are clogging. He skips a section heavy with ragweed, lest he have to go lay down awhile.

In adjacent crop rows crouch and stoop Boulos' three partners in a new venture. Boulos, 32, and his wife, Jen Montgomery; his brother, Dave; and their friend Heath Gamaché are well into their first season running Blackberry Meadows Farm. It's Allegheny County's oldest and largest organic farm, and they're leasing it -- and learning the ropes -- from Jack and Dale Duff, the couple who are now retiring after founding it 18 years ago.

The four partners, who also do business as sustainability consulting firm Urban Homesteaders, plan to buy this 86-acre spread outright. Their goal is to run Blackberry Meadows not only as a sustainable farm, but as a model for a new generation of young growers, and a linchpin in the burgeoning local-foods movement. They hope, in other words, to counter national trends toward aging farmers and dwindling farmland -- and to find ways to mesh their ideals with the realities of growing food in a market dominated by giant agribusiness.

Ultimately, that will require securing some $600,000 in mortgage loans -- a sobering prospect, especially when they have minimal professional farming experience.

Making the money to service that debt means things like snuffling through hay fever while weeding peppers whose name Boulos doesn't know. (They're mini-bells.) Things like Montgomery scissoring the arugula just above each plant's "grow point," so it'll keep producing. And making sure, as Gamaché is doing, that there'll be 500 stems of parsley for the customers who'll arrive tomorrow to pick up their weekly order.

In their first season, Blackberry's new operators have done fine. But it hasn't been easy: The vagaries of weather have been compounded by beginning-farmers' mistakes.

Next to his peppers, Greg Boulos stands to stretch. Discussing his work, he's both sincere and self-effacing. "We want to get more people into this ... 'cause it sounds so great, with me sneezing: 'Farming's great! I can't breathe, but it's great!'"

May 17 -- The Farm in Spring

Spring's been dry, including a two-and-half-week rainless stretch. Even so, on a cool, gray day in May, Blackberry Meadows seems all possibility.

"This is our first week of telling Jack and Dale, 'This is what we're gonna do,'" says Montgomery, 30. She favors pin-striped overalls; her pinned-up, shoulder-length brown hair and soft, youthful features belie a handshake calloused as any yeoman's.

The land -- decades ago, it was a dairy farm -- is a patchwork of fields and woods in the Allegheny River valley, 25 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh and a few miles west of Route 28. Of the property's 86 acres, 14 are in production, either fallow -- green with soil-friendly crops like rye -- or plowed for planting. The remaining acreage is woods and grasslands. Industrial-scale farms would scrape such terrain clean to accommodate more corn and soybeans, but sustainable farmers nurture it as habitat for such creatures as pest-eating birds, and for protection against soil erosion.

Blackberry's cold-weather crops, like arugula and kale, are already in the ground. In three greenhouses, condensation drips on new flowers and 90 trays of tomato seedlings. Chickens -- broilers as well as 80 laying hens -- cluck in their outdoor pen. A day earlier, Montgomery and Boulos signed a one-year lease with the Duffs, the farm's owners.

As Montgomery conducts a tour of this idyllic scene, the promise of the harvest seems to augur an auspicious future. "We have big dreams for this place," she says. "We don't want it to just be a farm."

Most American food is produced on huge farms, with heavy doses of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides -- and a lot of fuel. The average item on your plate is estimated to have traveled 1,500 miles from its source. While such food is plentiful and cheap, the spin-off effects of eating it are devastating: massive fuel consumption; increased global warming; waters poisoned by agricultural runoff; bankrupt small farmers; depleted crop diversity; and poor human health, if not caused by the pollution itself then by the high-starch, high-sugar diet this system encourages.

By contrast, the seeds for Urban Homesteaders and their Blackberry takeover were planted in the soil of a larger sustainability movement.

It's soil that Montgomery, a West Virginia native, began digging in after college. The environmental-studies major and self-described "Miracle-Gro gardener" took a low-wage job on an organic farm in Virginia: four acres, no tractor, lots of hoeing. Then came stints in Scotland and New Zealand with Willing Workers On Organic Farms, a group that matches travelers with growers who trade room and board for labor. The experience suggested to Montgomery "that farming wasn't going to make me money."

Montgomery met Boulos and Gamaché as classmates in Slippery Rock University's graduate Sustainable Systems program, which taught sustainable agriculture as well as green architecture and alternatives to fossil fuels. She also spent one summer during grad school at Kretschmann Farm, a long-running organic operation near Zelienople, Pa. "That's what really kicked me ... to realize I could do it on my own, and that I really didn't want to work for someone else." She and Boulos, who grew up in West View, began talking about getting a farm.

Last year, Montgomery worked for the nonprofit GrowPittsburgh, part of the city's fledgling urban-farms network; Boulos was helping to run Steel City Biofuels, the alternative-fuels advocacy group he co-founded. The couple knew Jack Duff from the South Side Farmers' Market, where he was the lone organic vendor. In mid-2006, by which time they were living in the South Side, they heard his farm was for sale.

Buying it took time: Several potential partners balked. "The four of us just kind of forged on ahead," Montgomery says. By year's end, Urban Homesteaders was implementing plans for growing Blackberry Meadows: expanding its list of subscription customers; increasing its presence at farmers' markets; and selling wholesale.

Shortly, Jack Duff was giving tractor lessons, and Dale Duff was tutoring Montgomery about such things as staggering plantings of spring lettuce to ensure supplies throughout the season. Soon, Dave Boulos was turning over the soil from atop a rebuilt 1953 Alice Chalmers tractor -- one of the four Blackberry Meadows tractors Urban Homesteaders hope to retrofit for biodiesel. ("That would be pretty cool, to grow our own oil," says Montgomery.) Meanwhile, they began warming the newly seeded greenhouse with a passive solar-thermal rig, replacing the Duff's old propane system.

By May, the Duff's ranch house felt like home: Though she and Boulos officially remain South Siders, Montgomery all but lives at the farm, where workdays are long but nights are quiet.

It's still a transitional time at Blackberry Meadows. Besides Jack and Dale, Jen and Dave are the only full-time workers -- part of a strategy to keep costs down. A small volunteer crew includes Greg and Dave's dad, a retired schoolteacher, while Greg works part-time for Steel City Biofuels. (Gamaché, an environmental educator at a Lutheran youth camp, won't arrive until September.)

In an industrial-scaled U.S. agricultural system where volume rules, Blackberry is tiny: The average U.S. farm is 440 acres. But in a niche market where mixed organic lettuce can sell for $12 a pound, Montgomery figures, farms don't need to be huge to be profitable -- just smart.

July 18 -- Community Supported

The cows are long gone, but Blackberry Meadows still has a barn. Set alongside winding, two-laned Ridge Road, it's an amiable hulk of weathered wood, spruced up with mulched beds sprouting hostas, day lilies and little American flags. On Wednesdays from mid-June into October, the barn embodies a local-food advocate's dreams for the future.

In other words, it's CSA day -- when subscribers to Blackberry's community-supported agriculture program come to collect their produce. In exchange for a seasonal share priced at $450 (half-shares are also available), members receive a weekly cornucopia of whatever is in season.

Since the dry early spring, there's been roughly an inch of rain weekly, the perfect amount. As a result, today's bounty is sweet: cabbage, zucchini, lettuce, green kale, fennel, chard, parsley, green and purple basil, mint, dill, green beans, garlic and flowers, plus softball-sized heirloom tomatoes -- German striped, Cherokee purple and Moskovitch, each plump as a baby's cheek. Inside the barn, it all sits in a big self-service U, in big plastic buckets arrayed on picnic-cloth-covered tables. Blackberry staffers and volunteers (Montgomery's parents and Boulos') check people in and answer questions.

CSAs are one part of a growing movement toward local food. For some "locavores," who favor food produced as close to home as possible, eating local is about economic development -- keeping consumer dollars close. Others emphasize the freshness, taste or safety in a time of food-borne viruses. Still, others see a broader goal: a kind of revolt against a grocery-industrial complex in which big farms produce food under toxic conditions for consumers a continent away.

Localism encompasses the Slow Food movement, which began in Italy two decades ago. (Pittsburgh has its own Slow Food chapter.) The idea is not solely about eating fewer meals behind the steering wheel. It's not even necessarily about eating organic food, which is one part of a bigger picture. It's also about reconnecting growers and the public so people become not mere consumers, but knowledgeable partners in a more environmentally sustainable, face-to-face community.

CSAs arrived in the U.S. in 1985, when a pair of organic farmers in Massachusetts -- inspired by similar efforts in Europe -- started programs to help small farmers while assuring subscribers of fresh, safe and healthy food. The concept blossomed in the 1990s, when the estimated number of CSAs nationwide began growing from 50 or so to more than 1,000 by 2006.

Jack and Dale Duff launched their CSA in the early '90s; it's one of about a dozen in the Pittsburgh area, and likely the oldest. The Duffs distributed most of their harvest to CSA members; they also gave about three tons a year (about one-fifth of their harvest) to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. The latter practice is one the new operators have discontinued: "They gave away all their bounty," says Greg Boulos. "We took it to market."

If that sounds ungenerous, remember that the Duffs viewed Blackberry Meadows largely as a philanthropic venture. For Urban Homesteaders, making their small organic farm prosper within the American capitalist system is not only financially necessary, but would also prove that such farming is economically viable. And in fact this year, the new farmers grew the number of Blackberry CSA subscribers from 100 to 120 (with more on a waiting list), while raising the share price from $400 to $450.

Starting at 11 a.m. on this mid-July day at Blackberry, a steady trickle of lone parents with kids in strollers, singles and a few couples visit the barn. Most bring their own bags and boxes; one has a red wagon for both kids and veggies.

"We love the idea of organic vegetables, locally grown, picked fresh," says Serina Toman, of Swissvale. "It was a good way to afford a lot of vegetables."

Toman, 27, is pregnant; along with a towel-lined basket for today's take, she brought her 2- and 4-year-old. Most CSAs conduct drop-offs at farmers' markets or other centralized locations. But Toman doesn't mind the 25-minute drive from her home -- a drive that includes, as part of her customized CSA agreement, stopping in Wilkinsburg to pick up Wood Street Bakery bread for Blackberry to sell. "I like the kids to see where the food comes from," she says.

July 21 -- The Strip District

Fifteen minutes before the market opens, the customers are already swarming -- like pigeons after breadcrumbs -- scouting lettuce at the Strip District's Saturday-morning Farmers@Firehouse market. At 9:30 a.m., someone rings a ceremonial cowbell and people crowd the 14 vendors, including Blackberry Meadows.

Blackberry's is among the larger spreads -- three tables laden with green beans, kale, heirloom tomatoes. Standing behind the veggies are Blackberry partner Dave Boulos; his girlfriend, Roz; and Tom Duff, the tool-and-die production manager who 19 years ago suggested that his brother and sister-in-law use their newly acquired acreage to try organic gardening.

The six-year-old Farmers@Firehouse, established mostly for growers who are certified organic or headed that way, attracts some of Pittsburgh's biggest foodies. "We love to cook," says Helen DeFranco, a Churchill nurse anesthesiologist who's here with her husband, a researcher at Pitt Medical School. Like most buyers of local organic food, their prime concern is health, but flavor isn't far behind. DeFranco's bag is loaded with heirlooms, purple basil, beans, fennel for grilling. She swears by Blackberry: "They really have the best. Every single item is superior to everywhere else."

Such items can also seem pricey, by supermarket standards: While selling at a farmers' market requires minimal advertising and marketing costs, a single huge German-striped tomato and a bunch of beets sets one Blackberry customer back $8. The price reflects the so-called "organic premium": the extra 10 percent to 100 percent or more (depending on item and season) that consumers are willing to pay, and which helps small producers survive.

At farmers' markets, as with CSAs, the relationship between farmer and eater is pleasantly direct as well as environmentally friendly. But it also creates a marketplace full of paradoxes.

Long before most people ever heard of "locavores," organic was well on its way to becoming a full-fledged industry. The change came after 1990, when federal regulations for certifying food as organic made the field attractive to big investors. After some 15 years of double-digit growth, U.S. sales are an estimated $18 billion (still just 2.5 percent of the total). And most revenue accrues to large producers like the industrial-scale spreads in California, which boast long growing seasons and low-wage migrant labor.

Fueled by food-contamination scares and concerns about genetically modified organisms, "organic" soon became a mainstream buzzword. In 2000, for the first time, more organic food was purchased in conventional supermarkets than in other venues. That arrangement ill suits small farmers, who can't compete with the economies of scale enjoyed by agribusiness.

But a backlash was coming. Most recently, it's been spurred by books like Michael Pollan's 2006 best-seller The Omnivore's Dilemma, which traced the origins and environmental costs of four meals: fast food, industrial-scale organic, sustainable small-farm-grown, and hunted-and-gathered. (The industrial-organic meal came out looking only marginally better than the conventional.) Under the slogan "local is the new organic," environmentalist outrage and foodie gourmandizing are on the rise, and local farmers have harvested the bounty. Farmers' markets -- which had nearly vanished during the supermarket-and-subdivision 1960s -- have bloomed. Between 1994 (the first year the USDA counted) and 2006, their numbers increased 150 percent, to 4,385 nationally.

Another rough measure of locavorism is the USDA's "direct sales for human consumption" statistic, which records food sales that bypass middlemen such as grocery stores. (It also includes such direct-sale venues as roadside stands and pick-your-own produce patches.) Between 1997 and 2002, direct sales rose 38 percent, to $812 million. In Allegheny and Butler counties alone, it rose to $2.7 million, a 60 percent jump.

Of course, not all direct sales are local (some are mail-order), and not all local sales are direct. This year, Pittsburgh's East End Food Co-Op dramatically increased the space it allots to local (and mostly organic) produce, roughly doubling sales, according to store manager Rob Baran. Even Giant Eagle supermarkets now highlight local (if non-organic) produce, including the name of the farm it came from.

Yet despite such growth, according to the USDA, only one in 20 U.S. farms did any direct sales in 2002, and such supermarket circumvention accounted for just four-tenths of 1 percent of all sales.

Meanwhile, there's an irony. Farmers' markets are labor-intensive: Growers must truck in their sweet corn from miles away, and leave staffers sitting with it for hours at a stretch. By midseason, Blackberry Meadows realized that it had underestimated the time needed to weed the fields and truck produce to three weekly farmers' markets. "It just takes a toll," Greg Boulos says.

"There's not enough farms to go around," says Megan Cook, of the Farmers' Market Alliance of Western Pennsylvania. Baran, a Farmers' Market Alliance board member, says that last year, three planned markets -- including one the Co-Op was to help run -- never happened, for lack of vendors.

All that leaves farms like Blackberry in a curious place. Even small farms grow more than they can sell face-to-face, either at markets or through a CSA. (A notable exception is Kretschmann Farm, near Zelienople, whose hundreds of subscribers reputedly make it among the largest CSA farms in the Northeast.) And even at farmers' markets, it's hard selling garlic for $2 a head when conventional growers camped 10 yards away have it for 75 cents.

To satisfy potential mortgage lenders, then, Blackberry must find new markets for its produce. That means wholesaling, something the Duffs seldom did. Last winter, the Co-Op upped its commitment to local farms by contracting with Blackberry for $30,000 in produce this season -- its first-ever such agreement with an area grower.

Of course, to get paid, Blackberry must deliver all that kale and broccoli -- a process that nature, among other factors, makes uncertain. And even at the philosophically friendly Co-Op, a head of local lettuce, say, might retail for 30 cents more per pund than a head from massive California organic growers. That's why CSAs and an organic-themed market like Farmers@Firehouse are so amenable: They let farmers short-circuit mass-market logic by finding, perhaps even creating, custom customers for just the produce they produce, shoppers who value proximity over price.

At Farmers@Firehouse, 20 minutes after the opening bell, all of Blackberry's lettuce is sold, along with half of its tomatoes.

A customer approaches and sees the half-empty tray. "Wow," he says. "These things go quickly."

Aug. 9 -- Selling the Farm

August is the busiest month on a farm. You harvest the spring crops, greenhouse the fall crops, and just try to keep up with the 12-hour workdays. Beans don't wait -- pick them daily or they go woody. Lately, even the weather is uncooperative: Eleven days above 90 degrees so far, compared to just eight all last summer, threatening the delicate buds of autumn's crucial tomato and pepper crops.

"It's starting to get overwhelming," says Jen Montgomery, stuck indoors this morning because of a wicked thunderstorm, complete with power outage. "The weeds are growing just as fast as the vegetables."

The season has, in fact, been tough on Blackberry's new farmers. A too-warm April and a dry May devastated the spring's broccoli, lettuce and spinach. As a result, the $30,000 Co-Op contract has yielded just $10,000 in revenue. The team's real Achilles heel, however, is manpower. The Duffs supplemented their labor with volunteers, interns from Goodwill Industries and the occasional hired hand. To save money for their down payment, Urban Homesteaders didn't even pay themselves.

It's seldom easy for a farm to change hands. For decades, U.S farms have blossomed in acreage while withering in number; today there are about 2.1 million farms, fewer than one-third the number in 1940. Most farms remain family-owned, but the very biggest (the top 2 percent) account for half of all agricultural sales. Most farms, especially the smaller ones, lose money. Debt is high, and rising land prices increase the pressure to sell to developers. The children of farm families opt out: Today's average U.S. farm operator is more than 55 years old.

For those who won't inherit acreage, impediments to farming include scarce credit. Banks "don't understand the farming industry anymore," says Charlene Berg, a Beaver County horse-farmer and a farm-loan manager with the federal Farm Service Agency's Mercer County office. Another hindrance is inexperience. "Farming sounds like a really lovely thing to do. But we're looking for the person who understands farming as a business," says Berg, whose agency helps farmers who can't get conventional loans. "Those are a little fewer and farther between."

Yet more people are interested, it seems. The Duffs, for instance, had two other suitors for Blackberry Meadows (both CSA members). Evidence, though mostly anecdotal, suggests that the desire to farm is high. "We know the number of young people that want to get into farming is growing, because they come to our conference," says Brian Snyder, who heads the nonprofit Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Five years back, PASA's annual conference in State College drew 1,000 attendees; this year, 1,700 attended, many of them in their early 30s or younger.

Most interested parties lack the means to outbid real-estate developers. But Jack and Dale Duff made it relatively easy: They wanted Blackberry Meadows to stay a farm. In 1988, when they bought the overgrown former dairy spread, they were South Hills professionals commuting Downtown. At the end of 1989 -- after organic gardening experiments suggested by Jack's brother proved successful -- Jack left his banking career. "You could call us the accidental farmers," says Dale, a lean woman with bobbed hair. "A lot of people thought we went nuts," says Jack, who's tall and like his wife favors ballcaps and wire-rimmed glasses.

The Duffs, both 61, are considering retirement in Montana, perhaps in 2008, if everything works out. When they were beginning to farm themselves, they relied on back issues of Organic Gardener. (Later, they attended conferences.) Now they're passing on what they know. Why pick Urban Homesteaders over the other candidate? "Youthfulness," says Jack. "Plus more farming experience.

"There's a lot you can do with this farm," he adds.

Sept. 4 -- Harvest

It's harvest time. Tomorrow's the CSA pickup, and Blackberry Meadows' four new operators -- it's Gamaché's first day on the job -- have set today aside today for picking and washing produce. Signs of industry, and the need for it, abound.

A long runner of gauzy white polyester -- a "floating row cover" --lays like a hairnet over the arugula, the first line of defense against flea beetles. (The second is PyGanic, an approved organic pesticide derived from chrysanthemums.) Here's the kale transplanted late from the greenhouse because the weather was either too hot or too wet. There's the zucchini suffering from wilt that might need a spray of day-old milk to keep fungus at bay.

And there's Dave Boulos, picking peppers. In January, at age 30, he left his job as a computer technician; by March, without a minute of farming experience, he was riding a tractor. He's now the farm-market guy, the sales specialist in training; picking hurts his back some, but not too much. "Especially on days like this, I think it's relaxing," he says. "No one telling you what to do. Just going at your own pace, getting stuff done."

With no paid staff, this season Urban Homesteaders is relying on volunteers -- Montgomery's parents, as well as Greg and Dave Boulos', who arrive mid-morning. Last week, each worked 28 farm-hours. Ted Boulos, in a ballcap and green sweatpants, starts a conversation about The Sopranos (which he's been watching on DVD) while he and his wife, Barbara, in a visor and gardening gloves, fill a plastic bin with lush sweet red peppers.

Nearby, Montgomery and Gamaché pull undersized beets from the ground, right by a row of carrots she had to plant three times (after they didn't take on the first two). Greg Boulos takes his hay-fever break, and returns with a straw hat for Jen. A few minutes later, feeling the heat, everyone breaks. There are still tomatoes to pick, and eggplants. But for now, the place to be is the tomato shed in the lower level of the CSA barn, an air-conditioned 67 degrees. The morning's pickings are in blue plastic barrels, waiting to be washed by hand.

Sept. 25 -- Downtown Pittsburgh

Today, Greg Boulos isn't picking peppers. He's Downtown, meeting consultants to talk business plans for his other job, with Steel City Biofuels. Over lunch at an Italian bistro, Boulos says he's also still waiting to hear about crucial Blackberry Meadows business: the multiple loan applications he's filed.

Financing the farm's $650,000 sale price should entail $50,000 down, with loans of $200,000 each from: a private nonprofit lender specializing in agriculture; one of several state programs designed to help new farmers; and the Farm Services Administration, a federal agency with a reputation as a tough sell.

Should one of the applications fail, Boulos will re-apply. He's confident of closing the sale before the lease expires, at year's end. Otherwise, he can look for investors or possibly extend the lease and try again next year.

Yes, Boulos acknowledges, Blackberry goofed at midseason: The greenhouse got too little water, costing at least two weeks on such fall crops as broccoli, meant for sale at the East End Food Co-op. But revenue from wholesale (including some restaurants) and farmers' markets doubled, putting the farm on target for its revenue goals. "We did really well, despite the setbacks," says Boulos. "That's a diversified income stream."

Next year, he adds, Blackberry might hire a distributor to get more of its harvest to regional stores and restaurants. I ask whether that strays from the face-to-face philosophy of local agriculture. "It's just a way of getting the food out there," he says. Distributors have capabilities the farm lacks, he points out: storing food, and delivering orders the next day.

Boulos foresees a day when "we'd wean out of that distribution system." The reason: rising fuel prices, the fate of a market he studies through Steel City Biofuels. "The local economy is gonna be the only thing that survives."

Meantime, might the need to grow the business ever conflict with sustainable practices?

"The more we adhere to sustainability, the better we're going to do," Boulos says. As an ideal, he cites the practice of "permaculture." It's an approach that -- when combined with smart water management, perennial plants and other techniques -- strengthens the soil so much that crops practically grow themselves. "It's eco-system building," Boulos says, conjuring visions of a man-made Eden, one where farming really is as simple as it seems to the uninitiated.

For now, though, the key to success is diverse sources of revenue as well as diversity of crops. "It is a business," he says. "It has to be in the black. If we're in the red, it means local agriculture is dead."

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