Agriculture incubator program links new farmers with land, training
Seed Farm Manager Becca Munro, right, gives instruction to apprentice Jen Bell on using the flail mower to cut growth on one of the fields at the Upper Milford Township farm incubator site.
Many area residents may remember the old Seem Seed Farm on Vera Cruz Road outside of Emmaus, where they tasseled corn as one of their first jobs. Now a new generation of farmers is working the land and continuing the long tradition of agriculture in the region.
The Seem Farm is now home to the Seed Farm, an agricultural incubator project launched in 2009 that works with Lehigh County and the Penn State Extension.
The county purchased the 453-acre Seem Farm in 1974 and various proposals were entertained for its use. Jeff Zehr, Seed Farm Board treasurer and director of Lehigh County’s Farmland Preservation Program, said the opportunity to launch a farm incubator in the late-2000s presented a “creative use” for the land and an alternative to conventional farming that would still preserve the land for agriculture.
“The county a long time ago recognized the fact that we need to do something to protect the good and high-quality farmland that we have in Lehigh County and the Lehigh Valley,” Zehr said. “As we were preserving all this land, and spending a lot of money to preserve this land, we began to think about the need for land for the next generation and helping new farmers get onto the land.”
The county’s Farmland Preservation Program has preserved 251 farms comprising 20,761 acres of farmland since 1989. However, as the farming population in Pennsylvania and across the nation continues to age and enters retirement, the need for new farmers is becoming paramount.
“It comes down to the fact that we need new farmers because we need to replace those who will be retiring soon and who are retiring now,” Zehr said.
“I think there is a recognition that it’s difficult to start farming. Especially young people who want to get started, they don’t have the capital to purchase a new farm and all the equipment that might be necessary, and we just want to help facilitate that and make it easier for [them] to start farming,” he added.
The Seed Farm – which comprises 25 acres of the original Seem Farm – aims to address the main barriers to farm entry: lack of access to capital, to land and to training.
Farmer apprentices are involved in all aspects of farm management – from crop planning to cultivation, pest and disease control, harvest and sales – and also take classes at the Penn State Extension.
“They learn not only how to farm but how to make a business plan, marketing, the financial process involved in starting a farm. So it’s not just the farming side of it, but also how to turn farming into a farm business,” Seed Farm Executive Director Lindsey Parks said.
After completing the apprenticeship, aspiring farmers can apply to the farm stewardship program, which allows them to rent – at a discount – acreage to further develop their own business models. Farm stewards also have access to equipment and the knowledge and expertise of the farm manager.
Anton Shannon, a farm steward for the past three years and owner/operator of Good Work Farm, said that the Seed Farm has provided him “with the main means of farming that are, most times, unaffordable.
“You usually have to go into debt the first couple years to buy a tractor or a greenhouse or both, while at the same time figuring out the marketing and the business and the vegetable production.”
Being at the Seed Farm allows him to focus more on refining his production techniques and business plan. For the 2014 season, Shannon will be moving his business off the Seed Farm to continue farming with his partner Lisa Miskelly.
The three apprentices currently working on the Seed Farm have all come to the program by different routes, but they all share a passion for working the land, growing delicious and healthy food in environmentally sustainable ways, and contributing to a more robust, local food system.
“The apprentices’ dedication to learning the finer points of farming and having some experience and knowing that [farming] is really what they want to pursue really changes the dynamic of the farm,” Farm Manager Becca Munro, a Harleysville native, said.
“It’s amazing,” apprentice Emma Cuniff said. “I feel like I’m getting a huge variety of experience, rather than just one method or one way of farming. "And just having an opportunity to test [equipment and ideas] out before I really invest a lot has been really important to me.”
The program is funded through a combination of county assistance; federal and private grants; fundraisers, including an annual bike ride and fun run on the farm; a Farm to Table dinner taking place Oct. 6; the Lehigh Valley Harvest event, co-sponsored by Buy Fresh Buy Local Greater Lehigh Valley, at the Allentown Brew Works on Oct. 27; and, of course, produce sales. The Seed Farm, which is working toward organic certification, sells its produce weekly at the Emmaus Farmers’ Market and has various wholesale connections with restaurants and caterers in the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia areas.
“We’re growing a really wide variety of vegetables here, partially as a demonstration of how to grow everything,” Munro said, adding that the program allows new farmers to experiment and grow things they have never tried before. “It’s really interesting and fun to play with that diversity and try those new flavors.”
Now in its fifth year of production, the Seed Farm continues to build its infrastructure and further its network-building capabilities.
“It’s a really exciting time for the Seed Farm because there are so many different ways we can grow right now,” according to Parks. “We’re looking at the local food economy and the Seed Farm’s place in that system, trying to reach out more to the community.”
“In general people are seeing that trying to build up a strong local food system is important ... for the economy and the health of the people in the Lehigh Valley,” Zehr said.
To learn more about the Seed Farm and its events, or to inquire about volunteer opportunities, visit www.theseedfarm.org.