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Taking Root
Community-supported agriculture expands its reach throughout the Greater Philadelphia Area

by Gordon Glantz

Julie McCabe is no different than the vast majority of parents who want the best for their children.

When her daughter, Maisie, was still a toddler, McCabe took action and got involved with the Pennypack Farm & Education Center (PFEC), a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm in Horsham.

“I wanted to catapult [Maisie] to a better diet,” McCabe says. “I wanted to nurture that in a way that was healthy and clean, so I searched to see if that was possible.”

When she saw Maisie frolic in the gardens, plucking cherry tomatoes off the vine, she knew her mission was accomplished.

“To see her as a 3-year-old connect with nature, it gave me such joy,” McCabe recalls.

Maisie is now in sixth grade, and McCabe is the new executive director of PFEC, which has a CSA founded in 2003 and which presently has approximately 400 families in its membership.

She was previously the events and outreach manager at Manna on Main Street, a food bank/pantry in Lansdale. That experience has been crucial in the transition, as PFEC—a nonprofit organization—contributes food to four food banks, including Manna.

In 2015, PFEC (pennypackfarm.org) donated approximately 6,000 pounds of food to area food banks and McCabe stresses that the food is grown specifically for the food banks, as opposed to being leftovers.

With her prior experience at Manna, she understands the communication skills required to meet the needs of each food bank, which are sometimes reluctant to be specific about what they are receiving because they don’t want to be seen as “ungrateful” in any way.

“Pantries are often afraid to say anything,” she says. “I don’t want them to perceive Pennypack in that way. I’m bringing that to my role now. For example, some of the smaller ones don’t have refrigeration, so it is about what fits their needs. If a pantry doesn’t have refrigeration and serves on Thursdays, we make sure they pick up their food on Thursdays. We want to ensure the food can go further without waste.”

Share the Health
Although CSAs are growing and becoming more sought out—PFEC has a waiting list—they are by no means new to the area. For example, the Kimberton CSA (kimbertoncsa.org) in Bucks County claims the distinction of being the oldest CSA in Pennsylvania. It is currently in its 30th year of operation.

Weavers Way Co-op (weaversway.coop) began as a “buying club” by the late Jules Timmerman and other Mt. Airy neighbors in 1973. Weavers Way started its CSA in 2009 as a partnership with Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences. Its mission statement calls not only for cooperation from members to be committed not only to one another but also to the community and the environment.

Nearing the 20-year mark is Greensgrow Farms (greensgrow.org), which has two locations. The first location is five minutes from Center City in the Kensington section of Philadelphia; the second and more recently opened location is on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. Greensgrow Farms was founded by the late Mary Seton Corboy and her business partner, Tom Sereduk, in 1997. It was initially intended to be a hydroponic farm, growing greens for restaurants and the neighborhood.

“The nursery portion of Greensgrow’s farm grows larger every each year as does our CSA program which directly contributes to the sustainability of our nonprofit programs,” says Katie Jacoby, fresh foods manager.

Jacoby explains that increasing interest and demand for locally grown food is “reflected in our membership numbers and our communities’ desires.”

She explains that the model for Greensgrow differs from other CSAs, as it works with a variety of small farms within 150 miles of its Kensington Farm based headquarters.

“We’ve expanded the traditional CSA model by acting as a liaison between our customers and our farmers,” she says. “The strong relationships we’ve built with our farmers allow us to cultivate an open dialogue between our members’ needs and the quality and diversity of our farmer’s crops. We invite many of our farmers to plan a planting schedule at the beginning of each growing season solely for our CSA members. By supporting many farms, we can mitigate the burden of crop failure or extreme weather’s effect on one farm’s harvest. In a sense, we at Greensgrow—our community and our farmers—can all share the burden but can also reap the bountiful rewards.”

And those rewards are passed along to the community—namely, to senior centers and to those in need.

Greensgrow’s nonprofit side uses the revenue from CSA and nursery sales to “support our affordable access, nutrition and educational programs and events,” says Jacoby, adding that the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) box program and “mobile market” truck—a mobile farm stand stocked with inexpensive, fresh produce and healthy foods—was launched in 2010 to improve access to affordable, local food in underserved city neighborhoods.

The SNAP box and mobile-market programs run July through October.

“Everyone can’t afford our thoughtfully crafted CSA shares, but we believe that everyone should, which is why the SNAP box and mobile-market programs are so important to our organization and the community at large,” says Jacoby, adding that the SNAP box members “are given access to foods and share knowledge and skills with our staff and one another to create healthier lives for their families.” 

Facing Challenges
Sharing Bucks County’s terrain with Kimberton is Blooming Glen Farm (bloomingglenfarm.com) in Perkasie, owned and operated by first-generation farmers Tricia Borneman and Tom Murtha.

“When we started our CSA [more than] 10 years ago, we had to do a lot of explaining about what the CSA model was,” says Borneman, whose for-profit operation includes selling at farmer’s markets in Wrightstown and Philadelphia, as well as in the Easton area. “Now I would say there is a much greater awareness of CSAs. Folks seek us out because of the reputation we have built over the years of growing consistent high quality organic produce. We have over 15 years of experience under our belts, so that sets us apart from other farms, and we don’t really have to sell the idea of the CSA anymore.

“I would say for us the two biggest challenges we face are farm labor—finding folks who want to stay on for more than a year or two—and farm ownership,” Borneman continues. “In our county, the cost of land, even for a relatively successful business such as ours, is very prohibitive. Farming is a job that is very tied to place—you spend years building up the soil on a farm, building infrastructure and developing relationships with your customers. It is not easily transferred to a different location.”

Likewise, McCabe views space to expand as a major challenge for PFEC.

“In the suburbs, you don’t have a lot of land that is not being developed for a soccer field or project,” she says. “It’s a unique challenge, but that’s what makes us special.”

What also makes PFEC distinctive is its focus on education, given its motto: Grow-Give-Teach. It employs an education director, Diane Diffenderfer, and two full-time/year-round farm staff members who are serious about making sustainable agriculture a career. There is the option of an 18-month paid apprenticeship under the direction of farm manager Devin Barto.

The programs include on- and off-farm educational opportunities to ensure a “well rounded” view for those chosen from the pools of hopefuls.

“We get a number of applicants, which allows us to be able to choose who is right for us,” says McCabe, who adds that additional interns are deployed during the summer months.

PFEC also prides itself on adult education programs, such as cooking classes and select movies at the Ambler Theatre three times year that are followed by a panel of experts leading a post-film discussion.

“Education is such a core part of our mission,” says McCabe, explaining that Diffenderfer often goes out to speak to children at schools and camps. “We are constantly evaluating our education to make people more aware. We want to take it to the next level and continue to serve as a strong community partner.

“We want to give back to the community we are serving in any way we can.”

Photograph by Bryn Ashburn
 

Suburban Life Magazine