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Farmers Pursue New Purposes to Preserve Age-Old Livelihood

Thursday, September 16, 2010
By Karen Kane, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jeff Urso, left, and Bob Hunt hunt at the Four Seasons Game Bird Farm in Middlesex. Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

There’s a saying in farm circles: Get big or get out. But some farmers here are proving there’s another way to survive. Diversification — essentially a “re-purposing” of the family farm — is bolstering profits and enhancing staying power at a time when many farmers feel forced to trade their tractors for briefcases or hard hats.

The strategies are varied: the berry farmer who begins baking and selling berry pies; the crop farmer who opens his land for hunting; the tree farmer who transforms a barn into a gift shop.

Each strategy has two things in common: eliminating the middleman — which strengthens the connection between the farmer and the public — and putting more money in the pockets of the farmers’ overalls.

It’s win, win, win — for the farmers looking to preserve their way of life; for a region in which agriculture is a key economic generator; and for suburbanites and others who yearn for locally produced foods.

Rooted in ideas

The future of family farming will be rooted as much in creative thinking as in the dirt, said Leah Smith of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. The group’s mission is to promote profitable farms that produce healthy food and respect the environment.

“We are challenging the conventional idea that you either get big or get out in agriculture. We are finding new ways to connect with consumers and give them an opportunity to get closer to the family farm,” Ms. Smith said.

For John Kennedy of Middlesex, the son of a dairy farmer, it “hit him hard” as a teenager that “there are only so many ways to support yourself on the farm, and I’d better start trying some more.”

He was in high school when the drought of 1988 struck, sending shock waves through the farming community. “I realized that I didn’t want to be totally at nature’s mercy for my livelihood, but I wanted to continue to farm,” he said.

He sold the Camaro he had bought with his 4-H project earnings over the years and used the money to buy game birds. He and his wife, Valarie, now operate the 450-acre Four Seasons Game Bird Farm, a regulated hunting preserve in Middlesex.

The couple still raise crops and animals on the land, but when the growing season is just about finished, the property is opened for guided hunting expeditions for ring-necked pheasant, quail and chukar partridges.

“To … pay the bills and have any type of extra, you can’t just do one type of farming any more,” Mrs. Kennedy said. She said that she and her husband knew before they began raising their three children — ages 4, 8 and 11 — that farming was the lifestyle they wanted. And they knew they needed to diversify to make it work.

That’s the message that Jane Eckert conveys when she speaks at conventions across the U.S. The owner of Eckert AgriMarketing in St. Louis, Ms. Eckert is a consultant who has made it her mission to help the family farm survive.

“It’s about supplementing a farmer’s income,” said Ms. Eckert, who comes from a long line of farmers. “The family farm today has a very hard time making it economically. But people in this business are in it because they love farming.”

She said her focus is helping a farmer recognize a strategy for diversification.

“We look at the land, the assets and we say, ‘Gee, how about adding a snowmobiling trail for winter?’ Or, we explore the value of selling their products on the farm or starting a B&B or opening up for pick-your-own,” she said.

So’Journey Farm, Greene County

Sandra Brown, owner of So’Journey Farm in Jackson, did just that.

A rug-weaver who conducts workshops on the craft, she moved from Pittsburgh to the 45-acre farm five years ago at age 58 with a desire for farm living and a determination to make it income-producing.

She zeroed in immediately on livestock — she says she has a “real passion for growing really good food” — and figured that using her 1880s farmhouse as a B&B would add a level of financial certainty to the operation.

“I knew going in that agritourism was the way to go,” she said.

She now raises laying hens, French roasting chickens and Scottish Highland beef cattle. She “harvests” her own animals and makes the most of her assets, moving her chickens around to feed so their manure will fertilize different areas of the farm and turning over her orchard to her cattle for grazing. She barters with local farmers for use of heavy equipment that she doesn’t want to buy and makes direct sales to consumers, charging premium prices — $4.50 a pound for the roasters, for example — for her grass-fed beef and her free-ranging chickens.

Asked about profitability, she answers: “It’s more than paying for itself.”

Sand Hill Berries, Westmoreland County

At Sand Hill Berries in Mount Pleasant Township, one might say the story began humbly — with pie.

Susan Lynn, who bought the 110 acres in 1981 with her husband, Richard Lynn, said what has become a major farm, food and tourist operation happened “almost by pure accident.”

Initially, the couple began planting trees: sugar maple, apples, pears, peaches and sour cherries. But they noticed that raspberries were growing wild throughout the property. Thanks to pure serendipity, they came upon someone desperate to move 7,000 raspberry bushes and they got them cheap. When the bushes began bearing fruit, the Lynns did what most growers do: They sold the berries wholesale — until one year when unseasonably hot weather produced poor-quality California berries that drove down berry prices.

“That made us see that we needed other venues for the product,” she said.

The next thing she knew, she was marketing berry pies and dessert toppings directly to festivals.

Then came a Victorian-era raspberry-infused vinegar. Then jams and jellies for gift baskets. Then a little on-site retail store to sell the products. Then a dessert cafe on the farm for those who were visiting and wanted just a piece of pie. In 2007, they added a winery and a Nectar Garden.

Soon, people were asking to be married on the property and to hold receptions there.

“We’ve got people waiting for dates in 2012,” Mrs. Lynn said of the operation that now involves other members of the family as well as a couple of outside partners.

Mrs. Lynn said the enterprise has been and continues to be an adventure that isn’t making them rich but is keeping the family in business.

“We grow what we sell. We’re proud of that. There’s no middleman,” she said.

Her advice to others: “If you grow raspberries, you better make jelly.”

Hozak Farms, Beaver County

Marty Hozak of Hozak Farms in Hanover agrees that diversification transformed their family farm from a “standard pigs-chickens-and-egg operation” that barely supported his grandfather to an enterprise that supports himself; his son; his parents, Bob and Virginia; and his sister, Ellen Dillon.

The change began when his father read an article while in college that said raising Christmas trees could be a money-making venture. The first planting was in 1949.

For several years, Bob Hozak wholesaled the cut trees and, as the son puts it, “It was easier money than chickens.” But soon the realization dawned that direct sales was more profitable.

“We started having people who wanted to cut their own tree. And that’s when things began rolling,” Marty Hozak said.

The occasional cut-your-own request became an all-out effort to “create an experience, make a memory” for the visitor, with tractors that hauled customers out to the woods and a gift shop in a renovated barn where tree lights and ornaments were displayed.

For a number of years, the Hozaks were all about Christmas. Then, in the 1980s, they decided to expand their season to include fall. A pumpkin patch was grown and the tractors that were used to transport tree-cutters were used for fall hayrides.

The next step is figuring out what to do in spring or summer.

“If you want to make a go of it in family farming nowadays, you don’t just grow one crop or do one thing,” Marty Hozak said. “You get creative. You diversify.”

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