By Duncan Allison
Farmers in Chester County have been reacting in several different ways to the increasing interest in locally produced food. The 12 farmers markets situated in most centers of population offer a wide range of fresh produce, baked goods and other locally produced food items such as honey.
The farmers markets across the county are usually open on Saturdays for 4 hours in the middle of the day during the growing season. Shoppers can not only buy items picked earlier that day or late yesterday but actually talk to the farmer. “Could you tell me what that is? How do you cook Swiss Chard?”
Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) is another popular means of supplying consumers with a season long supply of vegetables, fruit, cheese or meat each week or defined period. This approach also benefits the producer as the annual payment is made at the beginning of the season so that the producer has funds upfront and the chore of weekly payments is removed for customer and farmer.
The process of delivery varies. The weekly box of produce may be delivered to strategically situated distribution points or sometimes at an agreed time or collected by the customer from the farm. Weekly deliveries may be accompanied by recipes to offer new ways of cooking or serving.
There are now at least 20 CSAs operating across the county from Phoenixville to Pottstown, Chester Springs to Coatesville and West Chester to Cochranville.
Farm stalls and stores are also found across our large county particularly in Amish country often offering a wide range of produce and food products but sweet corn, tomatoes or eggs may sometimes be all that is being offered with a payment box for the trusted customer to pay.
Farming is often described as a way of life but ultimately it is a business which must provide a living for the farming family. Farmers have generally not had to worry about marketing as their products are sold to milk coops, grain merchants and produce markets who in turn supply bottlers, food processors and retailers.
Today direct marketers must use the internet and social media to reach the consumer through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and increasingly YouTube as videos have become popular. Direct marketers also organize special events and several farms arrange tractor rides at pumpkin and apple picking time.
The farmer must also have intimate knowledge of the challenges of growing the wide range of vegetables and fruit that customers expect to receive throughout the growing season. Since many of our farms are organic there is the challenge of keeping weeds, insects and diseases under control so that the final product is high quality and not blemished without being able to use chemical herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.
Many producers grow local heritage varieties that have more flavor and unique qualities. The direct marketer must be master of many different aspects of his or her business in order to be successful. Labor is another challenge since most of the work occurs from spring through fall.
Finally it would be misleading not to stress the huge role that Mother Nature plays. A frost, severe storm or drought can play a critical role in delaying or ruining a planting and hail can be ruinous by pitting the fruit after the apples have formed.
Irrigation may be required to keep crops growing during severe drought periods. If deer can be included in this category, they can also devastate young trees and eat their way down rows of vegetables very effectively. Investment in deer fencing is almost imperative.
In the words of Lisa Kerschner, North Star Orchard, Cochranville “Mother Nature is the toughest boss ever.”
We are fortunate in the US that we pay less for our food as a percentage of our income than most other countries. It can be argued that our food is undervalued even though there is a common notion that our food is too expensive. Our local farmers are certainly working hard to make fresh produce available and provide jobs.
Now is the time to sign up for a CSA so check the CSA closest to you and once May comes visit your local farmers markets. You will not only be able to get fresh local produce, enjoy the sense of community but you will be supporting local agriculture.
A map and details of the farmers market, CSAs and farm stands and stores can be found by accessing: http://www.chesco.org/DocumentCenter/View/1350.
Duncan Allison gained degrees in horticulture and extension education in the UK and US and spent most of his career working for the DuPont Company developing and marketing crop protection chemicals. Recently he has written reports for a global ag publisher and for New Jersey-based international business consultants Kline & Co. For the last 16 years he has been heavily involved in the local farming of Chester County where he has lived with his wife and family since 1980.