November 2014 - Young Growers Visit Spiral Path Farm and North Mountain Pasture

Opportunity abounds! This was the theme on the Young Grower Alliance tour November 18. Nearly 30 members of the YGA visited Spiral Path Farm and North Mountain Pastures in Perry County. Located in Pennsylvania Appalachia, both operations are surrounded by large hillsides and deep valleys. The operations are vastly different in terms of size and products produced, yet plenty of commonalities exist as well. For one, our tour guides at both farms, Will Brownback and Brooks Miller, respectively, earned degrees in engineering, worked in the corporate world and then decided to pursue their current agricultural endeavors. Both have well established CSAs and the engineering backgrounds were evident with the innovation at both locations. With the proximity to a majority of the U.S. population and access to plenty of water, operations on the east coast have a distinct advantage in meeting food demands.

We first met Terra Brownback, who explained that she and her husband Mike had moved to the area from Montgomery County, PA in 1978. She noted that in the beginning they didn't have much and growing conventional crops was their forte. In 1991 they made the decision to go organic and haven't looked back! She then introduced her son, Will Brownback. Will, the second generation at Spiral Path Farm along with his parents and about 40 employees farm 255 acres naturally and have been certified organic since 1994. Their CSA boasts 2200 members at peak season and over 1700 during the fall season. They have over 40 delivery locations in the Central Pennsylvania region they visit weekly. In addition, about 50% of their business is wholesale to Wegman's and another 5% is direct marketed to two farmers markets in Maryland. Innovation and determination are found in every structure on the farm. They have converted an old Pennsylvania bank barn into a processing operation containing cold storage units; a small conveyor for packing CSA boxes; and a room to wash, clean and sort picked greens. Will provided countless examples of what has led to Spiral Path's success, which is focused on this vision: being bold and growing a quality product. He explains that if you have a quality product, which starts with soil health, market channels will open. Then it is your responsibility to deliver on your promises and cultivate your relationships.

Brooks and his wife Anna are first generation farmers who purchased their 84 acre farm 3 1/2 years ago after previously operating on leased farms. Half of the land is in pasture while the other half is in woodland. They run a 315 member meat CSA and attend 3 farmers markets. Sales include meat from their pasture-based livestock: pigs, broilers, turkeys, and sheep. They also operate a butcher shop on site. Brooks has a lot of projects on the farm including sugar maple trees with 120 taps, raising tilapia and growing barley fodder to improve their pigs' fiber digestion, ultimately increasing their feed intake and weight gain. A majority of their pasture is on steep hills, and to combat erosion they have created man-made swales in the pastures. All this is done with a skid loader and movable shelters. Their goal is to produce the highest quality meats and cheeses. To do this, Brooks tells us that you must take care of the soil. He is a big believer in building the soil back through careful grazing and planting the right cover crops to balance the fertility of the soil with the needs of his livestock.

The outing was complete with a potluck lunch with tour goers bringing a dish to pass and North Mountain Pastures and the YGA supplying grilled meats.

Young growers are invited to attend two YGA educational activities during the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention at Hershey: a workshop on Ag Literacy--Communicating with Consumers and the Media (January 26) and a luncheon hosted by Helena (January 27).

by Katie Epstein and Mark Clowney, Young Growers Alliance

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Donald Seifrit
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