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Growing Smarter

It's about communication, education and serving customers
By J.F. Pirro




Pete's Produce Farm is a 200-acre growing operation in West Chester, Pa. Produce is grown in fields and high tunnels and sold at the 4,000-square-foot farmstand.
Photos courtesy of Pete's Produce Farm.

Pete Flynn knows his place in the agriculture and produce worlds. After all, he runs an impressive 200-acre growing operation, Pete's Produce Farm (http://www.petesproducefarm.com), in West Chester, Pa. He knows he belongs in his fields and high tunnels and not necessarily at his 4,000-square-foot farmstand. "Usually they throw me out when I come down here," he says.

He also knows where he farms, so he's nearly patented a response to the number one question people always ask him: Are you organic?

His response: "No, I grow on the East Coast."

It's not that he and his 49 employees don't farm responsibly and sustainably. They do. It's just that he's not certified, nor will he become certified. He uses biocontrols when possible and pesticides when necessary. Responsible is good, he says, and finding ways to become more responsible is even better.

Growing smarter - on the East Coast and elsewhere - means taking some space and increasingly dedicating it to high tunnels. Flynn has begun doing this, setting up a total of 1 acre for tunnels, half in 2010 and half last year. He calls the two 72-by-303-foot tunnels "new age," but he also says using them is productive and profitable.

For example, Pete's Produce Farm once grew 4 acres of tomatoes, with four plantings of 1 acre each, to supply the popular farmstand. Now, the single acre of high tunnels is enough to supply the store, because 99 percent of the harvest is salable quality, compared to a 50 percent rate in the old fields. "In here, they just don't get the disease because they don't get the rain," Flynn explains.

It was a farming friend in southern New Jersey - a region well-known for its tomatoes - who convinced him that high tunnels are "the future of farming," simply by example. That grower, who requested anonymity, now has 21 acres of high tunnels. It's an operation he began adding to each season in 5 and 10-acre increments. "Something was sure going on," Flynn says.

Pride in place

Pete's Produce Farm is located on grounds leased from the private Westtown School. Flynn's kids attend the Quaker school, and he's become a local fixture. Pete's is a vegetable operation with a few cherry trees, blueberries, watermelons, cantaloupes and pick-your-own strawberries. Flynn also plants about 60 acres of supersweet corn varieties, and he's adding diversity all the time.

It helps that he's situated in a prime high-end region. The surrounding neighborhoods have extremely high median household incomes, and they don't typically price shop. They want high quality and don't necessarily care how much it costs. Pete's consistently gets $7.49 a dozen for corn. The lowest tomatoes will ever drop is $3.49 a pound.



Wheat is just one of the grains Pete Flynn has experimented with on his farm.

Although Flynn once sold wholesale, his entire focus now is on retail sales. The farmstand was built in conjunction with the Westtown School in 2000. While it's a lot of work to pick tomatoes for the market, each box is worth between $70 and $100. A box sold to the wholesale market would fetch $15.

"It's been better to shift our efforts to retail," Flynn says. "We're working smarter rather than harder. Another of my favorite lines is that the less you work, the more you make. On the dairy farm, the shift was 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. for nothing, and now it's 9 a.m. to 5 p.m."

Flynn, a Michigan State dairy science graduate, started farming on a 160-acre dairy farm in 1986. Three years later, he was selling sweet corn (planted on one-eighth of an acre) from the back of his pickup truck. "They were chasing me home," he recalls. "So each year I just doubled what I had grown the year before. I kept going like that until I could afford to get rid of the cows."

Eventually he decided to focus on growing produce, and in 1992 he sold his cows and opened his first stand. In 2000, after his original farm was acquired by the local public school system, he moved his operation to Westtown School, which remains one of the farm's best clients. For the kids, the market has become an after-school meeting place. "The kids just walk through the fields to get here," says farmstand manager Danni Pinzone.



Pete Flynn plants about 60 acres of supersweet corn varieties at Pete's Produce Farm in West Chester, Pa.

Today, among other crops like grains and potatoes, Flynn grows 60 acres of sweet corn, 10 acres of vegetables, 15 acres of pumpkins, 1 acre of flowers and herbs and 90 acres of hay. He sets aside about 4 acres of land to grow food for the less fortunate members of the community. The farm donates about 20,000 pounds of fresh produce each year to the Chester County Food Bank, of which Flynn is an active board member.

Early starts and expansion

Flynn transplants 2 acres of sweet corn to get an early start. He can germinate the first planting in 30 hours in the greenhouses. Ten years ago, he was featuring Mirai, a tender, supersweet yellow corn that was popular at the time. In fact, he remembers one Philadelphia food critic's headline: "Kernels Worth Saluting." Of late, he also features Amaize, a white variety with seed costs that are triple Mirai's.

Because of the realities of the East Coast growing season, Flynn buys produce from outside the area and resells it to cover the early parts of the season, but those sales pale in comparison to in-season growing and selling. For example, Pete's will sell 200 ears of corn a day in the spring from other growers, and 2,000 ears a day (5,000 on a weekend) of its own corn in the summer.

Flynn has also experimented with growing different grains, and there's an actual mill inside the farmstand. He's grown spelt, hulless oats, rye and soft red wheat. "Not many bake their own bread, but it's a fun thing to do," he says.



Pete's Produce Farm T-shirts say "Buy Fresh, Buy Local," which is just what many of the farm's customers like to do.

Flynn tried no-till vegetable growing. Traditional plowing and cultivation can leave vegetable fields bare for months, create continuous soil disturbance and lead to greater soil erosion. His trials were with sweet corn and pumpkins, but he's retreated a bit. He says it's hard to compete with high tunnels and with the "black plastic culture."

The Pete's Produce Farm website states: "We don't like to limit ourselves to the restrictions of any one methodology. We use many organic practices, as well as sustainable and conventional practices that we feel are safe and environmentally sound. Using educated, thoughtful and specific decision-making, we can grow the highest-quality fruits and vegetables in an environmentally, socially and financially responsible way."

The one constant at Pete's is change. Flynn never grew onions until five years ago. He never grew potatoes until two years ago. Part of the reason is the "buy local, buy fresh" movement. "We can grow [potatoes] here," Flynn says. "If they come from California, it costs $6,000 per trailer load. Why ship them in when we should be growing them here?"

Lately there's been competition from organic CSAs that have cropped up, some of them funded, nonprofit growing operations. "That's part of the new landscape," Flynn says. "Our money comes from what we sell, essentially from having a good retail market."

A market worth patronizing

Inside the farmstand, it sounds like Pinzone is training a fresh crew, but it's just a twice-daily "ongoing topics" ritual (for morning and afternoon shifts) that includes a hand-washing demonstration.

Today all the lettuce is $2, homemade salsa must be buried in a bed of ice, and they're selling rhubarb by the pound. The employees, all wearing "Buy Fresh, Buy Local, Pete's Produce Farm" T-shirts, huddle up and shout, "Go team!"

Pinzone remarks, "I feel like Julie Andrews."

As manager, Pinzone worked her way up the food chain, but she had wanted to be a farmer for as long as she can remember. "I just like getting my hands in the dirt," she says. "I'm no Peter, but we all wear a lot of hats."



Pete's Produce Farm customers want high quality and are willing to pay for it; a dozen ears of sweet corn sell for $7.49.

She's often responsible for the farm's 300 free-range chickens, another new endeavor at Pete's, and she starts in the production greenhouse in mid-February. However, by April 1, when the market opens, she shifts her focus. Additions and changes are made to enhance product lines.

"Now Pete is dabbling with the idea of planting orchard trees," Pinzone says. "All the changes are value-added."

The staff listens to customers and other farmers, attends conferences, and reads up on what's working in different parts of the country, always learning how to farm more responsibly.

Pinzone says, "Among the other local farms, we don't view each other as competition. We all have specialties, and we always try to help each other as much as we can."

Any business is about listening to your customers, Flynn says. It's about communication - and demands, he adds, have definitely changed. In 2008, when the economy was still good, consumers didn't care what they spent. Now there's a more educated buyer who's spending money more wisely.

"That's part of the reason that we went to the high tunnels - to get good-quality produce that has a longer shelf life," Flynn explains. "We can now leave tomatoes on the vines longer. Before, if it was going to rain, we used to pick them. The longer they can stay on the vine, the better the product."

In general, Flynn is more particular about how and when corn is picked, all for quality's sake. "We've really raised the bar on our quality," he says. "It used to be that we would have to throw away [or donate to the local food bank] a lot of quantity because it just didn't look that good."

The market is the cash cow, and customers always want to buy the freshest food - and buy it locally. "We have customers who have continued to come here for all the years I've been here [over a decade]," Pinzone says. "They keep coming back. They don't care how much it costs. Well, they might complain, but they keep coming back."

Flynn says he often feels like a maestro, a reference to his wife's work as a cellist. "I would not say that I work less ... I know I work less than when I was a dairy farmer," he says. "Even here, everyone thinks that I go to Florida in the winter. When the store closes, we're not done."

The author is a gentleman farmer and experienced reporter and writer who lives in Quakertown, Pa.