The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) will announce at its upcoming 25th Annual Conference plans to redefine and expand its programming to impact agriculture across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. PASA is taking this step to increase its effectiveness with Building the SOIL (Strategic Outreach for Innovation and Leadership), a 5-year plan to create a robust sustainable agriculture educational program for a better and healthier future throughout the region the organization supports.

Furthermore, PASA is announcing that more than half of the $3 million initial investment required to implement the new programming has been raised.

With full implementation over five years, Building the SOIL is anticipated to generate: 100 trained and accredited sustainable farmers, 300 new or transitioning sustainable farms, 2,500 farmers participating in Farmer-to-Farmer Exchange networks, and $150 million of new capital investment in sustainable farming and food systems.

PASA will pursue these targets through the development of Sustainability Hubs that are designed to maintain consistent quality of programs while adapting them to conditions of the various bioregions and communities being served. The three major program elements that will take place at each Hub are: Farmer Training and Development, Farmer-to-Farmer Exchange, and Farm-Based Research. Each element will complement and enhance the others in a systematic process whereby the successful output of each will provide input and strength to the next – in an evolving and cyclical fashion.

The design of the interrelated Hub system is another key innovation PASA is bringing to the table with Building the SOIL. Contrasting with the organization’s existing membership sub-regions that correspond with the geographical outline of Pennsylvania, each Hub will be structured to serve a target watershed, along with the communities therein, and will therefore aim to connect PASA members within the relevant areas of 3 or 4 states. “We are basically responding to the dual reality that bioregions do not conform to state boundaries, and 20% of our membership is now outside Pennsylvania, mostly throughout the Mid-Atlantic region,” said PASA’s Executive Director Brian Snyder. He added, “If we’re going to have a lasting impact on farms and the food systems in which they participate, then our structure needs to reflect that of the natural world and the flow of economic activity in the areas within our reach.”

PASA will start by initiating three Sustainability Hubs representing multi-state regions designated as Three Rivers, Chesapeake and Delaware Valley, corresponding to the southwestern, central, and southeastern portions of Pennsylvania respectively. Development of future Hubs may correspond with northeastern (Pocono region) and northwestern (Great Lakes) areas of the commonwealth, as well as the Delmarva Peninsula, serving the bioregion and communities east of the Chesapeake Bay.

_PASA2015_initiativeinfographicfinal_yellowYMeasuring Progress is Hallmark

Building the SOIL is driven by a mission to substantially improve the sustainability of the farms and food systems in the geographical areas served by PASA. As a practical strategy, this program will define what is meant by “sustainability” such that performance can be benchmarked and progress assessed over time. PASA’s Four E system (Economics, Environment, Energy and public Engagement) will provide the conceptual framework for this results-based effort. Taken together, the Four E assessment tools will provide farmers with a valuable way to organize information vital to the success of their operations. Moreover, it will provide them with a toolkit to track their own progress over time, compare themselves to other farms, and explain their achievements to their customers and neighbors. It will also support PASA and its partners to move beyond the vague and limiting question of “Is this farm sustainable?” to exploring sustainability through a framework emphasizing accountability and measurable continuous improvement.

A Year to Confirm Investment

PASA plans to raise the balance of $3M for the initial 5-year implementation of this program over the coming year, the organization’s 25th since its founding in 1992.  “Although we still have work to do in order to secure the remaining resources for our goal,” notes Centre County farmer and PASA board Chair Scott Case, “we are well on our way, having raised over $1.5M to date.” He added, “The cornerstone of our funding strategy is to identify a wide range of investors who have a deep interest in seeing these new programs succeed. We believe not only the future of farming, but the health of our society is at stake! This is the direction that the PASA board and organizational leaders have been building toward since long before I came on the board.”

PASA has announced three business leaders in sustainable farming have invested in the program to date as Founding Hub Sponsors: Kimberton Whole Foods – a natural grocery store chain in southeast PA; Lady Moon Farms – based in Chambersburg, the largest certified organic vegetable operation on the East Coast; and MidAtlantic Farm Credit – a financial lending company that has been providing support to rural America for a century. “We are extremely proud to partner with these organizations,” remarked Lauren Smith, Director of Development. “Their commitment to ensuring the longevity of sustainable farming is undeniable. They exemplify the type of commitment, passion and willing investment that is required to build this program.”

Program Rollout

PASA’s network of Sustainability Hubs will comprise an “institute without walls” and therefore does not currently involve any physical construction — all resources will go directly to creating new and improved programming. Sustainability Hubs will have central offices, but no specific geographic boundaries. The Hubs’ reach will be defined by their participants – serving as mentors, farming apprentices, research and field education hosts, and ultimately partners in shaping the program.

PASA is launching the first two Hubs – Three Rivers and Delaware Valley – beginning in March of this year, and interviews for appropriate staffing are already underway. The third, Chesapeake Hub, will start later this year, and future Hub startups will depend on initial success with programming and subsequent identification of the necessary investment. “We are excited to see how these startups evolve over time. Our goal is to develop at a pace that allows us to remain viable for the long haul,” remarked Bill Kitsch, regional vice president of MidAtlantic Farm Credit, who serves as co-chair of the Building the SOIL campaign. “PASA is carefully constructing a business model that will be relevant to other organizations across the country for many years to come,” said Terry Brett, owner of Kimberton Whole Foods and the other co-chair.

Program Details

The first strategic plan element – Farmer Training and Development – will be named in honor of Jerry Brunetti, a past PASA board member and world renowned expert in soil fertility. Jerry passed away last December and PASA is deeply privileged to have this program element serve in his memory. PASA will be developing formal apprenticeships programs that prepare a new generation of farmers to successfully produce high quality foods while being respectful of the environment and supportive of their communities.

The second strategic plan element – Farmer-to-Farmer Exchange – will be named in honor of Shon Seeley, eldest son of respected dairy farmer from Bradford County, and former PASA board Chair Kim Seeley and his wife Ann. An enthusiastic and innovative young farmer, Shon’s life was taken tragically in an automobile accident in 2012, and PASA is very proud to carry on Shon’s passion for farming and strong interest in perfecting grazing programs for cattle and other livestock.  Farmer-to-Farmer Exchange activities will include a full calendar of field days and workshops as well as online resources that help farmers connect with each other and share innovative ideas.

In the Farm-Based Research element, PASA staff will work with a team of farmers, scientists, and other stakeholders to develop assessment tools to measure performance using the Four E framework. Relevant data will be used to help farmers make informed decisions about profitability, soil health, energy efficiency and a broad range of questions critical to sustainable agriculture.  According to PASA’s Director of Educational Programs Franklin Egan, “Knowledge gained from research activities will be woven back into the training, shared through the network of farmers, and so on. The aim of the program will be to maximize participation of an extremely diverse group of farmers who will ultimately become mutually supportive and committed to the success of other farmers just as well.”

Next Steps

The public kickoff event for Building the SOIL will take place at the PASA Farming for the Future Conference on February 3 – 6, held at the Penn Stater Conference Center in State College. Registration is open to the public; pre-registration closes at 5pm on January 25. To register and view a full schedule of conference programming, visit Walk-in registration is available for those not taking advantage of reduced pricing through pre-registration.

In the words of PASA Executive Director Snyder, “We invite all of our members, partners and friends to join us in celebrating this exciting initiative, and to contribute toward its success in the years to come. This project is not intended to be accomplished in isolation . . . we want this to enhance the understanding and realization of sustainable farms and food systems across the nation and beyond.”