A life in growing comes full circl

When she was a child, Erica Bowers Lavdanski’sgrandfather owned the family farm in CarrollCounty, Md., about 15 miles from thePennsylvania border. Though he was at the end of hisfarming years, she’d ride with him on the tractor: “thehappiest times of my childhood,” she says. Then, when shewas 12, the family farm was sold, and her family moved tothe suburbs.

Erica Lavdanski and Paul Hartz of B & H Organic Produce.

Other than riding on the tractor and a vastly increased responsibility level, her life on the farm and as a grower has come full circle in a unique business relationship with Paul Hartz, a traditional farmer more than twice her age. Together, their B & H Organic Produce, which was named the Outstanding Organic Farmer of 2008 by Pennsylvania Certified Organic, is a fifth-year operation in Morgantown, Pa.

When they reunited, Lavdanski, 33, really wanted to farm. Hartz’s children, five daughters and two sons, didn’t. At 79, he was willing to let a non-family member farm some of his 150 acres if it meant keeping the land in production. “My energy inspires him,” she says. “To see new things on the farm has been a regeneration.”

Paul Hartz with baby chicks.

The move represents a viable alternative for transitioning a growing operation, or at least prolonging it. It’s a legacy option of sorts, and also enabled Lavdanski to start a farm business without much income to invest. “Many young people want to be farmers, but to buy land is almost impossible,” she says.

She intensively farms 2 acres of certified organic mixed vegetables. He still farms corn and soybean on the remainder. He also raises cattle, though the beef isn’t certified because of one uncontrollable stream that runs through a pasture. In the spring and summer, there’s enough poultry (500 or 600 head) to supply his natural foods store on the farm, where the pair first met when she worked there for two years after high school. “I maintain that I have the world’s best chicken,” Hartz says.

A sample of B & H Organic Produce’s heirloom tomatoes and other summer veggies.

She takes everything to the farmers’ market for both of them. Also, there’s a 30-share CSA that’s distributed on the farm and at two drop-off sites in Reading, Pa. She grows a little bit of everything: potatoes, beans, broccoli, cabbage, strawberries and carrots. Each year, she adds more and more brambles and berries. B & H specializes in greens, the “niche market.” Salad mixes include flowers and herbs. She also sells transplants and hosts an open house, “Meet the Farmer Day,” the second to last Saturday in May. This year’s will be on May 21.

Hartz is chief equipment manager, or what he calls a “tinkerer.” “He can fix, build and rig up anything,” Lavdanski says. “I don’t have those skills. He fills in the gaps.”

After high school, she traveled, served internships and eventually returned to Pennsylvania to a farm in Oley until it closed. Then, Hartz showed up at her door and asked if she’d help him farm.

“We about have each other figured out,” he says. “We agree on the basics, but we bring totally different skills into the program. She’s good at planting schedules, marketing. She knows her varieties, when to plant seed and when to harvest.”

“I tell people that he’s my best friend,” Lavdanski says. “We get along, but we’re opposites. I’m always ready go, go, go and push. Usually we come to middle point. He was inspiring when I worked at the store. Now, he’s still such a good mentor for me.”

In her nomadic days, Lavdanski worked on three different farms, and even in landscaping, in Arizona, Colorado, Vermont and New Hampshire. When she asked Hartz if she should return to school, he laughed at her. “He grew up on his farm and farmed it his whole life,” she says. “School was funny for him. Plus, if I did go to school, I couldn’t afford to be a farmer now. I could never learn everything he knows. It’s just experience. I know some things, but not as much as what experience gives you.”

A perfect pair

Each year, the two continue to match farming style with equipment, jumping hurdles where necessary. For example, after watching her drag hoses, Hartz buried irrigation lines with outlets. They were mulching with large round bales, so he made a three-point hitch to unravel the bales in the field.

“We each make contributions and stay out of each other’s territory,” he says. “Where her domain is, all I do is ask what she wants done.”

Lavdanski wanted to hoe weeds. Hartz told her she “couldn’t hoe fast enough to make a living.” He wants to mechanize. She doesn’t, at least not much more than what Rosie, a Farmall C Cub tractor, can do with his handmade hitch. “I had the idea I’d do some produce one day, but I couldn’t do it myself,” Hartz says. “I needed her to do her part.”

For almost a decade, Rosie sat, unused. “Finally, she came back to Pennsylvania,” he says.

The first year, she started with 1/8 acre, then grew to .25, then 1 acre and 1.75. This year, she opened a new field instead of farming an old one.

They’ve come to the same focused priority: Keeping the organic acreage small and the quality high. “We don’t want a huge mega-farm,” she says. “We’d rather have a quality product by working to keep the nutrient levels up in the spoil.”

Everything is grown from seed, though their greenhouse collapsed under heavy snows in 2010. Hartz built a 10-foot-long, 1.5-foot-wide germinator box on a south-facing wall and ran hot water pipes, but it only held 68 trays and they outgrew it. She’s taken over a room in the farmhouse, using growing lights, and raises 1,000 tomato plants a season. There were 13 varieties last year, and 25 this year. “We’re going all out,” Lavdanski says. “I like cooking too, so I like color. It’s definitely my focus, but it’s not Paul’s at all.”

“I think (heirloom tomatoes) look ugly, but she likes them,” he admits.

The West Reading Farmers’ Market is near home, so Lavdanski prides herself in selling to her “neighborhood.” She has a 12-mile highway commute to the farm.

There’s constant give and take: She’s begun helping more with his cattle, though when she worked in the natural foods store, she was a vegan, and then a 16-year vegetarian. Then, she observed Hartz mixing among his 40-head, and saw the mutual respect, and how he moves “in and out of the herd like water.” Leading them from pasture to pasture, the herd walks behind him. “I don’t think they like me so much as they like fresh grass,” he says.

“Still, these are beef cattle,” Lavdanski says. “They’re not handled. No one pets them. I was nervous around them at first, but now I’m not.”

The future

They do talk about scaling back and becoming more sustainable and better matching one or two crops to their soil.

However, the two don’t have anything more than an oral agreement and no future plan. “He says as long as he’s alive, I’m on the farm,” Lavdanski says. “A lot of people say I’m crazy that I don’t have a contract, but I trust him and he trusts me. I just know that Paul’s main goal is to keep the farm as a farm. It’s his life, his empire, and I think his children would respect that.”

Hartz says he’s “allergic to rest homes.” “I’m going out with my boots on,” he pledges. “I have a lot to do, so I’m not ready to quit.”

Someday, maybe his children will follow him like his cattle herd. For now, at least this one prodigal daughter has been a shot of adrenaline. “Other farmers brag about their brand-new tractor, but I brag about having the best-looking helper,” Hartz says. “Erica has been outstanding to work with. She couldn’t do it herself, and I couldn’t do it myself, so we have to get along.”

Since his wife died in 1982, he’s had a close relationship with his children, but it’s not a working one. His sons help when asked, and one always makes “a skid steer dance” for an annual manure clean out. About his latest business venture, his children, Hartz says, had no say.

“They’re independent, and so am I,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to find people who share the same ideas and who are pleasant to work with. I suspect it would be pretty hard to know where to find another like [Lavdanski]. She has class, but she likes to work in the soil. That combination is rare.”

Hartz says they’re proving that such a relationship can work, but he wouldn’t try to convince anyone else: There are too many unknowns, and “partnerships can be a real mess. God blessed me, and that’s the way I accept it,” he says. “Sometimes I blink my eyes and ask where is this going, and here it is, and I say, ‘OK.'”

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.