Meet the next generation of growers

Not long after earning a degree in philosophy and a minor in biology and ethnic studies, Anton Shannon started farming, arriving at it “intellectually” at first. The more he read about environmental problems, the more he figured farming was a solution. The more he considered farming, the more he realized more farmers need to grow more sustainably.

He first worked a year for a CSA outside Phoenixville, Pa. When he moved back home to Center Valley, Pa., The Seed Farm in nearby Vera Cruz was taking root. “It seemed like such a promising program I couldn’t pass it up,” he says between watering onions and leeks in the farm’s greenhouse.

Shannon had growing experience and some intuition for organization and the systematic and rotational aspects of farm management. What he lacked were the marketing, business management and budgeting skills.

The Seed Farm apprentices have the opportunity to use a variety of specialized equipment for vegetable production. In this photo Farm Manager Sara Runkel and 2010 apprentice Anton Shannon prepare for transplanting peppers.

He’s learning those at The Seed Farm, which offers a three-year new farmer training program and agricultural business incubator in partnership with Lehigh County and Penn State Extension’s Start Farming program. The program’s first year is a one-year apprenticeship that runs from February through November. It consists of formal coursework, taught by extension educators, and hands-on training in running an agricultural business, from business and crop planning to equipment use, production techniques and marketing.

After a successful apprenticeship, participants may apply to the Farm Stewardship Program by participating in a four-week, follow-up farm-planning course, “Exploring the Small Farm Dream,” to develop their farm and marketing plans. Thereafter, beginning farmers launch their agricultural businesses on the incubator portion of The Seed Farm, growing and marketing their own products, while renting The Seed Farm’s equipment and land at reduced rates.

Shannon completed the apprenticeship in 2010 and submitted a business plan for a 25-member CSA. Sarah Edmonds, a fellow apprentice, submitted a similar plan. Rather than competing, they partnered to run a 50-share CSA last year, and their second-year farming enterprise, Good Work Farm (, is up to 80 members this year, while thoughts swirl about the next step from incubator to owning their own farm.

The Seed Farm’s resources, Farm Manager and Executive Director Sara Runkel’s organic growing and management experience, the rental equipment and the existing infrastructure have all helped the pair identify what’s essential to their budding operation. It’s helped them refine the scale and their growing, rotation, cultivation, harvest and marketing strategies to learn what works best for them.

“To have a farmer on-site to help us troubleshoot equipment or weeds or customers is a great thing for new farmers,” Shannon says. “The more prepared you can be before buying your own farm or getting a long-term lease, the better. The Seed Farm cannot fix all of the problems associated with farmers getting priced out of farmland, but it can help incubate farms that are profitable and efficient so they can better navigate that next step.”

In effect, The Seed Farm is growing growers, but also a 2-acre mixed vegetable market garden where the apprentices train. Other acreage exists for new farmers – currently those who have completed the project’s apprenticeship – to lease. Edmonds and Shannon, the first to come through the system and stay, are already leasing and farming 3 acres, up from 2 initially, all while continuing a mentorship with Runkel, who is in her third year of the three-year-old incubator.

A program takes root

While The Seed Farm officially began in 2009, there was limited funding. That fall, however, it was awarded a USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program grant in partnership with Penn State. As a demonstration program, it was able to purchase specialized equipment for vegetable production for various scales of farming. During the life of the grant, the farm has demonstrated seeding and transplanting equipment, weed management tools and techniques, and tillage tools and techniques, this year’s focus.

The initial $160,000 grant is what’s fueled the last three years and paid salaries, but that funding stream runs dry in August. An application is in for another round of funding in partnership with the Penn State program, say about $90,000 to $100,000, mostly to hire an additional staff person to manage continued equipment and production demonstration on the farm. An application has also been filed for nonprofit status to help with fundraising and another for certified organic status.

Formerly the Seem Seed Farm, the family sold 453 acres in 1974 to Lehigh County, which has since eased and kept 287 acres of the tract in perpetual open space as part of a county agricultural preservation program that’s protected over 20,000 acres. In 2007, the county set aside 25 acres for The Seed Farm project. Last year, a further expansion added 18 additional acres, most of that in cover crop this winter.

The incubator’s name is part tribute to the farm’s former life as the Seem Seed Farm, but also to its mission: the idea of growing new farmers. “The idea is that we also need to preserve farmers by training them to take over as the present farmers get older and retire,” Runkel said a week before five new apprentices started.

This year, the apprentices are all from the immediate area, a coincidence that bodes well for the future, she believes, since they don’t need to transplant themselves to finish the three-year program. Most come from diverse nonfarming backgrounds. The majority share a passion for growing, a love of food, or they feel a need to feed the community and see organic farming as a way to do that.

“We hope they have a little bit of experience because there’s such a steep learning curve,” Runkel says. “Most have already decided [on farming as a career]. They don’t say, ‘I think I’m interested,’ or ‘I want to try this out.'”

Among two recent apprentices, Ken Dikeman, of Emmaus, Pa., previously worked in chemical engineering. Another, Philadelphia’s DeVida McKevitt, was the general manager of the Merriam Theater for 15 years. Some arrive with rose-colored glasses and overflowing idealism, but not Shannon, who says he had no illusions of ease and wasn’t even sure farming was something he could do physically and mentally.

“Our goal is to help each one be successful in pursuing this passion, but if it doesn’t work out or you make the decision that you can’t commit 80 hours a week, then you can get out and all you’re out of is time and a small financial commitment,” Runkel says. “For those who stay, you can build your business and save money on initial investments so you can invest more gradually. You can establish a customer base and even a track record to one day present to a bank.”

Incubator farms can lease space in The Seed Farm’s greenhouse.

As written, new farmers can remain at The Seed Farm for up to three years, but Runkel says if land is available, no one is going to send an existing tenant packing. There’s enough land to accommodate five to eight farmers. With space for six apprentices, five slots have been filled each of the first three years.

Runkel has been involved in the sustainable agriculture field since 1996 and had her own organic farm in North Carolina for three years. The Seed Farm was as good an opportunity for her as it is for the program’s apprentices and new farmers. Today, she and her husband also lease a 183-acre farm in Port Clinton, outside Hamburg, Pa. Sixty acres of which is planted in hay.

The Seed Farm is located on preserved farmland owned by Lehigh County.

“I wish something like this existed when I was starting my farm [in North Carolina],” Runkel says. “It provides training, production skills and lots of equipment operation training and access to land, all of which keeps the initial capital investment down for new farmers. One of the biggest challenges is the startup costs.”

One of the models for The Seed Farm incubator is the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vt., which for 20-plus years has offered an incubator program that allows new farmers to lease land and provides them with access to equipment, infrastructure and mentoring, but there isn’t the separate upfront educational training. There are other smaller business incubator programs even in Pennsylvania, but a combination of the two – training and incubation – is unique, Runkel says.

The apprenticeship

In season, the apprentices work 16 hours a week at The Seed Farm. Each is responsible for specific crops in the 2-acre production and demonstration market garden where they’ll typically spend half the day. Training emphasizes whole-farm planning for soil and plant health as a foundation for organic management and sustainable food production. The apprentices grow more than 80 varieties of organic vegetables including early-season greens, brassicas, root crops, tomatoes, peppers, squash and lesser-known oriental vegetables.

“Many of these are less profitable, but we didn’t want (apprentices) to have to compete,” Runkel says. “They’re still gaining experience, and we’re still an educational farm.”

The other half of the day is spent in other educational areas, say, the compost pile, greenhouse or in a high tunnel. There’s one of those assignments per month, and they rotate through apprentices. In season, Saturday mornings are spent harvesting – with a focus on food safety and proper post-harvest handling – and preparing for a local farmers’ market on Sundays. There’s also a bit of wholesaling. A Saturday afternoon session might feature tractor safety training or pest management education.

Three extension courses are required through Penn State Cooperative Extension’s Start Farming Program: First, there’s the four-week Exploring the Small Farm Dream class (in the spring), then Introduction to Organic Vegetable Production between April and September (one Saturday a month). A third course, Planning a Small Farm, shifts the focus onto business planning. In all, there’s 600 hours of on-farm training, and another 100 hours of off-farm education.

Apprentices learn marketing skills by selling produce at a local farmers’ market.

“We’re not production only,” Runkel says. “But also management, equipment, which is unique, and planning. Where I worked, we were rarely allowed to drive the tractor. That was usually reserved for the farmer only.”

Apprentices must also participate in at least one supplemental activity per season, such as a workday on a neighboring mentor farm, which provides a chance to see the inner workings of non-vegetable farming alternatives.

There’s also Penn State’s “Organic Vegetable Production” course held at The Seed Farm. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) also offers workshops and field days. The Seed Farm is also a participant in the Sustainable Agriculture Internship Training Association (SAITA) offering workshops especially for interns.

Farm stewards

In October and November, apprentices interested in phase two of the training program must complete a farm plan and attend a study group session on farm planning. Those with acceptable plans are offered stewardship program benefits, including land, deer fencing, irrigation main lines from the upper of two ponds, greenhouse space, a pole barn, a walk-in cooler, tractor and implements, walk-behind tiller and washing facilities.

This spring, Lehigh County is about to erect a 24-by-48-foot high tunnel and add a 40-by-60-foot pole building for equipment storage and to house the washing and packing area that’s been outdoors off pallets thus far. The county still offers in-kind support, too. It provides the truck that transports the harvest to market and also some operating funds for the program.

The Seed Farm continues to grow itself.

“It was a startup farm when I started here,” Runkel says. “We’ve grown. I always said this was a great location with proximity to Philadelphia and New York, and with Allentown [the third largest city in Pennsylvania]. If you know what you’re doing [or can learn], you will always be able to sell your product around here.”

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.