The Seed Farm: Pa. County Hopes to Bring the Farmers Back with New Venture

America's vanishing farmland isn't a new problem. Suburban sprawl and a lack of interest among the younger generation are among the reasons why farms -- many of them family-owned -- have steadily gone out of business since World War II.

But one county in Eastern Pennsylvania hopes to bring the farmers back. It's launched a program that teaches wannabe farmers how to set up a farm, grow their own crops and keep the business afloat.

"We made a commitment to preserve farmland" says Don Cunningham, county executive for Pennsylvania's Lehigh County, where roughly 20,000 acres of farmland have been preserved predominately through $66 million in county and state funds. Now the county is trying to encourage people to consider farming as a career. "Preserved farms do no good if there is no one to work them," he says.

The county has invested heavily in economic regeneration in industries like high-tech and manufacturing through a variety of incubators, and now has taken the same approach with agriculture. In March 2009, using about $300,000 in funds from its own coffers and a federal grant through the Department of Agriculture's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the county launched an agricultural incubator called the Seed Farm program. The three-year apprenticeship trains people to obtain the necessary expertise to become farmers, including hands-on agricultural experience on the county's land, as well as business classes on how to run a small business.

"We're the first county in Pennsylvania to do this," Cunningham says.

A New Generation of Farmers

The incubator gives prospective farmers the opportunity to see whether they want to pursue farming full-time without making a huge investment in land and equipment. Among the apprentices there are mid-career switchers looking for new opportunities, people who have always dreamed of farming, and immigrants who farmed in their native countries but don't have the resources to start farms here.

Jennifer Brodsky, 37, of Harleysville, Pa., one of four first-year apprentices, says there are limited opportunities for people with no family legacy. After all, farming knowledge and land have traditionally passed from one generation to the next.

"There are business schools all across the country, but not farm schools," says Brodsky, who was employed by several non-profits, had stints working on farms in Ireland and France, and was involved in start-ups for several small businesses before deciding to become a farmer.

First-year apprentices, who attend the program for free (they do have to pay a $40 application fee), commit to 20 hours a week of class time and hands-on experience from February though November. The training covers technical topics like what crops to grow, disease and pest management, and what tools and equipment to use, and visits to local farms. Classroom instruction on the business of farming -- with a strong focus on marketing and management -- is provided by the local extension branch of Penn State University.

Passing Muster In the Fields and the Classroom

With the help of mentor farmers, participants are required to develop a business plan after their first year, then present it to the incubator's board members. The business plan includes what crops will be grown, how harvests will be marketed (for example, through wholesalers or farmers' markets) and a breakdown of projected costs and profits.

"Farmers on the board really help with the weak spots," says Jan Creedon, director of general services for Lehigh County.

If the business plan is approved, the apprentice becomes a farm steward during the second and third years in the program. During that time, the stewards will lease land at the site to try their own hand at farming. The experience, as well as the course work and business plans, are expected to help the budding farmers obtain financing so they can break out on their own after the program ends.

With the county's backing and resources -- access to land, greenhouses, irrigation systems and expensive equipment like tractors, and the structured training, the Seed Farm program has advantages over fledgling incubators elsewhere, which often don't have such substantial resources.

"A lot of incubators fail in the funding piece," Creedon says. The county is creating a detailed manual that is intended to be a "definitive primer" to help other counties replicate the program.

Tapping Into the Locavore Trend

Though the county's farmland is under development pressure, its proximity to both New York and Philadelphia -- roughly an hour or two from both -- may actually be good for farmers, says Sara Runkel, the farm manager who oversees day-to-day operations at the Seed Farm. She says the surrounding areas provide "a ready and accessible market for an increasing interest in sustainable, locally grown food that does not have to travel to the marketplace. It's an incredible opportunity."

Brodsky, the apprentice, says she plans to plant strawberries and garlic, crops that have different planting and harvesting schedules that will ease the workload during peak seasons and also extend cash flow. She also hopes to become a regular supplier to local restaurants.

"The dream, of course, is to own my own land," Brodsky says. "I think it is important to get it right. You need to be realistic to achieve the dream," she says. "I feel this is my one shot."

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