Worthington farmers to ‘mentor’ program
A mobile chicken coop at Five Elements Farm in Worthington unleashes hens into fallow crop rows.
They peck, spreading the soil. They pluck out harmful insects and errant seeds, and bestow their gift of fertilization.
The farm’s 20 chickens will not be slaughtered this winter, which is the case at other farms after the birds are past their egg-laying prime. The birds will live out their lives helping the Bozzelli family work the land.
“They are a part of the farm program for us,” said Joe Bozzelli. “They are not product to us.”
The Bozzellis are a new breed of vegetable farmers doing things a little differently.
That hasn’t gone unnoticed: They have been chosen as a “mentor farmer” for the Penn State Extension New and Beginning Farmer program, rolled out this year for prospective new farmers in the region.
Joseph and Sara Bozzelli, who bought their 10 acres in Worthington in 2007, are among a slowly growing herd of new vegetable farmers working the food movement.
The new local farmer
The Bozzellis’ vegetables are organically grown and certified naturally grown, a grass-roots alternative to government certification.
They situated their home to collect the maximum amount of sunshine for solar panels and natural light. The brick ranch home, designed by Joe Bozzelli, is insulated with hay and features a large bank of windows providing natural light that pours into the family’s kitchen and living area. There is no air conditioning as it is not needed because the house stays cool most of the year, according to the Bozzellis.
The young farm family catches rain from the roofs of their buildings with barrels and a special pump system that pipes the water to their greenhouse.
“Small farmers are seeing where they can fit into the scheme of things and where their marketing opportunities are,” said Bob Pollock, an educator who covers southwestern Pennsylvania for the Penn State Cooperative Extension.
“People want to know where their food comes from, it seems, and, if you are doing things like solar or integrated pest management or organic or naturally grown vegetables, that is resonating with the public,” said Pollock.
But are there enough new farmers like Bozzelli and more traditional small farmers to meet the growing demand for locally grown food?
No, according to Heather Manzo Mikulas, an educator at Penn State Cooperative Extension, Allegheny County, for agricultural marketing and economic development.
Local and regional farms produce only 5 percent of our food, according to Mikulas.
“Here’s the kicker — which is scary — 80 percent of our food comes from California,” she said. “How stable is that given the drought conditions?”
The goal is to increase local production, consumption and access to locally and regionally production foods, according to Mikulas.
But to become a new farmer requires investment and skills for a business that can be enormously fulfilling but with slim profit margins.
“It has to be made easier for people to become small farmers,” she said. “The next generation needs to find a way to bankroll it.”
Coming to your neighborhood?
The Bozzellis are part of the food movement known as “slow foods,” an alternative to fast food. Slow foods are locally grown and prepared.
“The slow food movement is happening fast,” said Court Gould, executive director of the nonprofit Sustainable Pittsburgh.
His organization is in the process of creating a sustainable restaurant performance program, which the public can consult to know what restaurants are using local produce and other information.
“Large restaurant chains like Eat’n Park are prioritizing purchasing programs from local farmers and are helping to form networks,” Gould said.
“There’s a trend that is starting to favor local produce and there’s more opportunities for small local farmers,” he said, but warns, “It’s still an extremely hard vocation and one should look very carefully before one leaps.”
Pollock said, “It’s a challenge across the board.”
Labor and market place demand are huge issues.
“Vegetable farming is a labor intensive business,” he said. “We don’t have machines to harvest every crop, unlike corn, soy, and hay.”
And, even if the technology or machinery is there, the economics might not work for a small farm.
Also, matching up a small farmer with a restaurant or a chain of food stores isn’t easy either, according to Pollock.
“Large stores and restaurants know the amount, quality and quantity of produce that they need in a given week and they want to minimize the number of vendors they need to work with,” he said.
Mikulas said some small farmers are choosing to sell through a small farm aggregator — a middle man — to reach the markets.
She said efforts will continue to increase to better match the local farmers with the new and growing markets.
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or [email protected].