by Bill Weaver
Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative has experienced phenomenal growth in the number of its wholesale markets, its CSA members, and in the number of member farmers, all of whose farms are certified organic, since it was started in 2006 in a barn with nine mostly Amish and Old-Order Mennonite farmers in Lancaster County, PA.
Today, Lancaster Farm Fresh has blossomed to include 80-plus member farmers (all in Pennsylvania) and about 2,000 CSA members are anticipated for 2013.
In addition, Lancaster Farm Fresh has a wealth of wholesale accounts, from Harrisburg, Philadelphia and the Main Line, to New York City, Baltimore, and the Washington D.C. metro area. These wholesale accounts include 5-star restaurants, hospitals, grocery stores, health food stores, and a healthy snack program for 31 kindergartens in Philadelphia.
The CSA has drop-off points in Delaware and New Jersey, in addition to the states mentioned above, and many, many drop-off points in east-central and southeastern Pennsylvania.
The co-op had help with start-up costs, incorporation, board member education, and by-laws development from the Keystone Development Corp. Keystone also paid a facilitator for a year to help get their computer network and infrastructure in place. But the spark plug that ignited the rapid expansion of their marketing network has been Casey Spacht.
Spacht, who grew up in Lancaster County, helped run a Natural Foods co-op in Tennessee, and managed another non-profit, before being hired by Lancaster Farm Fresh. He was first hired as a consultant, but was quickly made General Manager, a position he still holds.
Spacht’s philosophy has been, “We’ll deliver anywhere within a 150 mile radius of our home base in Leola.” To do that, the co-op has leased five refrigerated box trucks. His job requires working closely with both farmer members and customers. Farmers are called regularly to see what they have ready for sale. Spacht then makes up a price list and e-mails it to wholesale customers. Customers can see pictures of the individual items on their computers and order online.
“Because we are a small company,” said Spacht, “we can give personalized service that larger companies cannot give.” Spacht can put chefs, for example, on the phone with individual farmers, to make absolutely sure necessary quantities can be delivered on time. Chefs can even meet with individual farmers, if they would like to.
Lancaster Farm Fresh’s produce is not only certified organic, it’s also very fresh. “Our turnaround time from picking to delivery is generally 24 hours,” explained Spacht, a boast few produce distributors can make.
In addition to Spacht’s adept salesmanship and careful attention to details, the other factor that has fueled Lancaster Farm Fresh’s rapid growth has been the member farmers themselves. Most work family-owned farms. All have obtained organic certification and carefully built up their soils over the years with compost and other organic matter, and use natural mineral powders to keep their soils in good mineral balance.
These Plain sect farmers are willing to pull weeds by hand and squish bugs by hand, if necessary, to avoid using chemical solutions to combat weed and insect pests. Spacht summarized Lancaster Farm Fresh’s philosophy when he said, “Stronger chemicals breed stronger bugs and stronger weeds in a never-ending cycle. You do the math.”
The individual farmer members (as well as staff members) have done considerable legwork to find seed sources for unusual vegetables and fruits, many of them heirlooms.
But member farmers also grow what Spacht calls the “fun items,” like purple and blue-fleshed potatoes, dragon tongue beans, purple carrots, edamame, French Charentais melons, orange honey dews, shallots, a wide variety of often peculiar looking heirloom tomatoes, microgreens, black winter radishes, red chard, dandelion greens, globe artichokes, black bean shoots, Shitake mushrooms, and French heirloom carrots, for example.
Some of these are in as much demand from restaurants as they are from CSA members. An heirloom Romaine lettuce, with random red splotches on its leaves, for example, is in demand by chefs because of its beautiful appearance. Many of these “fun” items available at Lancaster Farm Fresh would be hard to find elsewhere. They don’t produce the “tonnage” or the yields per acre of more modern varieties, and lack disease resistances that have been bred into the newer varieties.
When working with Plain Sect farmers who traditionally grow and store food for the winter, the co-op has found, the farmers’ experiences can be a guide to more crops than most people would dream of that can be grown into the winter and that store well, and can be supplied during that time of year.
Spring high tunnel items can be ready for harvest quite early too. As of Feb. 19, farmer members had begun harvesting new-crop Bok Choi from tunnels.
Other types of shares that can be purchased from Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op include Fruit Shares, (fruit can be grown using IPM methods); Organic, locally sourced, Cut-Flower Shares; and even Lancaster “Farmacy” (Community Supported Medicine, or CSM) Shares, of locally grown, organic, fresh and dried herbs, sometimes medicinal plants like stinging nettles gathered from the wild, and lotions, balms, salves, and soaps, which are hand-made using herbs.
Why is Lancaster Farm Fresh attracting so many farmer members? A big drawing point is that the farmers themselves are in charge of their own destinies. The co-op is run by a board which consists of farmer members. There are local farmers involved every step of the way.
In addition, the co-op can sell pretty much everything farmer members grow, according to Spacht, at prices that allow families to spend their time working together, side by side, on the farm, which is highly prized among Plain Sect farmers, rather than having to take off-farm jobs. Having the co-op pick up their produce at the farm, as well as handle administrative details and marketing, so they can spend their time farming is also an attraction.
by Bill Weaver