New face of down on the farm A community-supported operation wins its owner a top county award.

Posted: December 10, 2006

Karen Vollmecke was packing eggs from her free-range chickens along with some of her butternut squash for a Malvern restaurant one recent afternoon.

It's Alba, "a little chef-owned restaurant and he [Sean Weinberg] has a passion for cooking with local produce," Vollmecke said.

Growing for locals seems to be what gets Vollmecke percolating most mornings.

Karen, 44, and her mother Jan, 77, are copartners in the 22-year-old Vollmecke Orchards, on Cedar Knoll Road in West Brandywine Township.

Now, the Chester County Agricultural Development Council has honored her as the county farmer of the year.

"It's really an honor to be the first woman to be so honored," as well as the first owner of a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) farm, Karen said as she packed that produce.

It shows, she said, "that Chester County is looking at the changing face of agriculture."

There are now about 120 members of her CSA organization at her farm, Karen said, up from about 85 five years ago.

The CSA members sign up before the growing season, guaranteeing her an annual income, while she guarantees that her farm will have Vollmecke-grown fruits and vegetables when they come calling.

"We're going to stay fairly steady for the [next] season," she said. Though the 37-acre farm has room to grow, "we need a little more infrastructure before we expand."

The Vollmeckes were trendsetters before the county honor.

In the 2002 Census of Agriculture, the most recent of the once-every-five-years federal head counts, 5,998 women identified themselves as principal operators of Pennsylvania farms, up nearly 20 percent from 5,009 in 1997, even though the number of farms in the state dropped over those years.

Though sharing partnership with her mother, Karen, identified herself in the 2002 census as the chief.

A graduate of Swarthmore High School, Karen also graduated from the professional gardener training program at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.

At her farm, she said, "we have selected all these wonderful varieties that you can't go out and buy" at supermarkets.

One she loves is a Japanese melon named Eel River, which she said is "extremely aromatic, reminiscent of eating peaches."

One closer to home is the Brandywine tomato, which she said is "one of the tastiest."


Though dairy farms seem the most visible sort as one drives through the Philadelphia region, Chester County ranks first in the state in only two farm categories, according to Dan Capstick, deputy director of the Pennsylvania field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

One is equine animals on farms - horses, ponies, mules - Capstick said, and the other is mushrooms, listed in the "nursery, greenhouse, floriculture and sod" category.

Though the number of farms across the nation has been declining for decades, the number in Chester County has not dropped sharply.

The 1997 Census of Agriculture counted 1,983 in Chester county, the 2002 census counted 1,918, and Capstick's office estimated 1,920 for 2005.

Farm consultants in the 1990s reported seeing an increase in the Philadelphia region in small-acreage farms, even smaller than the Vollmeckes', where vegetables were being grown or a few horses or sheep are kept. This fulfills the federal definition of a farm as one with $1,000 in annual production, or with the potential to produce that much.

Contact staff writer Walter F. Naedele at 610-701-7614 or at

comments powered by Disqus