Pennsylvania lease program matches aspiring farmers to available land

TJ Costa tills a field in Chester County, on land that he and his wife, Chris, lease. They are planting on two acres while preparing three more and learning the business end of farming.
TJ Costa tills a field in Chester County, on land that he and his wife, Chris, lease. They are planting on two acres while preparing three more and learning the business end of farming. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 19, 2011

First in an occasional series on the demand for locally grown food and its impact on our region.

Christine and TJ Costa, a pair of 34-year-old teachers, yearned to farm full time, but with just a quarter-acre and some hens in Chester County, they could not earn enough to quit their day jobs.

Nearby, an aging Eleanor Morris watched as Lundale, the farm she and her late husband, Samuel, started in 1946, languished - protected from development but agriculturally fallow.

And then along came a trade group, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), with a new land-lease program that sounds so much like a variation on the dating service eHarmony, it could be called eFarmony.

PASA, which started 20 years ago and has 6,000 members, offers technical and business training for farmers. The land-lease program, started with the Costas, is a first for PASA: It aims to match wannabe farmers with land that is in conservation.

PASA's land-lease program is part of a larger landscape of intense interest in locally grown produce, indeed, in every aspect of the journey from farm to fork.

This local food focus, along with concern about obesity, is generating an array of initiatives, paid for with government funds, foundation grants, or private enterprise, aimed at providing equal access to fresh, local vegetables grown in untainted soil, with the ultimate goal of a healthier diet.

"As a nation, we're still spending billions unnecessarily on crop subsidies," says Bob Pierson, founder and director of Farm to City, which does consulting and marketing for farmers markets and other food businesses.

"But we're moving to a point where 'local' is the new status quo," Pierson says. "I can't see this movement going away any time soon."

Philadelphia is ahead of the pack nationally, in part because the region is rich in farmland, but also because it has well-established agencies that see sustainable farming as essential for public health and economic development, says Barry Seymour, at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which, with the William Penn Foundation, gave $100,000 to PASA's new land-lease program.

As part of Mayor Nutter's green initiative, Philadelphia adopted a Food Charter in 2008, and, joining the ranks of more than 50 other U.S. cities, established a Food Policy Council, comprising city and regional stakeholders.

So in 2009, when it came time to distribute federal funds to battle obesity and cigarette smoking, the city got the largest amount per capita - $25 million.

That money now funds Get Healthy Philly, a project of the city Department of Public Health, the School District, and the Food Trust.

Over two years, Get Healthy aims to develop healthier corner stores, open new farmers' markets, place mobile produce carts in underserved neighborhoods, and eliminate junk food and sugary drinks from schools.

It funds Philly Food Bucks, which gives eligible residents $2 back in scrip for every $5 in food stamps (now SNAP) spent at farmers' markets and designated corner stores. And it lets residents call 311, the line usually reserved for problems with trash collection or nuisance bars, to find those outlets.

In the public schools, Get Healthy hopes to put locally grown fruits and vegetables in cafeterias; remove junk food from fund-raisers and as classroom rewards; and place breakfast carts in elementary and middle schools to increase the number of youngsters who eat a good breakfast.

Some progress is already evident. Four of 10 planned new farmers' markets are in place. Use of food stamps at farmers' markets doubled from 2009 to 2010. So far, 160 of a hoped-for 200 schools have Wellness Councils in place; 91 of 100 breakfast carts are feeding 37,000 students in 60 elementary and middle schools. There are no mobile food carts in neighborhoods yet.

Sara Solomon, who heads Get Healthy Philly, says people and systems are in place to measure results and assess the project's effectiveness.

Meanwhile, assuring a continuing flow of food from the farm is essential, says Marilyn Anthony, PASA's Eastern Pennsylvania director. With more than 425,000 acres of preserved farmland in Pennsylvania and a crop of farmers whose average age is 57, new farmers are needed.

"That was the genesis of this program," Anthony says. "We knew we needed to recruit and help young farmers overcome the highest obstacle, which is access to land."

For now, the Costas are the only participants, but as well-educated young people who did not grow up in farm families, TJ and Chris Costa are typical of the nation's next generation of farmers, Anthony says.

Already, collards, kale, and rouge d'hiver (a tender, red-tipped heirloom lettuce) are sprouting on the five-acre section of Lundale the Costas are leasing.

This whole venture cannot expand quickly, Anthony says.

"We need people to understand that finding a farmer and finding land is not like add water, stir, wait 10 minutes. It's a process. I'm encouraging people to apply at least two years before they are ready to act. There's a lot to be done to prepare a property."

The Costas had been growing produce and raising hens on their quarter-acre home near Downingtown, calling their business Turning Roots Farm. But they wanted to expand. Now they are growing on two of the five acres they lease from Lundale's 320 acres, and prepping the other three acres for next year.

They have learned just how difficult farming can be.

"We wanted to grow food and play in the dirt, but we had to develop a business plan with short- and long-term goals, sales estimates, all that," Chris says. "PASA coaches us through - they're awesome."

PASA also provided a pro bono lawyer to draw up a contract between the Costas and Morris, but it is not footing any of the Costas' bills.

An intensively planted sustainable farm can produce 7,000 pounds of vegetables in one season on a single acre. Direct sales can generate $8,000 to $18,000 per acre.

"Mostly, we've learned that farming is about patience and trust," Chris Costa says. "You have to trust that the rain will come - and the rain will go. You learn to trust that seeds want to grow.

"You learn to let go and let nature do its work."


Reach Inquirer staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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