Don Cunningham: Growing Farmers is a Necessary Part of the Economy

By Colin McEvoy on November 10, 2017

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on November 8, 2017. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

I always thought it would be nice to have a garden.

Till some soil. Grow some vegetables. Go backyard to table.

It turns out what I really like is the thought of having a garden. Working on it, not so much. I have the same issue with doing yoga and owning a dog.

I’d like to be the guy who walks the dog, then heads off to yoga and returns to work the garden. Turns out, I’m not. The Hamiltonian in me won the duel against any idea of a Jeffersonian agrarian existence.  I just buy my food.

In this, I feel a bit of family shame, of contributing to the inevitable softening that comes as generations march on.

I don’t come from farmers.  My people all lived in Bethlehem. They were mill workers and tradesmen. The reason they had gardens and fruit trees was to make sure they’d never go hungry.

My grandfather was born in 1922. His parents had fled the villages of Slovenia following WWI for the mills of Bethlehem. His father was dead by 1927, shot while running booze across Saucon Valley during Prohibition. Left behind were five kids and an immigrant widow who didn’t speak English, and never really would.

Social security and food stamps didn’t exist.

The backyard gardens of her tiny row houses on Mechanic and then Polk streets kept her family from starving. My great grandmother lived to 98. She never left the Slovenian-Windish neighborhood in south Bethlehem. The garden remained as long as she did. Upon any visit, we’d leave with some of its bounty.

My grandfather lived until 2004. Despite retiring as a union machinist, and long escaping the poverty of the Depression, he never missed a garden season. He also had fruit trees crowded into his north Bethlehem backyard on Goepp Street. The fear of being hungry again kept his hands in the soil – and mine on rotted plums and peaches. As the only grandson, my job was to pick up the dead fruit that fell to the ground, which always infested with ugly, angry yellow jackets.

I’d also haul a ridiculous overabundance of zucchini to Mrs. Simsak next door. Mrs. Simsak was as sweet as they come and she appeared to love baking zucchini bread, which is only a little better than straight zucchini. Of the same generation, she and my grandfather united over this strange annual exchange of zucchini, which seemed to celebrate the success of the harvest, and the defeat of hunger. I didn’t understand that back then. It just made me not like zucchini.

I was reminded of my garden lineage recently while attending the annual dinner of Lehigh County’s Seed Farm.

Located on farmland given to Lehigh County off Vera Cruz Rd. in Upper Milford Township, the farm is unique. It’s the home of one of the Lehigh Valley’s most important economic development programs.

The Seed Farm organization is a small but mighty non-profit organization that in a partnership with the Penn State Agriculture Extension and Lehigh County trains farmers. It trains farming entrepreneurs not only how to grow crops but how to run a business. Most farms fail not because the crops fail but because the business does.

Farming is a business much harder than most. Not only does it require incredibly hard work, it requires a lot of upfront capital in land or leases, equipment, seeds or animals with no guarantee of return. Business success comes as much from sales and marketing, supply chain management, financial controls and labor costs as it does from the ultimate crop, meat, cheese or spirit.

There is broad-based policy agreement in both Lehigh and Northampton counties on the need to preserve farmland. Both counties have spent tens of millions of dollars during the last 15 years to preserve more than 35,000 acres of farmland on nearly 450 properties.  The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission’s regional comprehensive plan sets a target to preserve 25 percent of our land, which will require doubling preservation.

For this to make sense, it’s equally important to preserve the business of farming, which requires training – or growing – new farmers. The average age of a Lehigh Valley farmer is 59-years-old, which means the majority of our farmers are near retirement. Their land is often their pension whether they sell it for development or preservation rights. Public money for preservation is typically much harder to come by, and much less lucrative.

Farmland without farmers is a land preservation program but not an economic one. Therefore, the Seed Farm effort to incubate farmers – teaching them all aspects of the business through apprenticeships and training programs – is as important as vocational and technical schools and state incubators to develop new technology companies.  Farming incubators need more support. The Seem Farm can’t sell enough raffle tickets at its annual dinner to meet the demand.

There is a new enthusiasm for fresh, local produce. Farmers markets and farm to table restaurants are growing in the region. More local produce can be found in grocery stores, and wineries and distilleries are turning local crops into better and better wines and spirits.

Two generations ago my family, like many others, had gardens and grew food to survive. I am of a fortunate generation, one that never knew hunger or the threat of it. Food is affordable and abundant, and a social safety net is in place.  Today, “foodies” may spend more on meals, craft beer and spirits in a week than families did in a year in the 1930s.  And, we don’t have to get our hands dirty except for fun – but someone does.

We are fortunate the Seed Farm finds and trains new farmers. And, if they go easy on growing zucchini, I’ll keep buying those raffle tickets at the dinner.

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