Lehigh Valley is seeing a resurgence in farming thanks to Rodale Institute’s push to bring certified organic farming to the valley.
Jeff Tkach, chief impact officer for Rodale Institute, 611 Siegfriedale Road, Kutztown, said Lehigh Valley could, in fact, be the next “Silicone Valley” of certified organic farming.
More Americans are waking up to the realization that they aren’t eating well and are demanding organic foods produced locally, he said.
“During the global pandemic when the supply chain fractured and grocery shelves were bare, people flocked to farmer’s markets,” he said. “We saw a 420% increase to direct-to-consumer sales.”
Since 1947, Rodale Institute has taken the lead to promote a better, natural, and more responsible way of modern farming by conducting research in the cultivation of healthy, living soils, according to its website.
After receiving a $1.3 million state grant last year through the state Department of Agriculture from the Pennsylvania Farm Bill, Rodale Institute is working with farmers to transition to certified organic farming.
Because of the effects of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, interest in healthy, local food has returned to the American culture, Tkach said. “Certified organic farming is increasing, and we offer free consulting to farmers to transition to organic.”
In fact, he said, Lehigh Valley now has more than 100 certified organic farms.
Shannon Powers, press secretary for the state Department of Agriculture, said certified organic farming grew 12.8% in 2020, up from 4.6% in 2019.
“Consumer demand is driving this,” she said.
In Nov. 2020, the state Department of Agriculture showcased women in farming, highlighting Crooked Row Farm in Orefield, Lehigh County. Co-owner Liz Wagner spent much of the day showing Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding the successes of her farm, which raises poultry and vegetables and has a market open to the public.
A 2019 USDA survey of organic production showed Pennsylvania was No. 1 in the nation for livestock and poultry production at $449 million, egg production at $104 million, and mushroom production at $77 million; and number eight in milk production at $65 million.
“We are seeing dairy farmers transition and diversify their production and it’s helping them stay in business,” Powers said. “Organic yogurt is a big one.”
To become certified, a farm must complete a three-year program. Gov. Tom Wolf signed the first ever PA Farm Bill in 2019 with $23 million in funding. Powers said it made Pennsylvania the first state in the nation with a dedicated farm bill of any kind.
That bill, Tkach said, made grants available for Rodale Institute to work with farmers to transition to certified organic. The transition not only meets consumer demands, but it is giving farmers the ability to stay on the farm and be profitable.
“The average price for a bushel of soybeans is $13-$14. Certified organic soybeans will bring $38-$40,” he said. “This is real.”
The goal is to transition 50,000 new acres to certified organic, Tkach said. “Farmers need to make a profit, and this is a way to do that.”
Another example he cited is a 100-acre farm that grows grain can sell it for $68 a bushel, bringing in $170,000 a year.
“It astonishes me to see farmland bulldozed under for warehouses,” he said. “People live in Lehigh Valley because they want to be surrounded by nature, but before the pandemic they shopped at Walmart instead of supporting local business.”
With the change in consumer demand, farmers are willing to stay with their farms because they can now be profitable, he said.
David Jaindl, owner and president of Jaindl Farms, said this is an up-and-coming market. Interest in the company’s organic turkeys, he said, is growing.
“We started with organic turkeys about 10 years ago,” he said. “They are confirmed organic by us feeding them a diet made of exclusively organic grains.”
To support the farm, Jaindl said the company expanded its farms to grow its own grain and now has 500 acres that are certified organic or are on the verge of certification.
While Jaindl uses its grain to feed its turkeys, Jaindl said the company will be selling some of it to other farmers looking for organic feed.
Scott Sechler, owner of Bell & Evans, Fredericksburg, said his company only feeds organic grains to its chickens.
“We partnered with global ag leader Cargill to exclusively secure the U.S. organic grains we need for our organic chicken production and to help increase that domestic organic grain supply,” he said. “Under our agreement, Cargill incentivizes U.S. farmers to transition acreage from conventional to organic management through subsidized organic crop consulting services provided by organic pioneer Rodale Institute.
“Together, we three partners offer support, security, and transparency to farmers to produce organic grain and follow that grain directly to our end product (organic chicken) to be part of our story,” Sechler said. “That level of traceability from grain to end product is very unique in the marketplace and excites farmers.”
In fact, Bell & Evans has experienced more than 20% growth in organic chicken sales over the past couple of years and expects its growth to continue as consumers become more knowledgeable about food production and choose local, organic foods.
As one of the largest organic grain buyers in the nation, Sechler said the grain supply needs to grow and “we are committed to helping U.S. farmers transition to organic.”
In addition to feed for livestock, Tkach said with the growth of microbreweries, organic hops are in demand, and brewers can’t find it.
“This has farmers’ interest,” he said.
“Farming is challenging,” Powers said. “It requires a lot of technical expertise.”
The state Farm Bill provides money to help in the transition and, Powers said, more farmers are seeing growth and increased sales.
“This is keeping farms alive,” she said.
The technology associated with certified organic farming is a huge learning curve and the benefits go beyond increased income, Powers said.
“There are fewer chemicals in the air, soil and water and it preserves habitats. Those habitats increase the number of birds which provide natural pest control,” she said.