Growing Their Own Way: Inside 4 Pittsburgh Family Farms
Family-run farms adapt in multiple ways in order to thrive in western Pennsylvania.
PHOTOS BY RENEE ROSENSTEEL
During the last 50 years, the way we grow food in the United States has become larger and more centralized. Bigger farms selling food raised on an industrial scale challenge the viability of the once-thriving community of mid-sized family farms. On top of that, many farm kids haven’t felt the need to follow in their parents’ footsteps because, unlike their counterparts in previous generations, they have more career options. The prospect of finding better-paying, less backbreaking work makes it pretty tempting to leave the field for the office.
Still, a handful of multigenerational farms manage to thrive in western Pennsylvania. In order to maintain their long-held land and operations, many farmers have adopted new strategies to stay in business.
Some keep up on and apply the latest topics and techniques. Others have diversified their business by selling products in addition to those they’re growing in the field. And a few operations managed to ride out the corporate challenges of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s relatively unchanged, and they now are benefiting from a renewed public interest in supporting local agriculture.
HARVEST VALLEY FARMS
Art King, 59, says he never intended to be the third generation of the King family to farm in western Pennsylvania. He was working in sales for H.P. Starr lumber in Glades Mill when his dad fell ill in 1992 and died not long after that. Art’s younger brother, Larry, 54, was running Harvest Valley Farms in Valencia, Butler County, and suggested that Art join him. He wasn’t the only one. “My dad left me a tractor in his will. It was like a message from the grave,” Art says.
Patriarch Norman King purchased the acres of land that would become Harvest Valley Farms in 1941; before that, the Kings raised chickens and produce on what’s now Beechwood Farms Nature Preserve in O’Hara Township.
“[Dad] always talked about how he and his mother took tomatoes down to Aspinwall on a bus. That’s back when Aspinwall had [only] five houses,” says Art.
By the time Art became a partner, there were no more chickens on the farm. The Kings now grow more than 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables on 161 acres of land. There are 11 greenhouses.
Business is good for the Kings. The Harvest Valley Farms CSA supports 438 people, and the Kings also operate a market and bakery close to the farm, stalls at three area farmers markets and a new store in Oakmont. “I have some devoted customers. That’s not by chance,” Art says.
He credits his family’s innate curiosity and love of learning as the reasons the farm continues to grow.
“It’s a constant battle back and forth between knowing what you know and looking for new ideas,” he says. “I look at organic farming as an extreme. But I look at conventional agriculture as an extreme, too. We are somewhere in the middle. We try to leave as small a footprint as we can on the land, and we try to farm sensibly.”
Increasingly, he looks to his son, Dave, 32 — the fourth generation of King farmers and a board member of the Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association — for new ideas. For example, under Dave’s direction, Art says the farm is “getting in the blueberry business big time.”
There also are the Pennsylvania Simply Sweet onions — the state’s only trademarked vegetable crop — plus three proprietary varieties of tomatoes.
Then again, Art says, the reason the farm never has lost money since he started farming goes back to a much more traditional idea: “We never buy anything on credit. If we can’t pay for it, we don’t buy it. That takes planning. We always think ahead.”
It’s 4 p.m. at Brunton Dairy in Independence Township, Beaver County. Ed Brunton, 47, is milking cows, just as he’s done twice a day, nearly every day, for the past 30 years. His nephew, Cole Brunton, drives a compact tractor between the rows of 102 Holstein cattle. He drives masterfully, even though he’s only 10 years old.
To some, it might seem odd — even distressing — to allow a 10-year-old to operate heavy machinery after school, but for the Bruntons it’s part of a long continuum of farming tradition.
“When does a person start to learn work ethics? When they’re young. You wait until they’re 16 or 18 and then expect a switch to turn on? Well, no, that’s not going to happen,” says Ed.
Family patriarch Bill Brunton purchased what would become Brunton Dairy in 1832, and his son, William C. Brunton, built a house there in 1869. The rhythm of life today isn’t very much different than it was in Ed’s great-great-great grandfather’s time: Dairy farmers wake up long before sunrise, eat dinner at 3:30 p.m. and go to bed early. Cows are milked at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m., and milk is delivered every day of the week except for Sunday.
“One thing that hasn’t changed is the price of milk,” jokes Herb Brunton, Ed’s brother and Cole’s dad. Herb, 46, and Ed oversee the day-to-day farm work, alongside Jim, 33, and Jerry Brunton, 32, the sons of their late brother James “Junior” Brunton. Junior’s widow, Mary Jane, 53, runs the business operations for the family.
While Herb’s statement is a tad hyperbolic, he’s not far off the mark. If the Bruntons sold their milk to a large conglomerate, as do most dairy farmers in the United States, they say their return would be much lower — meaning they could support only one family with a herd their size. “Since we do it all ourselves, we can support five families,” he says.
“What happens is for a lot of people the price of milk will go down and they’ll quit. Or they’ll tell their sons and their daughters that it’s not worth it to do this,” says Ed.
Herb runs the milk plant. This, he says, is where the farm’s technology has changed most. He can process 400 gallons of milk per hour; when he started working in the plant at age 17, it was 400 gallons per day. Herb says that he’s missed only five days of work throughout the past 30 years, two for his honeymoon and three in 2002, when he left to take an ice cream-making course at Penn State University. That ice cream, which Herb makes every Saturday, is one of very few additions to the Brunton line of milk, chocolate milk and buttermilk.
Ed runs the milking operation. He researches the latest technology, such as the robotic milkers that are catching on in Europe and elsewhere. But for the most part he’s milking the same way he has for the past 30 years. That means he moves down the rows, from one cow to the next, manually attaching a milker to each cow’s udders. To make his life a little easier, he sits on the three-point milking stool that’s attached to his jeans. “If I didn’t have this, my knees would be shot,” he says.
Often the cows lick his face and neck as he’s working. “Holsteins are lazy cows. They’re easy to get along with,” he says.
Ed and Herb also help with other tasks, including milk delivery, and the rest of the family members rotate farm work. Herb says that rotating tasks helps to break the rhythm of what otherwise could be a monotonous existence. There are no holidays for dairy farmers; the cows need to be milked twice a day no matter the temperature or occasion.
The Brunton family faced what could have been an end-of-days crisis in 2011, when the dairy voluntarily halted production and recalled products due to concerns about bacterial contamination. The cause of the contamination is not known. The Bruntons say the generations of trust they built paid off then. Herb says a larger, faceless dairy might not have bounced back as quickly as a family business with a nearly 200-year history of farming in western Pa.
“I milk cows. I bottle milk,” he says. “I go to [people’s] doors and talk to them every week. Ed does it. Jim does it. Jerry does it. People dealt with the owners and that makes a difference. It’s not a faceless thing here.”
Herb glows when he talks about how, “that customer loyalty, it just about makes you cry. They really supported us.”
Sometimes a farm family has to make a hard choice to stay in business. Members of the 11 families who own the 300-plus-acre, seventh-generation Trax Farms near Finleyville, Washington County, decided in 2011 to sell mineral rights to Chesapeake Energy. This area of Pennsylvania is situated in one of the most active parts of the Marcellus Formation, a hotbed of activity in the natural-gas industry. The extraction site is visible from the Traxes’ popular farm market and some of their fields, where they grow corn, tomatoes, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables.
“A few years ago, they had to sell off a huge amount of acreage [to a home developer] because of debt,” says Terry McLaughlin, who works for Trax Farms and grew up on land next to the farm. “If things were fine and dandy and the money was growing from the orchard, we wouldn’t [have] dug up a field. But the fact is, we needed the money to keep the farm going. You’ll see that all around here.”
Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking, as it’s commonly known) increasingly is a popular, if controversial, source of income for some western Pennsylvania farmers. Landowners receive an up-front payout for mineral rights and a royalty on sales of gas extracted from their land. With ever-higher labor costs (in part a result of the region’s booming natural-gas industry) and constant consumer pressure for low food prices, some farmers, especially those with mid-to-large farms, have made this choice to stay in business.
“When you are looking at how things have evolved, well, now you have these fabulous Giant Eagles with an advertising budget we’d never have and megastores like Walmart who are able to purchase from mega-growers at prices that we can’t touch. You have to get creative,” McLaughlin says.
For many farmers, that creative choice is to reinvent themselves through organic or integrated growing methods, direct relationships with high-profile chefs or the addition of livestock. McLaughlin says the Traxes determined those weren’t appropriate choices for their farm.
“It’s a huge change, and in the meantime, the bills still have to be paid,” she says. They have focused on expanding their large retail market to include a lawn and garden center, greenhouse, bakery, deli and shops featuring state wines, antiques and craft beer, she says. They’ve also added family events, festivals and summer camps.
Neighbors and environmental activists pushed back on drilling. Yet McLaughlin says embracing evolving technology long has been part of a farmer’s business plan. “When they started irrigating [in the 1960s,] all of us just listened to the pumps at night. Maybe it was a kinder and gentler time back then … they needed to water their crops. It meant to me that we would have great strawberries and wonderful corn,” she says.
Discontent over fracking — a still-developing technology with environment-related concerns — runs hotter and louder than a diesel irrigation pump. McLaughlin says the Trax families are keenly aware of potential environmental issues and have worked with Range Resources (the current leaseholder) to implement pollution-monitoring safeguards. The drilling company also put up a massive sound-deflecting fence to address neighbors’ concerns about noise pollution.
“We’ve found [drilling] to be a very positive experience for the farm,” McLaughlin says.
Extraction from the Trax well currently is on hiatus due to low gas prices, but it could be tapped again. In the meantime, a stronger economy and increased interest in locally grown produce, including items grown with conventional methods, is helping the multi-family business.
The Soergel family, apple farmers in Wexford since the 1850s, always is looking forward.
“When I was 12 or 13, my parents sat my brother and me down in the living room and asked us if we wanted to do this (farming). They said that if we did, they would continue to invest in growing the farm,” says Randy Soergel.
The family farms a collective 450 acres of land — roughly 125 acres in Allegheny County and the remainder in Butler County. They also grow hops and have a small but increasing number of acres dedicated to farming organic produce.
After he graduated from Penn State University in 1978, Randy, who’s now 59, started a small greenhouse business on the farm with some help from his parents. His little side-shoot would blossom into the sprawling Soergel’s Greenhouses and Garden Center.
“[My brother and I] didn’t do it their way, but our parents trusted our decisions. When I wanted to do the greenhouse, they co-signed the loan. That’s very encouraging,” he says.
Six years ago, after Randy’s daughter, Amy Soergel, graduated from college, he wanted to help her in the same way his parents helped him. Amy, 30, has celiac disease — a debilitating autoimmune disease that is triggered by the consumption of gluten — and has found grocery shopping to be challenging. After earning a bachelor of science degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Pittsburgh, Amy decided to open a store catering to food lovers with dietary restrictions.
“I felt a lot of the same feeling my dad felt with his parents when I opened this store. They might not have understood it completely, but they trusted me to do it,” says Amy.
They opened Naturally Soergel’s in one of the family’s historic barns. It has expanded twice in the last six years.
Meanwhile, Randy’s twin brother, Reed Soergel, 59, manages the family’s sprawling apple orchards. He started dipping his toes into organic farming in the 1990s and particularly is interested in integrated pest management — an environmentally friendly system that uses a variety of scientifically proven, common-sense tactics to reduce a farmer’s dependence on pesticides and fungicides. For example, Reed sprays pheromones on trees to disrupt the mating process of the codling moth, a common and potentially devastating apple tree pest.
“There’s always something new to deal with,” Reed says. For example, he says “the stink bug set us back 20 years.”
Still, rather than settle for the conventional method of blanketing the orchard with pesticides, he’s working with Penn State Extension programs on a technique called “attract and kill,” using pheromones to attract stink bugs to one tree on the perimeter. “Then you don’t have to spray the orchards at all. You can go back to IPM practices,” he says.
He’s also worked with Carnegie Mellon University researchers to develop driverless equipment that will reduce the time and labor burden of pruning and harvesting the apple trees.
DOWN THE LINE
Plenty of challenges lie ahead for family farms. A new generation of back-to-the-land farmers is coming in, armed with of-the-moment techniques and a drive to produce quality over quantity. Technological advances might make it easier for Reed Soergel to prune his apple trees, and perhaps one day Ed Brunton might retire his milking stool and invest in a robotic milker, but farm work never will cease to be backbreaking. And as land values rise in western Pennsylvania, it’s increasingly easy — and tempting — to cash out and sell the farm.
Still, it looks as if these families are determined to stick around, hands in their parcels of Pennsylvania soil, for the long term.
“It’s hard to stay in business, but somehow we keep doing it,” says Art King.
“Everybody’s last name here is on the top of the bottle of milk. So everyone has the same goal, or commitment, or whatever you want to call it,” says Herb Brunton.
For Randy Soergel, the calling goes deeper than just family, too.
“There’s a real caring for other people. I think you’ll find this with most families who have been farming for a long time. There’s a certain amount of warmth with people who do this. I’m not saying that’s not the case with other people, too, but there’s a real connection with farming,” he says.