Planting the Seeds: A Tale of Two of Pittsburgh's Urban Farmers
Farmers Tara Rockacy and Margaret Schlass serve as ambassadors for the future of local sustainable farming.
Photos by Churchview Farm and One Woman Farm
Farming in the United States, especially the backbreaking work in the fields, long has been an occupation dominated by men. Even now, as modern farmers are shattering those old-school social norms, women are the principal operators of just 14 percent of farms in the
In western Pennsylvania, however, women for generations have been integral to both family and commercial farms, and an ever-expanding group of women now plays leading roles in developing farmland. Two in particular, with personalities and ambitions as different as the landscapes of the North and South Hills where they farm, together represent much of the forefront and future of sustainable farming in Pittsburgh.
It’s hard not to notice Margaret Schlass, 29, who owns One Woman Farm. She calls the carrots she grows in Gibsonia “crack sticks.” Her boisterous, exuberant greetings to favorite customers can be heard across the span of the East Liberty farmers market. The pickup truck she drives around Pittsburgh is spraypainted and tagged with her farm’s logo.
In the dead of winter, Tara Rockacy, a former librarian, spends her time browsing through catalogs of heirloom seeds. At the height of summer, the 37-year-old farmer would rather bring people to Churchview Farm — kids for educational tours and adults for her curated farm-dinner series — than hawk her products at market.
MARGARET Schlass traveled to Peru during her senior year at Delaware University, and the trip changed her life.
Before Peru, she says, her life was focused on athletics — rugby in particular. In fact, she decided not to take a full semester traveling abroad because she didn’t want to miss any of the rugby season. Instead, she chose to make a shorter trip during the off-season to work with hand-to-mouth farmers in the Amazon River basin. Once there, “It just blew my mind,” she says. “I had Amazon River water in my bra, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”
After college, she got a job in 2007 working for Don and Becky Kretschmann, the pioneering organic farmers in Rochester, Beaver County. She used her training to land a spot at Garden of Eve Farm, a grower of organic vegetables, herbs and flowers on the eastern tip of Long Island, N.Y. Not long after she arrived there in 2008, she was managing the farm. “What did I know? I was so young. But I just put my head down and got the job done,” Schlass says.
Although she thrived on Long Island, Pittsburgh always was in her heart. When family friend Donna Snyder called to ask if she wanted to lease land in Richland Township that Snyder formerly used as a horse pasture, Schlass decided her future was in western Pennsylvania.
“Because of my gender, nobody took me seriously. I was met with a lot of skepticism [from older male farmers in Pittsburgh]. People were like, ‘Good luck with that,’” she says.
Schlass says that she wasn’t going to let that negativity undermine her plans. “I was 23, female and very good at this. I knew I was going to make this work. I knew,” she says.
What started with a small farmstand and a contract to supply greens to Toast! kitchen & wine bar has blossomed into a profitable farm operation with a 120-member community-supported agriculture organization, popular stalls at four farmers markets and a partnership with one of the biggest restaurant groups in town. And, according to Schlass, there’s a huge opportunity for her operation to expand further.
A significant part of that potential has to do with her relationship with the big Burrito Restaurant Group, which operates numerous restaurants in the city and around the region as well as a catering company. Corporate Chef Bill Fuller met Schlass at the East Liberty Citiparks farmers market and was impressed by her produce. “It’s great stuff. It’s pretty. It’s tasty. It’s interesting without being weird,” he says.
Now, she supplies more than $25,000 worth of produce per year to big Burrito’s Soba, Eleven and Casbah restaurants. Fuller says he’s pushing her to supply his restaurants with a greater diversity of crops every season because he believes in her vision. “I think she has a huge amount of energy. She’s smart. She’s able to control her business and manage her customers well. She definitely can become a big producer,” he says.
In just six years, she’s already grown her operation from the land she now refers to as her “home-base” farm to what she calls “a huge amount of acreage” nearby; she is farming 10 acres there and also leases another 10 acres in nearby Middlesex Township. She plans on expanding her production of vegetables on all of those sites to meet the needs of both big Burrito and her expanding number of market and CSA customers.
“The people I identify most with now, and the people [who] seem to identify with me the most, are those same 50- to 60-year-old men” who once expressed skepticism about her plans. “They’re happy to see a young person working hard and growing a business,” she says.
She practices organic farming methods, though, with what she terms a libertarian streak. “Why am I going to pay the federal government [for organic certification] when it’s going to stay right here in western Pa.?” Instead, she participates in the Certified Naturally Grown program, run by a nonprofit organization that offers what many farmers see as an alternative to government certification.
Schlass might be front and center, but her farm — despite its name — no longer is a one-person operation. Her father, Greg, is a fixture at the four farmers markets where One Woman Farm sells vegetables. Spend a few minutes chatting with him, and it’s pretty obvious where Schlass gets her boisterous, spirited, can’t-lose personality. “He’s gregarious,” Schlass says.
There’s also a farm crew. “Last summer we were five broads working hard,” she says. “The four women working for me last summer blossomed into a bunch of badasses. It was great for me to see them develop.”
Then there’s her border collie, Chula. In addition to being a high-energy companion, he’s the farm’s chief of pest control. “He loves to get the groundhogs,” Schlass says.
“I’m so satisfied, so happy on a day-to-day basis, and it’s a special thing that not everyone gets to experience. I’m so lucky that this happened to me at such a young age, too,” she says.
Tara Rockacy moved in 2007 to 10 acres in Baldwin Borough, where her paternal grandfather, Emil Rockacy, had farmed before his death in 1989. “There isn’t anything growing from his time there,” she says.
Later, her father cared for the land, and although he did not farm, he did grow a patch of raspberries. Those raspberries continue to grow, joined now by a cornucopia of plants including eggplants, peppers, brassicas, peas, greens and more than 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
“Farming is a strange combination of forced patience and instant gratification. It fits my personality really well,” she says.
Rockacy says that she never intended for farming to be her full-time occupation. For the first few years she worked the farm, she gave away produce to her friends. She decided it was time to leave her desk at the library and get serious about farming as a business, though, when a friend asked for some basil and she responded by showing up carrying two garbage bags filled with the herb.
In 2009, she started a 20-member community-supported agriculture group, growing produce on 14 beds. “It just grew from there,” she says. Within two years, she was farming full-time.
2009 also was the year in which she met Barb Kline, the former co-owner of Mildred’s Daughters Urban Farm in Stanton Heights. Kline quickly became a mentor to the novice urban farmer.
“We both had similar-sized farms in an urban setting. I was able to share the mistakes that I made when I started so she wouldn’t have to repeat them,” Kline says.
Kline decided to leave farming to work as a mentor and advocate for younger farmers through the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network and the Penn State Master Gardener’s Program. She remains an adviser to Rockacy.
“She has an incredible support network going. She’s doing this the right way,” Kline says.
That begins with maximizing the potential of her land. Rockacy farms on 3.5 acres, which she says is the right size for the low-till, hands-on style that she prefers. “If my farm were much bigger, I couldn’t work like that,” she says.
Instead of fanning out over more acreage, she’s intercropping, an approach in which, for example, parsley is interplanted with asparagus rather than in an herb garden. That process not only saves space, but the parsley also produces a chemical that wards off destructive asparagus beetles. Basil and carrots are natural complements to tomatoes.
The one expansion she is making is the addition of more fruit trees, but even those will be intercropped.
“Alliums like garlic and onions do great under fruit trees,” she says. “It’s a hard choice to make as a small farmer to dedicate land to crops that you think are worthwhile in the long-term but will take years to see results, when you can plant more tomatoes and greens. Those sell [really] easily,” she says.
Indeed, the last two years were a crossroads of sorts for Rockacy. Would she expand her CSA and develop more acreage to produce larger volumes of popular vegetables such as lettuce and kale? Or should she tighten and specialize her focus? After consulting with Kline and other friends, she chose the latter approach. “If you’re patient, those choices really pay off in the long run,” she says.
She also decided to end her CSA operation and focus instead on partnering with local restaurants and curating the third year of an increasingly popular farm-dinner series at Churchview. “The CSA model isn’t feasible for a farm of my size,” she says.
Her first restaurant customer was the Lawrenceville party bar Remedy, which bought heirloom tomatoes for its salads. Later, the relationships she forged with chefs Keith Fuller at Root 174 and Kate Romane at E2 established Churchview Farm as a go-to destination for local restaurateurs. This season, she’ll supply produce to at least 13 restaurants.
Both Schlass and Rockacy say they plan to work their Pittsburgh fields for decades to come, which bodes well for the region’s market bags and restaurant visits. Perhaps more important than the direct effect they’ll have on our kitchens, however, is the potential these women have as role models for a future generation of Pittsburgh farmers.
“I’m part of the fabric of the community now,” says Schlass. “Even better, I love teaching people how to farm. I get to be the boss that I always wanted to have [for myself] for other people.”
Rockacy says she sees herself as part of a long continuum of women working in Pennsylvania agriculture and as a steward of her family’s land.
“The family history of this land is always incredibly present for me and hits me at random times,” she says. “To know that those experiences and this farm aren’t something that family just talks about as part of our history, but is something that’s still alive, is lovely. I’m honored every day to carry that on.”