Editor’s Note: In a break from the usual Our Heroes format, this week we’re sharing a post from The Seed Farm, a nonprofit organization that offers new farmer training and agricultural business incubator programs in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. In doing so, the organization addresses one of the major challenges facing the sustainable food movement: ensuring that there exists a legion of new farmers who have the knowledge, experience and business savvy necessary to successfully manage sustainable farms. We like to think of The Seed Farm as the heroes who produce our future heroes.

Interested in becoming a farmer yourself? Find details about applying to Seed Farm’s training program below. But hurry – applications for the 2013 season are due October 15!

The Seed Farm: Growing New Farmers for the Future

About an hour north of Philadelphia, nestled in the rolling terrain of South Mountain, lies The Seed Farm, a nonprofit organization working to grow a new crop of farmers in the Lehigh Valley. The Lehigh Valley, the colloquial name for Lehigh and Northampton counties, is home to the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. Over the past 20 years, the agrarian landscape has changed dramatically as suburbia has sprawled out from the city centers – the result of poor planning, not unlike many other areas across the nation. Notably, the Lehigh Valley lost more farmland than any other region in the state of Pennsylvania, primarily due to its easy commute to New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia.

Fortunately, Lehigh County government officials recognized a need to preserve farmland and the region’s agricultural heritage. To date, the Lehigh County Farmland Preservation Program has preserved 248 farms, covering nearly 20,600 acres, with a mixture of state and county funding. Yet there are still 46,800 acres of unprotected farmland in Lehigh County, preservation funds are drying up, and what’s more disconcerting is the rising age of existing farmers, with few candidates willing and able to continue running the farm. There are currently five times more farmers over the age of 65 than under 35.

With few people to carry on the existing agricultural operations, not only will more land continue to be permanently developed with housing and shopping malls, but even the preserved farms could sit idly if there is no one to farm the fields. Every town needs to retain the ability to feed themselves, for the sake of the economy, the environment and the community. Currently, the Lehigh Valley can only support 25% of the population with its existing farmland, so preserving the farmer is integral to ensuring a sustainable, healthy food system.

But there is hope; the local food movement is growing and there are ways to make farming accessible and profitable now and for future generations. The top barriers to farm entry are access to land, capital, equipment and training. If you didn’t grow up on a farm, it’s difficult or seemingly impossible to succeed as a farmer, especially with land prices in the Northeast among the highest in the nation. New farmers need help getting started and that’s where the Seed Farm comes into play. The Seed Farm gets new farms started by breaking the top barriers: by offering training, as well as access to land and equipment.

The Seed Farm, situated on 45 acres of county-owned land outside of the Borough of Emmaus, offers a 3-year new farmer training program. The first year of the program consists of an intensive organic vegetable training program that includes 500 hours of on-farm training and 100 hours of formal workshops and classes. As “apprentices,” the participants develop skills and create their own production and business plans. The second and third year, graduates of the training program can start their own farms at the incubator site where they have access to leased land, equipment, infrastructure and mentoring.

During the training program, apprentices learn skills in greenhouse production, seeding, transplanting, irrigation, soils, cover crops, pest management, equipment operation, weed management, season extension and post-harvest handling. On-farm training is complemented by classroom activities, along with visits to nearby farms and business planning assistance.

And it’s working. Anton Shannon and Sarah Edmonds graduated from the Seed Farm apprenticeship in 2009. After successfully completing their farm plan, they were accepted to the Seed Farm incubator. They operate Good Work Farm, providing vegetables for 75 subscription (CSA) members. Anton says, “All of the things that capital lenders are looking for are things the Seed Farm is helping us achieve: a proven business history, paying bills, marketing our crops, tracking our yields and our sales, exploring market potential, managing labor and time, coming up with production plans and production contingencies. The Seed Farm is providing Good Work Farm with a living laboratory for us to test our production and sales techniques with scalable resource access. Our farm made a net profit in a year that included a drought, a hurricane, prolonged flooding and October snowfall. That very may well have finished off our new farm, if not for the Seed Farm.”

With the demand for local food increasing, the time is ripe to start farming. Four out of five respondents to a 2006 national survey said they purchased fresh produce directly from growers either occasionally or always. Consumers know that local food means fresh, tasty, more sustainable and supporting local communities. And so, the rapid growth has become a mixed blessing; with one in five US consumers living within one day’s drive of southeastern Pennsylvania, all with hungry mouths and a growing desire to buy local produce, there is a huge marketing opportunity for farmers in the Lehigh Valley. And profitable farms profit the community. Each acre of an organic market garden can generate $15,000 toward the local economy, creating more green jobs.

Do you want to farm? The Seed Farm is now accepting applications to their New Farmer Training Program and Agricultural Incubator for the 2013 season. Applications are due October 15, 2012. Do you want to support new farmers? Join us for a farm to table feast Sunday October 14, 2012 at the farm. For more information on how you help the Seed Farm grow, visit www.theseedfarm.org or call Seed Farm Director Sara Runkel (610) 391-9583 ex.16.