ROCHESTER, Pa. — In mid-May, the anticipation at Kretschmann Farm is unmistakable.
Workers scurry from field to field, tractors wait impatiently for drivers and Don Kretschmann walks with an urgent step. It’s growing season and every minute counts.
Kretschmann Farm is an organic fruit and vegetable farm in Rochester, Pa., near Zelienople. Since 1993, Don and his wife, Becky, have operated their farm on the premise of community supported agriculture.
Their concept works like this: Local residents sign up with Kretschmann and pay a flat fee to receive a box of his fresh produce every week for 25 weeks starting in June.
At the beginning of each season, customers decide how much produce they want each week and provide short lists of the veggies they like and the veggies they don’t like.
Then, they simply sit back and wait for the produce to hit their kitchens.
Community supported agriculture has one big benefit over farmers’ markets, Kretschmann said. The produce is shipped to drop-off points near each family’s home.
“It’s more convenient than driving to a farmers’ market because they don’t have to go so far,” he said.
Not all community supported agriculture arrangements work the same way. The specifics vary from farm to farm, but the basic concept is the same — provide healthy, local food for those in the community.
Kretschmann’s 80-acre farm is home to half-acre plots that grow everything from strawberries to squash.
The first items out of the field each year are spinach, lettuce, onions, beets, fresh herbs, kale and strawberries.
By mid-summer, customers’ boxes are a mix of peppers, tomatoes, new potatoes, broccoli, sweet corn, blueberries, lettuce and squash.
Late summer brings apple cider, spinach, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, beets and cauliflower.
In the fall, customers get larger quantities of potatoes, carrots, apples, cabbage and beets, which can be stored for later use.
Produce can be purchased in small, medium and large quantities. Prices range from $20 to $28 per week, depending on how many fruits and veggies a customer wants.
The boxes of produce are made right on the farm, using an assembly line of sorts. In a couple of hours, employees can put together 200-250 boxes.
This year, high tunnels helped Kretschmann get a jump start on the growing season. He built the hoop structures during the winter and used them to start a batch of early tomatoes. He’s hoping to harvest the first fruit in mid-June, rather than the typical late July.
Kretschmann also added peas to his list of veggies this year. Peas are a customer favorite, but they have always been difficult and time-consuming to pick. This year, thanks to the help of a mechanized bean picker, peas are possible.
The farmer said it’s not just the peas that are popular. The greens from pea vines are also picked and included in salad mixes.
Some veggies — like carrots — don’t need a lot of room to flourish. One half-acre field can produce up to 7 tons — that’s enough to feed about 1,000 families.
“It is amazing how many carrots can come out of there,” Kretschmann said.
Kretschmann also offers his customers seven kinds of culinary herbs, including basil, cilantro and dill.
Growing such a large volume of produce requires a lot of labor, according to Kretschmann. At the peak of each growing season, the farmer employs 10 people.
“There’s always a bunch of things that are done by hand,” he said.
For instance, spinach is harvested by workers who crawl along on their hands and knees, using a knife to cut the leafy greens at the base.
Fields have to be weeded by hand and, for many years, everything was planted by hand, too.
These days, a water wheel transplanter has reduced some of the manual labor required to keep the farm running. As the transplanter is pulled along by a tractor, it punches holes in the ground that are just the right size for young plants. Two workers sit on the back of the transplanter and place plants in each hole.
Using the transplanter, a whole field can be planted in just a couple of hours.
Although running the farm can be stressful and tiresome, it can also be very worthwhile and profitable.
“Farming doesn’t have to be one of those things you don’t make a living at,” Kretschmann said.
While the farmer enjoys being outside and working on the farm, he admits that what really draws him to the agricultural world is diversity — whether it’s in the kind of crops that are growing or the kind of work that is being done.
“That makes it always interesting.” he said. “It’s never the same thing.”
But there’s one thing that Kretschmann doesn’t vary — his marketing. The farmer prefers community supported agriculture over farmers’ markets or any other methods.
And with 1,100-1,200 customers, plus a waiting list, it seems like the community prefers him, too.