Lundale Farm Pairs Skilled Farmers With Land

10/5/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

PUGHTOWN, Pa. — In the midst of northern Chester County, where many centuries-old farms have given way in recent decades to suburban sprawl, Lundale Farm is a kind of oasis for Marilyn Anthony and Laura Morris Siena.

Siena grew up on the land in a stone farmhouse built in 1796. Her parents, state Sen. Sam Morris and Eleanor Morris, farmed the land and promoted land preservation.

Anthony was installed as executive director of the nonprofit farm on Sept. 9 after serving as the eastern region director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture for six years.

Siena and Anthony say that Lundale has an inexplicable power over everyone who visits the farm, and they both want to see land under conservation easement, like Lundale, to not simply be protected from development but to be used for food production.

“We’d like to create a community of farmers,” Siena said.

Siena and her family set up the nonprofit in 2010 shortly before her mother died in 2011. In accordance with Eleanor Morris’ will, Lundale leases land to skilled biodynamic or organic farmers who need space but cannot or do not want to buy land, and who want to farm in a collaborative environment.

In some sense, Anthony has been involved in the Lundale nonprofit longer than the Morris family members, Siena said, because Anthony got involved at the very beginning of her stint at PASA, where she helped run the group’s Farm Lease Connection.

She brought a half dozen farmers from around the state to the property, one at a time, to tell her how they thought the land could best be used.

The farmers all grew different products and weighed in on infrastructure, soil, topography and water resources.

The universal response, Anthony said, was “Can I just have this farm?”

Lundale is not a farm incubator, Anthony said. An incubator assigns fixed-size plots to novice growers and requires them to leave after a few years.

Lundale requires that its farmers have agricultural expertise and a realistic business plan. People who have served apprenticeships or have worked their way up to become farm managers and are now ready to own their own farms are ideal candidates, she said.

Lundale also has the flexibility to assign plots based on the size and location that make sense for the operation. These factors also determine the leasing fee for the land.

The farmers should also like teaching other farmers and be good at sharing their knowledge. They are expected to work in a cooperative community, lending insight and even equipment to the other farmers.

“One of the appealing features, we hope eventually, is that a beginning farmer can come here” and try out the different types of farming to help choose a specialization, Anthony said.

The farm is open to any kind of organic farming. Anthony dreams of having produce, orchard fruit, small grains, livestock, flowers, mushrooms and honey all be produced on the Lundale property.

Of course, it pays to submit an application sooner rather than later because the choicest land is likely to be assigned first.

“Don’t hesitate for five years,” Anthony said.

Prospective farmers must submit an application with references and recommendations, and interview with the farm’s board of directors. The farmers who are already at Lundale will have a chance to give input on whether applicants should be admitted as well.

“It’s all about really trying to select people who are the most likely to succeed,” Anthony said.

The Farmers

Eric Franks and Jasmine Richardson are one of the four sets of farmers who have taken advantage of Lundale’s land. They moved their almost 5-year-old business, True Leaf Microgreens, to the farm in June after a career growing vegetables in California, Oregon and Maine.

Lundale’s board found Franks and Richardson desirable for their experience, which included working on the farm of noted organic farmer Eliot Coleman in Maine.

“That was one kind of pedigree we were looking for,” Anthony said.

The couple had been running their business in Phoenixville, Pa., but moved their family to Lundale along with their business, in which they grow crops under a high tunnel. They sell the plants as seedlings —hence the “micro” in microgreens — to chefs at high-end Philadelphia restaurants and to Kimberton Whole Foods.

They call the chefs and take orders on Mondays and Thursdays, and deliver Tuesdays and Fridays. They grow year-round and deliver twice a week every week, giving them an income flow even in the winter. Franks and Richardson even delivered while they were building the high tunnel at Lundale.

True Leaf supplies 25 to 35 items, including celery, chervil, cilantro, peas, purple cabbage and watercress, depending on the season and the chefs’ requests.

Working directly with the chefs has been crucial to the business’ success.

“It’s not like I have a relationship with the restaurants” per se, Franks said. Instead, he works directly with the chefs, who are the ones selecting the menus and creating the dishes.

Establishing that rapport helps him plan ahead, as the chefs discuss with him the foods they want to make. If a chef is thinking about moving to a different restaurant, Franks can easily keep the chef as a customer.

Selling to Whole Foods broadens the farm’s customer base, getting the food into people’s homes. Franks sees the grocery store as a way to provide True Leaf’s food to children rather than just adults looking for a multistar dining experience.

“We’re dealing with such fresh greens that getting them out to other people is really, really important,” Franks said.

Franks and Richardson’s willingness to teach is unusual among microgreens growers, Anthony said. Because it is a niche market, growers are often secretive, fearing that the students will steal their teachers’ business.

Instead, Franks and Richardson have published a book, “Microgreens: A Guide to Growing Nutrient-Packed Greens,” that helps beginning growers get started.

Franks and Richardson moved their operation to Lundale because it gave them a picturesque place to raise their family and possibilities to expand their business.

Even after living on the West Coast, Franks said, Lundale is one of the prettiest places he has lived. “I couldn’t live in a city,” he said.

Wyebrook Farm of Honey Brook uses Lundale as a secondary grazing site for its cross-bred beef cattle. Most of the cattle include Devon, Red Angus and Scottish Highland bloodlines.

Other farmers are growing crops and getting much of the land ready to be certified organic, Anthony said.

Still, much of the farming at Lundale must be discussed in the future tense. As Anthony and Siena drive the property, they point out the various uses farmers recommended for each parcel. Crops or trees could go on one piece; others could make good pasture.

One field would be suitable for vegetables, they said. It abuts a road near an elementary school, so they see it as a prime place for a produce stand and CSA operation.

The Legacy

Siena’s parents moved to rural Lundale from suburban Philadelphia in 1946. Sam Morris was a lawyer, but he and his wife also farmed the land and kept a dairy herd.

The move was a “big statement” about how they wanted to raise their children, Siena said.

Sam and Eleanor Morris bought the farm around the time Chester County embarked on a postwar building boom. The Morrises were concerned that the proliferation of houses was turning choice farmland into the suburbs they had hoped to escape.

When local officials moved to take some of Lundale’s land by eminent domain to enable the construction of a high-tension power line, the Morrises sprung into action.

They fought all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court hoping to keep their land. The court ruled against them, but the Morrises were able to arrange an easement for the power line rather than an outright sale of their land.

Eleanor Morris continued pushing to preserve open land. She and her fellow activists quickly realized that it was impractical to simply buy all the land they wanted to preserve, and she was one of the first people who suggested buying the development rights to threatened land.

“My mother was very innovative,” Siena said.

Sam and Eleanor Morris founded the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust, which has obtained development easements for 10,500 acres in the two streams’ watersheds since 1967.

French Creek and one of its tributaries, Beaver Run, pass through Lundale. DEP has designated both creeks as extraordinarily valuable.

Sam Morris was elected to the state Legislature in 1970 and served a total of 18 years between the House and Senate. For eight years, he chaired the House Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee.

The bridge on Route 100 near Lundale’s farm lane was named in honor of the Morrises in 2011.

Lundale is an attempt to revive the “disappearing farm in the middle” — the historic farm of about 150 acres — but also to reimagine that farm for the 21st century to accommodate multiple farmers, Anthony said.

Siena enjoys seeing people who did not grow up on Lundale become connected to the property. Franks and Richardson’s children are growing up in the same farmhouse where Siena did, close to the land.

As the newly installed executive director, Anthony has been busy promoting Lundale, speaking at conferences and spreading the word through her network of farmer contacts.

As Eastern Region director of PASA since 2007, Anthony was heavily involved in the group’s land-leasing initiative, launched in 2010.

Beginning farmers were cool at first to the idea of cultivating land they did not own, but as they discovered how expensive land can be, especially in southeastern Pennsylvania, leasing has become more popular, she said.

When the Morris family announced that they were looking for an executive director for their new Lundale Farm nonprofit, Anthony saw the job as a logical next step, moving from promoting farm leasing to running a farm leasing program.

She remembers thinking, “I should do that because that’s what I’ve been talking about.”

The fall and winter is Lundale’s prime window for attracting applicants. “No one will talk to us before October or after February” because they are busy with crops, Siena said.

Finding farmers with the right values, skills and personalities is a long process, but Anthony and Siena are optimistic. They have been impressed with how smart, hard-working and generous Pennsylvania farmers are.

“This is a timely opportunity because we recognize how scarce and precious land is,” Anthony said.

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