Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most productive agricultural places on earth. The 2012 USDA census of agriculture lists 26 separate farming enterprises nationally, and Lancaster County is ranked first in Pennsylvania in 19 of those categories, and second in four more. The 2017 census will no doubt reflect some subtle changes, but those results won’t be available until February of next year.
So, with all that bounty of meat, dairy, poultry and fresh fruits and vegetables, one might think everybody in the county goes to bed at night with a full belly.
One would be wrong, according to Matt Lenahan, pastor of the Zion Lutheran Church in Akron, a town of 4,500 in the county’s northeast sector. The most recent U.S. Census population estimate for the county is 542,000 people, with some 10.8 percent of the citizens living below the poverty line. That means more than 58,000 men, women and children don’t have the resources to live with what most of us would consider adequate food, shelter, clothing, medical care and the rest of life’s basics.
Lenahan’s passion is to help those with empty bellies. If everybody in Lancaster County could have three meals a day, all its citizens would consume some 600 million meals a year. But by Lenahan’s calculations, the county larder is, at the very least, 9 million meals short of a three-meal-a-day diet for its impoverished citizens.
In 2008, with the support of his congregation, Lenahan started something called Peter’s Porch in the basement and on the outdoor steps of Zion Lutheran. People who visit Peter’s Porch on the third Saturday of the month can get breakfast, used clothing and boxes of food. The monthly event has the support of other area congregations and has grown to include Peter’s Porch distributions at three more nearby Lutheran churches.
And, a few years ago, Mike Youse, executive director of the Lutheran Camping Corp. of Central Pennsylvania, was nudged by his board of directors to do something more ambitious with the organization’s 40-acre Wittel Farm, just outside Elizabethown, in the county’s northwest corner.
The farm is the legacy of Chuck and Katie Wittel, lifelong Lutherans who wanted their land, when they were gone, to serve a higher purpose than a shopping mall or housing development. They wanted it to stay in agriculture. A neighboring farmer had been renting the land for hay and corn crops.
Youse, who was well-acquainted with Lenahan’s work, called him and they started to work on a plan to grow food for the needy.
They are still working on and refining the plan, but in the spring of 2016 they also began to work on the Wittel Farm Growing Project in earnest. They looked at the model of First Fruits Farm in Baltimore County, Maryland. There, in 1998, Rick and Carol Bernstein began a faith-based farming operation on a third of an acre with a Troy-Bilt rototiller. The Bernsteins wanted to produce food for people in need. They wanted to do it with God’s help, their own labor and the help of anybody who cared to help.
According to their 2016 annual report, which is available online, First Fruits Farm harvested some 2 million pounds of vegetables that year from 200 acres with the help of 5,700 volunteers. It has become a sustainable nonprofit success story with few equals.
Youse and Lenahan were pretty sure they could learn a thing or two from the Bernsteins. So they paid a visit one cold, late-winter day, and they returned to Lancaster County with lots of ideas.
One idea was incremental growth. With the help of the farmer who’d been renting the land, and with labor from about 100 volunteers, they planted four crops on 2 acres in the spring of 2016, and harvested some 5,500 pounds of vegetables for distribution to hungry people through the Lancaster County Council of Churches. In 2017, with the help of about 200 volunteers, they planted nine crops and produced 13,000 pounds of food on 4 acres. They’d have produced more crops, especially sweet corn, if it hadn’t been for the neighborhood deer.
Some of those deer ended up as ground venison, thanks to local archers hunting with special tags the Pennsylvania Game Commission issues to farmers with deer problems. The venison became part of the Wittel Farm’s distribution plan. The deer were also the impetus behind the construction of a deer-proof fence surrounding 9 acres of the farm.
Deer damage has been non-existent in the 2018 growing season, and Lenahan and Youse expect their volunteers will harvest 30,000 to 35,000 pounds of vegetables total from 8 acres this year. Those crops include corn, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, green beans, broccoli, lettuce, pumpkins, watermelon and cantaloupes.
Many others have donated time, labor and other assistance. Mark Nestleroth provided a barn and labor to raise 464 chickens for distribution to central Pennsylvania food banks as part of a food aid program for the Lower Susquehanna Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. A mobile poultry processing unit, owned by Caleb Stoltzfoos, provided a place to process the birds. Groups of college students from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster volunteered to help as part of a college program that introduces incoming freshmen to communities near the college.
Three objectives for next year, Lenahan said, are to plant the entire fenced-in 9 acres. They’d like to have a greenhouse to start their own seedlings, and they hope to begin preparing a second field to be planted for the 2020 crop season.
As output has grown, so has the need for coordination, management, budgeting, planning and distribution. This year’s crops will go to a number of Lancaster County food banks, as well as to the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which serves 27 counties. That organization will receive most of the sweet corn. They’re also in touch with other nonprofits, including Hunger Free Lancaster County, a coalition of 30 organizations with the goal of wiping out the the county’s nine-million-meal deficit within the next few years.
It was noted during one discussion that growing food for the needy is an idea that’s caught the imagination of any number of churches and nonprofits. Too often, the ideas bear fruit for a couple of summers, then enthusiasm wanes and disappears.
Youse and Lenahan are determined to not let that happen on Wittel Farm. They have many ideas about distribution, grants, crop varieties, land management, volunteer recruitment, and a multitude of challenges to be dealt with.
One topic that didn’t enter the discussion was the possibility of failure.
For Youse and Lenahan, it’s not an option.