Planning, planting begin months ahead for farmers

Dillon Carr
Associated Press
Growers have been growing flats of salad greens for months - readying the tender plants for customers.

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Spring may be weeks away, but Westmoreland County farmers already are sowing the seeds for summer success.

Paul Sarver, 55, owner of Sarver Hill Farms in Hempfield Township, is seeing sprouts of his customers' favorite crop: kale.

"Yeah, that's a big thing right now. Greens as a whole are big right now," he said.

Many of his greens — lettuce, kale, cabbage and even peppers — have been growing in flats in his greenhouse since the beginning of the month.

"People like to have stuff available year round. I'm already thinking about what I'm going to do next year," Sarver said, adding that the first farmers market in Greensburg will open April 29 at Lynch Field Park.

Schramm Farms & Orchards started ordering and sorting seeds in early February, expecting to plant in its greenhouse next Tuesday. If all goes well, the farm will begin to move seedlings to the fields as early as late March.

"The first thing we see is usually asparagus," said Hil Schramm, 61. "And then we see lettuce, broccoli and kohlrabi."

Schramm, the farm's market manager, has worked 400 acres along Blank Road in Penn Township since 1981. The farm, which grows about 30 crops of fruits and vegetables, has been in the family since 1864. Over the years, the farm has seen market demands change, but for the past couple of years Schramm said Brussels sprouts and cauliflower have been hot.

"Market trends change year to year," he said.

Randy Morris, 63, of Morris Organic Farm said one thing is certain, though.

"Interest in locally produced food has certainly grown," he said. "We're at the max of what I can handle. Farm markets are getting more and more popular. I've been going to those (to sell) the surplus stuff."

The USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service last year reported a 2.3 percent increase in the number of farmers markets nationwide. From 1994 to 2016, the number of markets increased by nearly 400 percent to more than 8,600, the report said.

Morris, a USDA-certified organic grower, said he begins growing produce in his home's basement in mid-February, using artificial lighting and heat pads. By early April, the seedlings are ready to transplant in the greenhouse, where they grow for six to eight weeks before moving out to the fields.

"And then I just do pick-your-own," he said, adding that customers have the option to drive to his farm in Sewickley Township to pick produce.

"It's pretty profitable, but I just do it as a side job," said Morris, who primarily works as an industrial sales engineer for Elliott Group in Jeannette.

There are plenty who farm full time in the county, though.

According to Betty Reefer, director of the Westmoreland County Agricultural Land Preservation Program, there are 101 farms protected under the program.

"But there are 1,400 farms in the county," Reefer said.

One in Unity Township is run by Neil Palmer, 38. In 2000, he took over a farm on Bailey Farm Road that has been in operation since the late 1970s.

"I grew up on the farm helping out as a kid," he said. "So I guess it was in my blood from the beginning."

Palmer's Farm grows sweet corn, tomatoes and other vegetables on about 20 acres. He started preparing for the growing season this week. And although the farm does not participate in a Community Supported Agriculture program, Palmer runs a roadside stand on the property.

"We're very supported," Palmer said with a laugh. "We've had a strong customer base for many years."

Produce farmers are not the only growers getting prepped for the season.

Joe Costello of Friendship Farms in Mt. Pleasant Township has been gearing up for the farm's nursery business since January and early February. The busiest time of the year for the nursery, which grows native wildflowers, trees and shrubs, is March through May, he said.

"This year, the popular things are larger, landscape-type trees. Homeowners want wildflowers, too. Those are more popular," said Costello, a horticulturist with a degree from Cornell University.

The bulk of the business, he said, is done for the oil and gas industry through conservation contracting.

"We plant on the gas (pipeline) line (area). Engineers contact us and give us a set of specs for crossings. So then we come in and plant generally to those specifications anywhere that Marcellus is going on," Costello said.