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With no successor to till the land, farm's days numbered

Kris B. Mamula
Associated Press
Come spring, since Don Krestchmann first turned the soil on the Beaver County farm in 1979, the soil will lay fallow. The Pennsylvania organic farmer is retiring after failing to find someone to take over his 80-acre operation.

ROCHESTER, Pa. (AP) – Ten years of planning, ten years of want ads and hope and worry ended one day in October when Don Kretschmann realized it wasn't going to work; no one was going to step in.

This was going to be the last harvest at Kretschmann Family Organic Farm.

Come spring, the Beaver County farm will be idle for the first time since he first turned the soil there in the spring of 1979. Mr. Kretschmann is retiring after failing to find someone to take over his 80-acre operation.

"I just thought somebody would come," the 71-year-old self-taught farmer said. "Nothing worked out there — unless some miracle happens."

The inability to find a successor surprised him. He was offering a turnkey operation, an opportunity for an entrepreneurial farmer to simply start growing and harvesting by leasing the land. Access to land is the biggest barrier for beginning farmers along with the cost of equipment — which Mr. Kretschmann also offered for lease along with his house.

His only requirement is that the land be farmed organically.

"We ran lots of ads" in agricultural publications, he said. Maine, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Minnesota, Iowa, California. "We went all over."

A woman from Santa Fe was interested but wasn't suited to the rigors of farm work. A Kretschmann neighbor expressed interest, but later backed out. And the guy from Ithaca, New York, sounded promising, toured the farm and Downtown Pittsburgh — but later said he didn't want to leave his extended family.

"A couple of times he was so close," said Hannah Smith-Brubaker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, a Harrisburg-based trade group, who has known Don and his wife Becky, 73, for years. "It's very sad. It's such an important farm and he's been a mentor to so many farmers."

And there's money in organics.

Direct-to-consumer farm sales is a $439 million industry in Pennsylvania, according to PASA. In a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, organic food products generally commanded a premium exceeding 20% over conventionally grown vegetables. And the popularity of organics continues to grow.

"There's really a great future in organic farming," said Carolyn Dimitri, associate professor of food studies at New York University. "I'm surprised they weren't able to find people to take over that farm. A farm like that could have so much potential."

Corn, tomatoes and cabbage

Potential was on Mr. Kretschmann's mind when he met his future wife, a native of Arnold, Westmoreland County, and University of Pittsburgh graduate, at a greenhouse in Latrobe where she worked in the 1970s.

By then, Mr. Kretschmann, a New York City native had graduated with a degree in psychology from St. Vincent College in Latrobe after switching his major from physics. The switch came after he worried that studying physics could lead to a career in "military defense systems," Mr. Kretschmann said.

The owner of that Latrobe greenhouse had some advice that proved prescient: "You could make a living growing corn and tomatoes."

The young couple took his advice. "We rented a farm — and started growing corn and tomatoes."

They began farming organically in 1971 on leased acreage in Latrobe and Greensburg and were married in 1974, about the time that farm markets were regaining popularity. The Kretschmanns also sold vegetables to Strip District vendors, restaurants and the supermarket chain Giant Eagle.

Organic farmers rely on natural substances and insect repellents to grow vegetables. A preferred soil fortifier at the Kretschmann Farm is processed feather meal — chicken feathers.

In December 1978, they bought the first parcel of land on Ziegler Road in New Sewickley Township in what would become the Kretschmann farm, which includes a pond for irrigation and solar panels along the road out front.

By the 1990s, the idea of consumers making down payments early in the growing season for produce that would be harvested and delivered later was getting traction. The couple bought into the community-supported-agriculture idea early, becoming among the first farms in Pennsylvania to be certified organic and starting what was among the first direct-to-consumer sales operations in the state, farming experts said.

Community-supported agriculture

The Kretschmanns began by selling shares in their harvest in 1993 with 85 people who signed up for vegetable-filled boxes ranging between $12 and $18. The summer of his first year — which brought a dry spell with only 1/2 inch rain falling in five weeks by mid-August — Mr. Kretschmann wrote a note to his customers.

"I might bring a little discussion of what is Community Supported Agriculture," he wrote in a newsletter. "It's what we're doing. It started with the realization that we all need one another."

He told them he would be digging the remainder of the early potatoes within a week and that he would soon have fresh oregano, thyme, chives and spearmint. "Later, I'll have dill and cilantro. We also have peppers and tomatillos," he wrote, with produce deliveries matching whatever was being harvested.

By the second year, the Kretschmanns had 185 customers and eventually the farm would serve 1,000 customers in the greater Pittsburgh area — from Moon to Zelienople to Bridgeville, Baldwin and Gibsonia. The prices for the last season ranged between $20 and $30 a week.

Buoyed by the early success, the Kretschmanns quit selling at farm markets in the early 2000s and shifted the business completely to the CSA. Supermarkets began catching up by then, too, sprucing up produce aisles and adding organic and locally grown products that consumers increasingly wanted.

Long hours and studying organic farming methods in books made the Kretschmanns successful. But there were also failures: fava beans, edamame, shell beans, artichokes, peaches, plums, cherries — none worked out.

Organic produce had gone mainstream by 2006 when retailing giant Walmart began expanding its line of organic vegetables. Instead of cutting into Kretschmanns' business, the rise of supermarket organics only made the farm's delivered vegetables more popular, he said.

'Best all season'

The last harvest at the Kretschmann farm began as a brisk November wind raked fields of ripe cabbage, kale and lush rows of feathery dill. Helping the farmer in the fields were his nephew, Hans Kretschmann, and three Mexican brothers, the second generation of a family to work Kretschmanns' land.

Look at that dill, Mr. Kretschmann marveled, whistling under his breath and cutting hand-sized bundles with a knife. It's the "best all season," he said.

Kale, too, was plentiful, with deep green leaves quivering in a cold wind. "Wow, that's beautiful," Mr. Kretschmann said. "It may be the grace of the final year."

Hans Kretschmann, 35, was among family members who considered taking over the farm along with the couple's three daughters. For different reasons, none of them worked out, although daughter Maria Kretschmann will continue tending the apple orchard after the farm closes.

The vegetables that will be planted will just be for family use.

Harvesting organic apples from the orchard, Maria began brewing hard cider for retail sale last year. Her cider, called After the Fall, features a label with a woman atop a ladder reaching precariously for an apple on a tree, a label she said was intended to allow multiple interpretations.

Her plans include converting part of a barn basement into a tasting room, but the COVID-19 pandemic popped the hard cider bubble for now.

"It's a messed up time to start a business," said the 39-year-old sculptor who does large scale art installations and lives in Wilkinsburg. She had to shelve plans for rolling out a line of premium hard cider in 2020. "Everybody has a situation."

Still, the farm will not be her life.

"I feel a connection to the orchard; I feel a connection to the land; I feel an obligation to the farm," she said. "But I have a lot of other things I want to do with my life."

A neighborhood battle

Maria Kretschmann, who studied ceramics as an undergraduate at Rochester Institute of Technology, had been living in Philadelphia for 10 years when her parents told her about an energy company's plans to build a natural gas compressor station next to their farm.

She said she grew obsessed with stopping it, commuting between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to take up the battle before moving back to Pittsburgh in 2017, a city she hadn't lived in since leaving at age 17.

In 2014, Cardinal PA Midstream LLC filed plans with the local municipality to build a gas compressor station on a 46.6-acre site just beyond Kretschmann's cabbage field. The station would connect to four natural gas wells and condensate, a type of ultralight oil from the gas, which the company would then pump to market.

The family had hints something like this might happen. The Kretschmanns had turned away "umpteen gazillion landmen" who approached them about signing gas leases, Mr. Kretschmann said.

The family lobbied neighbors, worried about the station contaminating their crops, and spoke out at standing-room-only municipal meetings where many people wore buttons reading Kretschmann Farm. Mr. Kretschmann's appeals extended to Cardinal PA Midstream partner Richard Weber, chairman of PennEnergy Resources LLC, who befriended Mr. Kretschmann — each trading books they felt the other should read and chatting about the future of energy.

At a municipal hearing in July 2014, Mr. Weber testified that the township was on the verge of developing its natural gas reserves in a way that "will generate significant royalties to the residents for decades," according to a later court ruling.

New Sewickley Township approved the plans for the compressor station, which continues to hum and occasionally flare across a valley from the Kretschmann home.

After the plan approval, the Kretschmanns turned to the courts, first Beaver County Common Pleas Court, then Commonwealth Court and finally the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, running up tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills and losing every step of the way.

"We were all furious," Maria Kretschmann said. "It's just a completely incompatible use of land."

What the family didn't know then was that by the time Cardinal submitted its municipal application for the compressor station, oil and gas leases had already been signed with 678 landowners in the municipality, representing about 71% of New Sewickley Township. Mr. Kretschmann said he was surprised when he found out, but daughter Maria said the family knew the odds from the start.

"We knew out of the gates that we couldn't win," she said. "We did it because it was the right thing to do."

The family has since become a resource and "refuge for people who come to their senses" about fracking and natural gas production, she said.

The experience drove a wedge between Mr. Kretschmann and some of his neighbors.

"I still feel really bad," he said, years after the state Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal. "They were really good neighbors."

In the end, pursuing the case against long odds was "part of the environmental message, our philosophy," he said. "Let's put it that way."

Still going forward

All that will be left after harvesting the cabbage, kale and dill will be "little tail-end things in closing down the farm," Mr. Kretschmann said.

In a few weeks, he would drive the three Mexican brothers to the airport for their flight home for the winter, but not before having made arrangements for them to start new jobs in the spring for a nearby landscaper.

Mr. Kretschmann had also seen to it that his CSA customers would be taken care of by selling his customer list and associated computer programs for what he called a "modest price" to Who Cooks for You, an organic farm in Bethlehem, Pa., with the understanding they will contact each customer about a new CSA service come spring.

The last of Kretschmanns' boxes for consumers were filled to overflowing.

Nephew Hans Kretschmann planned to return home to Maryland after the harvest. With farm work at a standstill and the hard cider enterprise on hold, daughter Maria Kretschmann would take a job with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Mr. Kretschmann said he will continue to help his daughter cultivate the apple orchard and spend the coming months finishing work on a family trust he created to protect his land from ever being used for anything but organic farming. For now, most of the land will lie fallow.

"It's the sun that feeds everything," he said. "People don't really think the sun shines in the winter, too."