On Tuesday afternoon, January 19, myself and other members of the board of the Headwaters Charitable Trust (HWCT) took a field trip to the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative (TOG) located in the beautiful rolling south central mountains of Pennsylvania. Founded in 1988. In TOG’s own wonderful words, here’s how they got started…
“Tuscarora Organic Growers (TOG) took root in 1988 when three neighboring organic fruit and vegetable farmers in South Central Pennsylvania came together to share a common problem they each had. Each farm marketed their produce in the Baltimore-Washington area at their farmer’s market every weekend in season. Each was becoming overwhelmed by requests from food co-ops, retailers and restaurants for their produce. They decided to hire someone to manage the sales as well as to cooperate in providing produce for the venture. They went through several individuals in short order until they found a young man by the name of Chris Fullerton. Chris managed the cooperative for fourteen years and is credited with developing, along with the growers, a successful cooperative business model.
They soon discovered that by working together, they could coordinate crop production to complement one another rather than compete. Each could grow for their markets and grow for the co-op. Each grower could focus on crops they do well and purchase produce through the co-op from the other growers. The cooperative form of business fit the farmers’ needs, allowing ownership and market access to be divided fairly and decisions to be made jointly. And through cooperation, the growers were able to serve their customers better, by providing a diversity of crops and a level of service that no one grower could provide on his own.”
Our group was simply on a fact-finding mission. Based on a survey conducted in the Elk County area in the Summer of 2015, it was discovered there is a great interest by members of our communities in the expansion of local foods and community gardens. What will that look like? What can it look like? This trip was part of that mission to find out what our region could support and make the most sense given our topography, weather, economic factors and levels of interest.
Jim Crawford, one of the founding members of both TOG and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), was generous enough to donate two hours of his very busy schedule – operating both TOG and his own Farm (New Morning Farm) – to tell us his experiences helping develop TOG, as well as answering all our questions and sharing his “gut instincts” on our opportunities in the PA Wilds region.
There are many aspects of our region that are similar to where TOG operates such as our mountainous topography, smaller and disparate plots of lands being farmed and our soil types, however there are many that are quite different. TOG serves the very large Washington D.C. market, the PA Wilds region is primarily geographically removed from most major markets like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Erie. TOG is working with a very large base of experienced farmers who grow a wide variety of crops. Our region has seen a significant decrease in the number of operating farms, most who do continue to farm do it on a part-time basis and specialize with a smaller focus of crops. Although TOG is located in the central part of the state like the PA Wilds, it’s southern geographic location gives it a slightly longer growing season, warmer weather and smaller ice and snowfall than the PA Wilds.
As we explore the many possibilities that lie ahead, both for our Farm itself and most certainly as part of this larger groundswell of our region’s desire to better produce and feed itself, we’ll pass along those moments here…stay tuned!