With Soil Fertility as Bedrock, Business Savvy Farmer Blossoms into Largest Organic Grower on East Coast
July 16, 2012 | Kelly Hatton
“When I was 16, I told my parents I wanted to be a farmer,” said Tom Beddard of Lady Moon Farms. It was an unlikely dream for a teenager in Pittsburgh and an urge that Beddard himself can’t quite explain.
“My dad always had a garden in the backyard and I was the one kid who always enjoyed helping him,” he said. He’s since grown from a backyard enthusiast to become the largest grower of certified organic vegetables on the East Coast. Lady Moon Farms supplies retail stores from Maine to Florida and as far west as Chicago with fresh produce throughout the year. The farm has properties in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Florida. But the roots of Lady Moon Farms, like Beddard’s dream of farming, started small.
After receiving a degree in horticulture, Beddard spent time traveling before he committed to farming full time. In 1986, he and his wife, Chris, bought a 22 acre farm in Central Pennsylvania.
“Originally the idea was to get back to the land and grow food for our family,” Beddard said. “I was young and idealistic. Philosophically, I was always attached to the organic movement; it was the only way I’d consider farming.”
For their first growing season, the husband and wife team cultivated one of the five tillable acres on the farm. “When you’re starting this kind of thing, it’s important to start small,” Beddard advised.
The small start allowed Beddard to focus on quality, rather than quantity, and build a regional reputation.
“In the beginning our facilities were very, very basic, but I was always adamant about making the pack right. I always wanted to make a name for quality and consistency.”
The farm received USDA organic certification in its third growing season and gradually expanded its reach to regional wholesale markets until the demand exceeded what Lady Moon could produce on five acres and a few parcels of rented land. In 1996, Beddard and family moved to a larger property in Chambersburg, PA where they still farm. They’ve since started growing operations in Florida and, most recently, Georgia.
“We used to take the kids down to Florida in the winter and I would always spend some time visiting farms,” Beddard said. “I just caught the bug for growing tomatoes in the winter.”
Though expanding the operation meant cutting out the winter’s rest that farmers in cold climates receive, the decision has made good marketing sense. Wholesale organic product is especially in demand in the winter months when consumers don’t have the option to find local produce at Farmers Markets or through CSAs.
“It’s amazing how strong the organic market has become, especially in the winter,” said Beddard.
Growing year round in different climates also spreads out the risk of crop loss and boosts Lady Moon’s reputation with retailers, he explained.
“In produce, if you can produce 365 days a year, it gives you more clout with the buyers,” Beddard said. Supermarket shoppers up and down the east coast can now find Lady Moon Farms’ tomatoes, kale, melons, cucumbers, lettuce, zucchini and more throughout the year.
Long past are the days when Beddard and Chris could do all of the work on the farm by themselves. Now managing multiple farm sites and a large staff, Beddard has stayed true to his original intention: to provide high quality, organic produce to his customers. For Beddard, this means taking care of the soil and those employed to work it.
Managing soil quality is a high priority for Lady Moon Farms. All fields are cover cropped after the growing season. Depending on the region, Beddard plants different varietals of a legume (to fix nitrogen) and a grain (to build organic matter) in each field. Fields are fertilized with compost throughout the year to boost fertility. Beddard also has soil quality tested regularly and amends accordingly with rock minerals.
Healthy soil and healthy plants are the first defense against pests and disease. Lady Moon also looks for and plants resistant vegetable varieties and tries to time crops to come in either before or after peek pests. If necessary, the farm will turn to the list of sprays approved by organic standards.
“Basically, you go for everything with soil fertility being the bedrock of the whole thing,” Beddard said when describing his crop management strategies.
Beddard considers fair treatment of employees to be part of the “organic philosophy.”
“One thing that makes us really different from other farms our size is that our people are employees; we don’t use contractors,” said Beddard. “We provide full time employment year round. Our employees travel with the farm and their housing is provided.”
Lady Moon Farms was the first member farm of the Florida based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). CIW advocates on behalf of farmworkers and their work led to better pay for tomato pickers in 2009 with the cooperation and support of Lady Moon.
Though Lady Moon Farms doesn’t deal directly with customers, labeling and social media help to communicate the farm’s story and philosophy with consumers. In addition to USDA Organic Certification, administered by Pennsylvania Certified Organic, Lady Moon is also audited by Verité, an organization that verifies the fair treatment of laborers. On the farm’s facebook page, fans are invited to share recipes and follow what’s coming soon to a grocer near them, courtesy of Lady Moon.