Rochester, PA-based Organic Farmer Wrings Profit from Business Savvy and Embrace of CSA Model
October 10, 2012 | Hana Lurie
Since 1978, Don Kretschmann has run Kretschmann Organic Farm, an 80-acre farm in Rochester, Pennsylvania that provides organically grown produce, fruits, and meats to Pittsburgh area customers. Kretschmann has embraced a number of different business models and through business savvy and opportunity recognition has achieved profitability on his farm.
I recently spoke with Kretschmann to learn more about the origin of his farm, his organic proclivities, and how his farm achieved profitability and more.
Q: What is the story of how your farm came to be?
Kretschmann: It goes way back. My grandfather moved out to Long Island just before the stock market crashed and lost his job. This was just a new housing plan – he started farming vacant land to support his family. And my mother always had an inkling, so gardening is something in my family. Farming for me was something that I could do in a very pure way without having to compromise anything for somebody else. I’ve always been an organic farmer, and I could do that in whatever way I wanted, so I got started. We’ve been running here since 1978.
Q: What do you grow on your farm?
Kretschmann: Just about every vegetable – there are very few that we don’t. We also have apples, a few cherry trees and a few berry trees.
Q: Can you describe some unique, sustainable practices that you employ on your farm?
Kretschmann: One of my principles is to never farm more land until you know that you’re using what you have to its maximum [potential]. We don’t farm substantially more than we did 25 or 30 years ago, though we’re feeding so many more families. We have tighter spacing, succession planting – just utilizing what we have to the max. It boils down to timing and discipline … Always keep something growing – the summer, winter, any time of year. Even if its weeds, its better than nothing.
Q: Can you tell me about how you obtained organic certification for your farm?
Kretschmann: In the beginning it was challenging, because at that point in time there really wasn’t much information [about it] at all. In fact, I’m still kind of stumbling along with it now. That was well before there were any real definitions of what organic was or wasn’t. Organic isn’t just a matter of what you don’t use and what you don’t do; but it’s what you do do. Roughly speaking, I’d always define it as bringing the earth to life, because essentially the earth is just a big rock going around a big star, and we have life here.
Q: How does your farm make money?
Kretschmann: Right now, CSA is the main source of income. We started out originally selling to grocery stores, school systems, hospitals, restaurants – anywhere we could. We were some of the very first people to resurrect the farmer’s market. Back in the early 70’s, farmers markets had gone into a period of decline and had virtually disappeared. A lot of cities wanted to bring business back to the cities, so we got into many of the farmer’s markets in the Pittsburg area. Then, one of our customers bugged us to do a CSA so we said, “we’ll do it, but we’ll publicize it”. So we just started dropping off CSA boxes on the way back to the farmers market and it just grew until now where it’s virtually everything we do.
Q: Is your farm profitable, or self-sustaining?
Kretschmann: Very Profitable. If it wasn’t for my philosophy, I should be a Republican [laughs]. We might actually benefit because of tax cuts. My advice for young people is stick to your core, green beliefs. This is a farm that can support many families.
CSA profitability is unbelievable because it utilizes the forty or fifty percent that gets thrown away due to blemishes. All of that can turn into money, and the market stays steady. We’ve been able to share that; we see it as a neighborhood resource and have a good customer base.
Q: What are some challenges that you experience as a farmer?
Kretschmann: Finding good and steady help; the labor situation is difficult. We have some Mexican workers helping out – one for 25 years. They are the hardest workers; people have no idea what they provide for us. Keeping the whole crew together is hard, but every business faces that same thing. People are interested, but they work for a while and then go do it for themselves. People are always leaving and the turnover rate is big, but we roll with it.
Q: What are your future plans for the farm?
Kretschmann: I have more wild-eyed dreams now than I ever did. Basically actively improving things. This has national implications, but the weather pattern is one thing – we’ve had much greater extremes with global warming. In our area, we inherently have enough water, if we could just store it. We do have a pond for irrigation, but if we could [retain] the water from the rains then we could take advantage of the weather that is thrown our way. Also, we want to plant blueberries, exotic berries, more fruit trees. We want to do better cover cropping – we’re always learning a lot. My daughter is returning to the farm and says that she will take it over one day. There is no lack of things going forward.