County Project Dedicated to Preserving Farmlands, Creating Farmers
Thanks to efforts like the Seed Farm, Lehigh County ranks third in the state for farmland preservation.
Farming is in his blood. Blake Unis of Allentown can’t help but believe that since two generations of his family have worked on farms. “From a young age, I had a taste of it,” Unis said. “That spirit was there for me.”
That sparked his interest in becoming an apprentice at The Seed Farm, a Lehigh County Agricultural Incubator on Vera Cruz Road in Emmaus. Farming is “the one thing I can do to help the most people live healthy and happy lives,” Unis said, adding, “It helps that I love food and I love to cook.”
Officials of Lehigh County, The Seed Farm and Penn State Extension held a press conference on Thursday, May 19 to call attention to the agricultural incubator and the county’s ongoing effort to preserve farmland.
County Executive Don Cunningham said the county has preserved 20,170 acres of farmland, including 242 farms, making Lehigh County the third leading county among 67 in the state to preserve farmland.
“It’s important to everyone’s quality of life to have open space and preserve farmland,” Cunningham said.
The county purchased the land for The Seed Farm from the Seem family. Jeff Moyer, farm director for Rodale Institute and chairman of the nonprofit, The Seed Farm Inc., said his wife’s family had grown crops on the land but turned it over to the county to protect it from development.
The goal, Moyer said, is “not only to produce food but to produce a new seed crop of farmers.”
Sarah Runkel, executive director of The Seed Farm, said, “It’s really progressive of Lehigh County to invest in a project like this.”
The Seed Farm was started by the county in 2009. Its mission is to help start and support new sustainable farms in the Lehigh Valley, and to facilitate the development of a local food system.
In the first year, the student farmers are in an apprenticeship program, working with the farm manager to improve their production, business management and marketing skills.
Apprentices learn through workshops in the classroom and the field, including Penn State Extension courses, “Exploring the Small Farm Dream” and “Introduction to Organic Vegetable Production.”
In the second and third years, the farmers are in the stewardship program. They rent county-owned land at The Seed Farm at reduced rates during the first two years of the farm start-up. This allows them to build up capital to purchase land or find long-term rental agreements.
The Seed Farm provides land, deer fencing, irrigation main lines, greenhouse space, a pole barn, a tractor with various implements, and a walk-behind tiller.
After the third year, farm stewards receive assistance in finding a permanent location for their established farm enterprises, either by leasing or buying land.
Currently there are two new farms at The Seed Farm: Seed Farm apprentice graduates Sarah Edmonds and Anton Shannon started Good Work Farm. Jen Brodsky started Rambler Farm.
Edmonds, a resident of Kutztown, said she and her farming partner are renting three acres from The Seed Farm to grow more than 60 varieties of organic vegetables.
Edmonds previously had spent time either working or volunteering on an organic farm and at an orchard. So, when The Seed Farm opportunity appeared, she said, “I jumped at the chance.” Now, her dream is to buy a farm of her own.