The first thing you see when you approach Edible Earth Farm in Sandy Lake, PA are four tall tunnel cultivation structures. They look like long tents and are made of metal frames with greenhouse plastic stretched over them. Inside there are long rows of veg, including raab broccoli, beets, radicchio, and snow peas.
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Johnny Parker co-owns Edible Earth with his wife, April Parker, and says the high tunnels are essential to the success of the farm. In northwestern Pennsylvania, the last spring frost doesn’t occur until the end of May, which means the growing season only lasts four months. The high tunnels shelter crops from the cold.
“This allows us to have fresh produce almost all year round,” Parker said.
One of the high tunnels also houses a flock of 100 chickens. They peck the remains of crops on one side of the structure.
“We use chickens in the tunnels raised as a way to fertilize the soil and turn green vegetables into protein, in the form of eggs,” Parker said.
But high tunnels need maintenance. Greenhouse plastic degrades in ultraviolet light and must be replaced every four years. But the cost of plastic has doubled recently. And Parker says the tall tunnel structures themselves are fundamentally unaffordable at this point. A year ago he bought one for $ 9,000, but now the price is over $ 20,000.
“It’s hard not to be depressed,” Parker said. “I was shocked. I don’t know if I will ever be able to afford another one or justify the price.
Inflation hits farms hard
At the start of the pandemic, people turned to local producers when grocery stores had empty shelves. For local organic farms, that meant a surge in demand for their vegetables, meat, dairy and eggs – and a historically good year.
Some farms have ramped up production for a big 2021 season, but many of the new customers did not stick around when pandemic restrictions eased. Now, with inflation affecting almost everything, farmers face even more uncertainty as the 2022 season approaches.
Phil Taylor is a business consultant with AgChoice Farm Credit, a Pennsylvania-based cooperative that provides loans and financial services to farms.
“I’m an older guy,” Taylor said. “I can say that during my tenure in agriculture, we did not see this kind of inflation where almost everything is increasing. “
He says the high prices of farm inputs and materials really have an impact on a farm’s bottom line, because farming is already a low-margin industry. In his work with local farms, he says he advises farmers to aim for their operating costs to be around 75% of their gross income.
“This provides the farm business with a margin that allows it to replace capital, pay interest on borrowed funds, and then compensate owners,” Taylor said.
He says that when farm inputs become as expensive as they have been, the costs of running a farm can reach around 90%.
“It really squeezes that margin for the farmer,” Taylor said. “It’s a different type of dynamic and it only complicates the profitability of operations. “
Lining for organic farmers
Taylor says one of the things that has increased the most is fuel. Farms need natural gas to heat greenhouses and diesel to drive tractors and transport food to market.
But farmer Don Kretschmann thinks high fuel costs aren’t always a bad thing.
“Since we have been in the vegetable business, I have always thought that increasing fuel costs were good for us,” Kretschmann said. “We mainly sell to a local market, while our competitors are shipped from across the country. “
Kretschmann retirement from Kretschmann Organic Farm in Rochester last year. He says farmers have always had to weather periods of inflation – and they do it by hedging. When incomes are high or prices are low, they stock up on the seeds and fertilizer they will need for the year. In tough times, they might delay a big purchase like a tractor.
Kretschmann said he believes that in some cases, local organic farms might have an advantage right now because they don’t rely as much on inputs like fertilizer.
“I would say that for at least 10 or 15 years I haven’t really bought any of this, and instead I grew my own nitrogen by planting alfalfa,” Kretschmann said.
New strategies to keep farms afloat
Some local organic farmers are starting to think beyond the usual strategies. Nigel Tudor of Weatherbury Farm in Avella grows organic grains and makes flour. During the pandemic, the farm lost most of its restaurant sales, but they more than compensated in direct sale. People were locked in the house and started to get stressed out, resulting in a nationwide flour shortage and a high demand for flour from the farm.
But Tudor says farm incomes are down this year.
“[People] don’t cook as much at home, ”Tudor said. “And we haven’t recovered restaurant sales because many restaurants have closed or have limited menus.”
In the meantime, everything has become more expensive. Tudor said that by comparing this year’s prices to last year, he found wood increased by 74%, diesel by 82%, gasoline by 32% and product packaging. by 33%.
“We filled our tank with agricultural diesel and the same day we got heating oil, and I think we spent about $ 1,500 more than the year before,” Tudor said. “Just imagine something that costs $ 1,500 that you could have bought before, but now you can’t. “
Instead of waiting for prices to drop or for business to pick up, Tudor says Weatherbury is trying to diversify.
“We are building a wood-fired bread oven and hope within the next six months to a year to start a wood-fired bakery on our farm here,” Tudor said. “You have to adapt to the market.
At the new bakery, he says he hopes to offer classes and sell ready-made bread, which may help the farm attract new customers.
At Edible Earth Farm, Johnny and April Parker are hoping that some of the choices they’ve already made will help them succeed despite the high prices, like the decision to raise pigs. Parker says pigs do some of the work a tractor would do, like clearing and fertilizing.
“They keep the weeds out, they fertilize, they pull the rocks up,” Parker said. “All the things you would otherwise have to do with a tractor and use fuel for it. “
But the Parkers are still worried as they look into the 2022 growing season.
“It really impacted every part of our business because we grow vegetables – and you can only charge a limited amount for a tomato,” said April Parker.