Food doesn’t get more local than your backyard. Just ask Matt and Jess Salvaterra, who got into gardening to become more self-sufficient — and got so good at it, they started selling their surplus as Salvaterra’s Gardens. Or Dax and Robin Funderburk, who have been growing their own food since they moved to Mertztown 12 years ago. 5 years ago, they decided to make it a business called Beets Workin’ Farm so Dax could retire from his corporate job and spend more time with his four daughters.
I met with both these farmers, whose organically grown produce I’ve gotten at Healthy Alternatives, to learn more about who they were and where my food was coming from. After all, as Funderburk told me, “Everyone knows the first name of their dentist, their doctor, even their plumber. But how many people know the first name of their farmer?”
What struck me most was how much produce a small area of land can grow. The two farms grow on a combined total of less than 5 acres, yet they each grow enough food for themselves, a few restaurant accounts, farm stands, and — for Salvaterra — a growing CSA.
Just one half share of Salvaterra’s CSA last year provided my boyfriend and I with so much fresh produce that we only had to go to the store for staples like tofu and rice. Multiply that by about 50 to get an idea of how many vegetables went to the CSA. And that’s on top of selling at the Easton Farmers’ Market and to other local businesses.
Vegetables don’t take much space to grow, but the farmers ramp up production by getting creative with their limited space. For starters, each growing bed rotates through up to 4 or 5 crops in one year. Funderburk pointed to a bed of early potatoes as an example. They’ll be harvested soon, and then he’ll plant greens such as lettuce, chicory, and radicchio in that bed. When the greens are done, he’ll probably plant garlic to grow over the winter.
Salvaterra saves even more space by growing root veggies such as carrots and beets in the same row as tomatoes. He harvests the former before the tomato plants are in full swing; then the latter has more space to grow.
And boy, do they grow. By the end of the season, after Salvaterra strings them up to the top of the high tunnel, the plants can get up to 20 feet long.
Both Salvaterra’s and Beets Workin’ grow organically, though neither has organic certification. For starters, the cost of organic certification is prohibitively high. But Funderburk also feels the label has lost importance as more and more big farms get on board.
“Transparency is more important than certification,” he said. “We have an open-gate policy. Anyone can come anytime to see whatever they want to see.” That way, he said, consumers can make informed decisions about whether they want to buy something.
One thing he wanted to clarify was that organic farming doesn’t mean never spraying the crops. It’s more about responding to specific outbreaks instead of blanket spraying everything. And when he does spray, he uses OMRI-approved sprays instead of harsh chemicals.
This means farmers are always trying to strike a balance between different organic forms of pest control. “There’s no silver bullet to any of this, doing it organically,” said Salvaterra. “There’s always a negative effect.”
He used cabbage as an example: You want to cover it to prevent bugs and diseases that come from the outside. But aphids come up out of the ground, and if you keep it covered, they’ll grow out of control.
Insect netting is still crucial for protecting other crops, though. “If you don’t have arugula covered, it’s going to look like someone took a shotgun to it, with all the little holes,” said Funderburk. He keeps almost all his crops covered with insect netting in the summer. “I think in the summer, when everything’s covered, people drive by and think we grow bed sheets.”
Even with precautions such as organic sprays and insect cover, weeding is still time consuming. In the summer, Salvaterra works up to 12 hours a day and has 3-5 full-time employees helping him — and most of that labor is dedicated to weeding. “It’s really about how efficient you are, especially with the weeding,” he said of his long work days. “The better you are at keeping weeds under control, then you can focus on planting and harvesting.”
Salvaterra and Funderburk take care of their land because they want to protect it for years to come. But sustainability isn’t just about how they farm; it’s incorporated into everything they do. “It’s an outlook that filtered into the way I taught,” said Salvaterra, who taught 5th grade before committing to his farm full-time.
Funderburk, who homeschools his daughters, incorporates farming and sustainability into their lessons. But he also wants to change the way the general public thinks about its food.
According to Funderburk, other countries spend 33% of their income on food. But in the United States, we only spend half of that — a measly 15% — on what we eat. “But we also spend an exorbitant amount on health care, and that’s because we’re not paying attention to what we’re putting into our bodies,” he said.
“Everyone wants to talk about sustainability, but it’s not sustainable if the farmer’s not making a living,” Funderburk continued. That’s why at both Beets Workin’ and Salvaterra’s, you’ll spend a little more on produce than you might at conventional grocery stores. They’re not trying to be the cheapest farms around. Their goal is to provide the best, most nutritious food possible while cultivating relationships with their customers. And if you are able to afford that, then it’s definitely worth the extra price.
(Looking to learn about more cool, local businesses? Check out my piece on John Glagola, AKA The Wayfare Baker.)