Erie County Agriculture and Our Climate: The New Normal
Date: April 1, 2017
Location: Tom Ridge Environmental Center
Agriculture in Erie County has a long and robust history that goes back to the mid-1800’s. There are approximately 1,422 farms in the county producing fruits, veggies, dairy products, grapes, and products that support the agricultural industry like hay and grasses. The US Department of Agriculture’s most recent census (2012) reports a market value of over $91 million for Erie County farms.
The summit, held at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center (TREC) brought together community members and leaders, farmers, and those interested in learning more about how climate may be affecting farming in the region to this four-hour summit designed to share strategies to help communities and farmers become more resilient to climate changes.
The morning began with a panel of local farmers and agriculture experts discussing both long-term changes in weather patterns and some of the responses farmers and their advocates have adopted to promote sustainable agricultural practices:
- Andy Muza (Penn State University Extension ):
Andy highlighted the PA Vines program, a program for grape farmers that ensures a healthy watershed and long-term sustainability through self-assessment and identification of best management practices.
- Wendy Elliot (Owner/Operator of Earth and Vine Farm)
Wendy described her efforts to identify specific varieties that are seasonally appropriate and adapted to the changing conditions in our region. She operates a CSA where members buy a subscription and receive seasonal produce on a weekly basis. In addition, Wendy passionate about sharing her experience with people and teaching them about seasonal agriculture, maximizing garden production and preservation for year-round enjoyment.
- Roberta Dudas (Owner of Dudas Farms)
Roberta, who remembers helping her father in the family fields at the age of 2 or 3, recounted how she had tracked daily weather conditions for decades. She has noticed changes including more extreme weather events. For example, a two-week period last summer of over 80 degrees interfered with her staged plantings of sweet corn and caused her to lose over an acre and a half of corn.
- Tim Burch (Owner of Burch Farms)
Tim Burch’s family has farmed in North East for six generations and he too has noticed changes – including the 20 below zero temperatures several years ago – that his family had never seen. Those low temps wiped out many of his peach trees. He noted that North East, which has long been famous for its cherry harvest, is now down to only 4 cherry growers – again due in part to the extreme cold spells in recent years. He also discussed the difficulty of supplying local grocery chains in part due to consolidation in the industry, less reliance on local suppliers and competition from distant suppliers.
The opening panel was followed by a question and answer period and the following breakout sessions:
Wendy Elliot: Seasonal Eating and Preserving the Harvest. Wendy took participants through a “year on her farm”. She ran through all the seasons showing participants which kinds of produce grow best during the different times of the year. She also went over five different preservation techniques and what kinds of produce might do best being preserved by that method, including blanching and freezing, dehydration, canning, fermenting, and root cellaring.
Dave Brennan and Carrie Sachse: Urban Agriculture and Zoning in Erie. Dave and Carrie provided an overview and update on efforts to amend the City of Erie zoning regulations to allow urban farming in certain residential areas of the city. Urban farming can provide a number of benefits: returning blighted properties to productive uses and the tax rolls, create entrepreneurial opportunities, beautify and revitalize neighborhoods, provide educational opportunities, and provide better access to food.
Ellen Diplacido and Mike Bailey: Pest and Disease Management for Home Gardens. Ellen and Mike reviewed the many initiatives that the Master Gardeners support in Erie to create food gardens and turned to the challenge of keeping a healthy garden without pesticides and synthetic fertilizer. Some of the essential elements are: choosing the right location, building healthy soil, choosing the right seeds or plants, planning the garden (including companion planting), proper watering, and mulching
Andrew Wolfe and Shasta Mullenax: Hunger and Food Security in Erie and a Gardner’s Role. Andrew and Shasta are Americorps VISTA members, each tasked with tackling the issue of food security in Erie. One-third of Erie residents don’t have easy access to fresh produce within one mile. They discussed how growing food reduces your carbon dioxide footprint while increasing access to healthy food and saving money. There are many ways to get involved in Erie including growing food for local food pantries, volunteering at community gardens, and connecting with the Erie Community Garden Coalition, which gives information on how to start your first garden, nutritional resources for gardens, and finding food gardens in Erie.
Attendees were provided a “buying and growing local kit” which was a goodie bag of local seeds and materials for home gardening as well as a wealth of resources on local farm stands and markets, community shared agriculture opportunities, and how to preserve locally grown foods.
The event ended with a drawing to award a local CSA share from NWPA Growers Cooperative for the 2017 growing season.