CSA NOTEBOOK: Pennypack Farm CSA, Pennsylvania

Wanted: Consumers seek like-minded farmer looking for long term CSA relationship
The Philadelphia area's newest organic farm started as a consumer dream.

By Susan Curry


Pennypack Farm

If it weren't for the help of the following groups, Pennypack Farm may have never been--at least it would have taken a lot longer for it to happen.

Farm to City, run by Bob Pierson, connects farmers to markets in the Philadelphia area. The program brings fresh, locally-grown food to urban residents and opens up direct markets for rural farmers while increasing food and farming awareness. For more information about Farm to City e-mail Bob Pierson or:
Farm To City
318 Gaskill Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

White Dog Enterprises, Inc., was founded by Judy Wicks, and owns and operates the White Dog Cafe. The Cafe purchases locally-grown, organic produce in-season; humanely-raised meat and poultry; and seafood raised in sustainable fisheries. The Cafe has a reputation for social, political and environmental activism, leading campaigns to ban the sale of endangered fish and the use of GMO products. The White Dog Cafe Foundation also sponsors the Philadelphia Fair Food Project, which fosters direct farmer-to-chef and farmer-to-consumer relationships.
White Dog Café Foundation
3420 Sansom St.
Philadelphia, PA 19104
(215) 386-9224

Maysie's Farm Conservation Center is "a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to increasing public understanding of the importance of conservation and ecological thinking." Maysie's Farm has combined the traditional CSA with an educational spin, offering kids' programs and teacher-training sessions focused on food, farming, the environment and science.
Maysie's Farm Conservation Center
15 St Andrew's Lane
Glenmoore, PA 19343

Natural Lands Trust is a nonprofit regional land trust working to protect the area's natural and cultural resources. The group focuses on acquisition, conservation easement, planning and education. They have helped conserve more than 100,000 acres of natural areas and own and manage 45 preserves.
Natural Lands Trust
1031 Palmers Mill Road
Media, PA 19063

Alliance for a Sustainable Future is a non-profit awareness-raising organization. They offer support and/or collaboration to other organizations with projects promoting sustainability; build regional support for national policies advocating sustainability; and working with other groups to form a local sustainability plan. Visit their website at: www.asustainablefuture.org







CSA Resource List:

Thinking about starting a CSA? Check out our 16 recommended resources for insight and straight talk on cultivating, managing and marketing with a community approach.


Posted MAY 6, 2003: There are several models of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farming. The most common model begins with a farmer who wants to stay in business but needs a more reliable market. The least common begins with a community who wants to have a CSA and who goes looking for a farmer to produce according to their standards. Our Pennypack Farm Education Center for Sustainable Food Systems, the latter type, is the newest organic farm in Pennsylvania. Our story of how suburban people, land, a farmer and the legal financial structure came together is a cautionary tale with a happy ending.

The people came first. Back in 1999 we were connected and inspired by two discussion group courses from the Northwest Earth Institute, namely Voluntary Simplicity and Choices for Sustainable Living. We agreed it would be great to have an organic farm nearby and four of us decided to go for it. To draw in more partners, we wrote a letter to the editor of the area newspaper about starting a CSA farm and how to contact us. About a dozen people called and nearly two dozen attended the first meeting to explore interests, resources and tasks. We decided to continue meeting monthly and the "Ambler CSA" was born.

Our goals and values

To foster sustainable agriculture, to protect our watershed and establish local food security.

We wanted to solidify the local community of like-minded sustainability advocates and we wanted to increase the quantity of locally grown organic crops for human tables. The sponsoring organization, the Alliance for a Sustainable Future (see sidebar), wanted to have the new farm serve as a center for building a foodshed alliance in eastern Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. We envisioned the CSA becoming an educational center several years after we got the farm operations working fairly routinely. (We didn't want to burden the farm manager with educational duties during the start-up years.)

Our first plan of action was to research, then contact all the farmers within a five-mile radius. We naively believed that one of them would switch to organic methods on a mere four or five of their acres. Knowing they would have a ready-made market of committed buyers, how could they lose? We were disappointed, but not daunted by the dismal response: "Why switch methods that have been doing fine as long as I have been farming?" Every reasonable answer we supplied was countered by fixated thinking.

Fortunately, Bob Pierson's Farm-to-City subscription CSA project (see sidebar) was available as an interim source of organic food for our members and a way our members could build good CSA habits--picking-up and cooking seasonal vegetables. The Farm-to-City food provided a necessary tangible result to keep us clear about our goals and motivated while investigating and revising our own group's possibilities.

Plan B

A year went by with no luck finding a farmer, but we became more articulate about our values. We had speakers from nearby CSA farms--Sam Cantrell from Maysie's, Amy Johnson from Red Hill Farm and Michael Thomas, an adjunct professor from Temple Ambler University. And we gathered budget information at conferences.

It was then that Plan B emerged. We talked with interns working at other CSAs about our search for a grower and found many willing to hear us out if we could find some land. We compiled a list of known properties and parceled out the contacts to each member, following every lead, encouraging each other and asking for referrals whenever we struck out. Three nearby townships owned open space that we reasoned would be ideal community commons for a CSA. The legal insurance requirements and the lengthy approval process blew us away. A nearby college campus, private schools, church properties--every lead rejected our proposal. We gained new allies at the "Keep Montgomery County Farming" conference in 2001. The Natural Lands Trust (see sidebar) recommended two properties to us.

The most promising lead was a farmer who said he had always wanted to start a CSA ever since an intern had used his farm to make very rich biodynamic compost for a school project. He saw how well the tomatoes flourished in that dark composted soil. Things looked hopeful over several meetings, but there was a dicey way he answered a few of our questions. When, at last, we pressed for a direct answer about what he would do if insects infested the crops, he said he would "of course apply a pesticide as an emergency measure." We abandoned further negotiations.

The second lead from the Natural Lands Trust turned out to be our winning hand, although it took two years to develop a partnership with this cautious non-profit camp for inner city children. We were better able to balance the CSA and educational missions we envisioned through the relationship.

Developing a mutually agreeable lease for 24 acres of land was more than a year-long process. We had to change our name from Ambler CSA to a name that was more harmonious with the locality of the camp land. And so we became Pennypack Farm to honor the land's placement at the headwaters to the Pennypack watershed. Then we dealt with insurance details, length of lease (we wanted a three-year annually renewable lease), conditions of building construction (escrow account for removal costs at termination of lease), aesthetics of the deer fence (the camp has 24 deer in their 263 acres), cooperation with the camp's educational programming and assurances that we had no expectations of any financial.

Twice, while following Plan B, we interviewed and chose potential growers in hopes of starting in the upcoming growing season. We had to let both go when the land lease didn't happen in time. Late last year, through friends, we learned of Lisa Mosca, a farmer in a Santa Cruz program. She had gone to school at Swarthmore, a nearby Quaker college, and thought she might like to manage a farm close to Philadelphia. Her extensive experience, glowing references and indefatigable optimism indicated she was our gal. She took a firm stand on the CSA providing a living wage and benefits for herself and her laborers from the start and we added these values to our list of commitments.

Making education our core principle

Now we had the community, 24 acres of land and the farmer, but, alas, no equipment. A deer fence, tractor with attachments, two wells, a shed, greenhouse, hoop houses, tools, electricity and a gravel driveway were needed. Whew! Could we raise theses capital expenses through gifts? Was there a way to get grants? Becoming a non-profit educational facility was the way to go.

Pennypack Farm Education Center for Sustainable Food Systems


Lisa Mosca, Farm Manager
Pennypack Farm Education Center
685 Mann Road
Horsham, PA 19044


"On the Farm"
The children's program is a collaborative effort with College Settlement Camp to expose economically needy children from the Philadelphia area to organic farming and nature at an early age. Pennypack Farm provides farm-based curricular activities, a children's demonstration garden, child-centered farm tours and food-tastings during the growing season. Students learn "where their food comes from" and how their lifestyle decisions affect the environment and their bodies.

Community Lecture Series
Series of presentations on local and global issues to increase public understanding of the health, economic, ecological and social issues involved in local sustainable food systems. Experts on organic farming practices lead discussions and lectures are open to the public.

Seasonal Community Workshops
Series of hands-on training that advance local food self-reliance, food sustainability and nutrition. Workshop topics include seasonal cooking, fruit-tree planting, seed saving and canning.

Wildlife Habitat Demonstration
Staff members with biology, ecological horticulture and perennial planting lead community volunteers in planting beneficial native insect and wildlife borders and hedgerows. Plantings and carpentry projects include signage for public education.

Where Our Food Comes From
Teacher training program lead by a state certified teacher designed to guage interest in a local food policy council. A Farm-to-School initiative linking sustainable agriculture, nutrition education and healthy food in school cafeterias.

Luckily, our landlord wanted education for their inner city campers and, amazingly, Lisa was particularly interested in and suitable for providing education along with growing food. When we learned what it takes to form a tax-exempt non-profit organization, we decided to speed up our timeline and incorporate the educational component right from the start. The happy result is the Pennypack Farm Education Center for Sustainable Food Systems.

Despite having an educational mission, the legal issues we faced were more complicated. The IRS will not issue non-profit status to a membership organization, which is the typical CSA structure. The IRS considers a membership organization as privately benefiting the members, not the public, and, therefore, ineligible for tax-deductible donations. The IRS is also reluctant to award non-profit status to a venture that could give an unfair advantage to one agricultural program over commercial farms. We learned our flow-through fiscal sponsor could lose their non-profit status and any foundations would have to pay fines if they donated to a membership organization.

The challenges were great, but not insurmountable. Maysie's Farm (see sidebar) is one of the only two known non-profit CSA operations in Pennsylvania and they were willing to help us out. Sam Cantrell, owner of Maysie's, generously shared his application for 501(c)3 status with us so we could understand the language and rationale that was acceptable. We replaced our community steering committee with a Board of Directors and emphasized education and charitable giving in our purpose. We also consulted with two legal professionals about our by-laws, articles of incorporation and the application. Atypically, our non-profit application was approved in less than a month!

Where we are and where we're going

In April we built propagation tables and raised the frame for the green house. Pennypack Farm is truly a community project. We will have to buy transplants this first year since the ground was too frozen to build hoop houses. By early April, we had sold 80 of our 100 shares for the first year and started a waiting list for next year. We have raised over $30,000 in gifts, mostly from individual donors and still have $60,000 to go. We're also working on funding for 25 low-income shares. Judy Wicks of the White Dog Café (see sidebar) connected us to a lender who might be able to provide a socially responsible investment low-interest loan for five years.

I am sure our challenges are not over, but I think we are going to make it.