Posted October 12, 2006: What do local growers,
an artisan brewery and an innovative facility at western Pennsylvania’s
Slippery Rock University have in common? They’re changing
the way people throughout the community think about food,
where they shop for it and where they dine.
Helping to shape the area’s local food economy are
initiatives coming out of the Macoskey Center for Sustainable
Systems Education and Research. The center, a facility of
Slippery Rock University (SRU), manages a farmers’ market
it helped to found, hosts an organic student farm and is the
collection point of a farmers’ collaborative supplying
produce to a local restaurant and brewpub.
These diverse activities fit within the center’s mission
to reconnect consumers and farmers, says Thomas Reynolds,
The center’s market garden, which sells produce at
the local farmers’ market and to area restaurants, puts
students to work in ways that teach them about crop production
as well as direct marketing. All work—from planning
to harvesting—is done by students. The farm demonstrates
basic plant and animal husbandry, professional cultivation
methods, integrated pest management and research.
Most importantly, the student farm models three spheres of
sustainability: economic, social and environmental. Although
the garden is run by university students, it is managed as
a commercial operation.
Sustainability that flows cash
“Sustainability isn’t just ecological. It also
includes economic and social sustainability,” explains
The soil of the center’s market garden continues to
improve, showing the net positive effect of their farming
methods. Production is also becoming more efficient, with
the farm expected to make a profit this year—its sixth
season. Through its involvement with the farmers’ market
and farmers’ marketing coop, the farm also helps develop
local community and social sustainability.
The student garden program provides SRU students—mainly
graduate students in the Sustainable Systems program—the
opportunity to run their own farm operation. They develop
the skills and responsibility needed to manage a small business.
Many former farm managers have gone on to operate their own
farm or are working for key agricultural organizations within
Pennsylvania and nationally.
The SRU student farm faces a number of challenges common
to student ag efforts. Students only stay for a while, meaning
turnover due to graduation slows the development of organizational
knowledge. Because learning takes time, and time is money
during the growing/marketing season, “the biggest challenge
is balancing economic success and educational success,”
The Macoskey Center was central to starting the Slippery
Rock Farmers’ Market in the summer of 2002. The market
continues to grow each year, with revenue and the number of
vendors and customers increasing. Benefits include additional
revenue for the center and for area farmers so they can expand
their produce sales. The market enlivens the downtown, inspiring
economic and cultural activity.
But what tastes best is this: It provides a place to shop
for local and fresh produce.
Extending marketing options
The student organic farm, along with other members of the
farmers’ market, is a part of the Slippery Rock Area
Farmers’ Collaborative . The group’s goal is to
cooperate to supply a single-delivery, local-produce option
to North Country Brewing Company (www.northcountrybrewing.com).
“Buying local produce is part of the local economy
paradigm we follow,” says Bob McCafferty, owner of the
brewery. This involves local businesses working together toward
common goals with mutual benefit. By spending money locally
and keeping it close to home, dollars circulate locally more
often before flowing out of town and out of state.
local produce is part of the local economy paradigm we
-- Bob McCafferty, owner
Country Brewing Company
“It’s resource efficient, but more importantly,
it builds the Slippery Rock community,” explains McCafferty.
Local building materials, renewable energy, reusable takeout
jugs, and local produce are just some of the ways the brewery
embodies the local economy paradigm.
Before the business even opened, Bob and Jodi McCafferty
began renovating the current structure with local hardwoods
and recycled on-site materials. The brewery partnered with
Green Mountain Energy to contract for 100-percent renewable
energy. Spent grains left over from its fermenting of quality
brews are fed to local cows.
North Country is the founding buyer for the local farmers’
collaborative. The group is coordinated by Tanya Turner of
Keystone Development Center (www.kdc.coop),
a non-profit organization funded by a USDA Rural Cooperative
Development Grant. Turner, a graduate of Slippery Rock University’s
Master of Science in Sustainable Systems program, is committed
to developing businesses within a local food paradigm.
Turner has worked for three years with numerous local food
projects in western Pennsylvania. She tries to bring self-empowerment
to those she works with: “We don’t sit farmers
down and say, ‘Let’s start a cooperative’.
It has to come from them. We enable farmers to organize themselves.”
Restaurant staff and farmers talk in off-season
Turner knew of McCafferty and his dedication to the local
economic paradigm. Beginning late last fall, she arranged
monthly meetings between Slippery Rock area growers and the
brewery’s kitchen staff. The brewery management outlined
what produce they’d like and what quantities they expected
to need. The growers then made tentative commitments to supply
that produce. Both parties went into the collaborative with
good intentions and had faith that prices would fall into
Each of the growers takes a turn conducting the orders and
deliveries, using this well-outlined process.
- On Saturday, the grower in charge of the order talks to
the other growers at the farmers’ market to record
what produce will be available, what quantity and at what
- On the following Monday, the coordinator calls Nancy
Lee Santella, the kitchen manager at the brewery. The coordinator
relays the product and price information from Saturday’s
market. Nancy decides what she’d like and states what
prices the brewery can pay.
- The coordinator then calls all of the growers to relay
- After checking with the other growers, the coordinator
confirms the order with Nancy.
- The growers then harvest Tuesday and/or Wednesday morning
before the 9 a.m. collection at the Macoskey Center.
- The coordinator records what’s collected and then
delivers the order in its entirety to the brewery. A single
delivery limits the hassle for a restaurant dealing with
- The kitchen staff at the brewery checks the order and
pays the coordinator for the entire order.
- The following Saturday the coordinator pays each grower
for their portion of the order. And a new coordinator takes
charge the next week.
So far this season, both parties are happy with the arrangement
—thanks in large part to Nancy at the brewery. “She’s
such a pleasure to work with,” Turner says with a smile.
“If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if the
collaborative would work. An arrangement like this is extra
effort for the restaurant.” It’s much simpler
and cheaper to work with a conventional food distributor.
But the brewery is committed to local food, even if it does
mean additional time, effort and a few extra dollars.
“The freshness and quality of the produce is worth
it,” explains Nancy, “and I think our customers
can taste the difference.”
Living with the challenges
That isn’t to say there haven’t been challenges.
The delivery schedule must suit both the growers and restaurant.
Growers can’t deliver to restaurants when they are at
market or harvesting for market. The brewery has conveniently
accommodated an early week order and midweek delivery. This
allows growers to harvest and deliver early in the week, exactly
between weekend markets.
Restaurants also need consistent supply and quality. Fortunately
for the Slippery Rock Area Farmers Collaborative, the brewery
is willing to work with slight variations due to fluctuations
in weather and different production practices. The brewery
purchases several varieties of lettuce from several growers
in different quantities to enhance menu diversity.
Restaurants also have to be willing to pay a bit more for
fresh, local produce. This is difficult for most restaurant
owners or chefs accustomed to buying through a conventional
food purveyor, particularly if unit cost is their main interest.
Those who value fresh quality and the long-term financial
benefits of building the local economy can “buy local”
if they can successfully market these “values-added”
benefits to their customers.
Another challenge is communication among growers. Only half
the growers use email, and fewer than a quarter have cell
phones. Turner notes this is characteristic of rural western
Pennsylvania. “My colleagues in Harrisburg and Philadelphia
don’t have the same problems with communication, and
the people they’re working with are keen on e-commerce.”
“We’re taking baby steps,” explains Turner.
“Farmers need realistic, tangible results. This year
we’re collecting data for a feasibility study. We’re
keeping detailed records of sales and the cost of production,
including delivery and labor. Farmers aren’t used to
taking into account their own labor.”
Farmers tracking benefits
Once the season’s over and the numbers are totaled,
the farmers will be able to track their time and their sales
to see how profitable the collaborative effort has been. “Maybe
even next year we’ll take on another restaurant or two,”
Turner says hopefully. The producers have much to consider
in their next step. (See the “Where do we go from here?”
The human pieces of the local food movement around Slippery
Rock are interconnected and interdependent.
- The brewery supports local farmers by buying via the
collaborative, consisting of Slippery Rock Farmers’
Market vendors. The market is, in turn, managed by the Macoskey
- The center’s student organic farm is a member of
the collaborative supplying the brewery and sells at the
farmers’ market. It supplies produce to other area
restaurants, as well.
- Most of the area growers savor the custom brews of North
Country, showing in another way how members in a local economy
both give and receive benefit to the others.
owned businesses thrive with a short supply chain for unique
and seasonal food, local culture flourishes through connections
and relationships, students experience and contribute to “real
life,” their university creates positive connections
with local small businesses, and the quality of life for the
entire community is strengthened.
Trade needs to be fair and sometimes done at a distance,
but there is much more than revenue to be gained for farmers
and their communities when they can invest in each other.