by James Rada Jr., photography by Phil Grout
Farming once had an image. Farmers were weathered-skinned men dressed in coveralls and working all day to raise a single crop on hundreds of acres of land. Modern farmers have changed that image. They have refined what works best through trial and error, and in the process not only changed what farming is, but who the modern farmer is.
York County farmers are still predominantly white males, but more than 17 percent of the county’s farmers are women. In addition, the county has farmers who are Asian, African-American, Native American, and multi-racial.
A farming county
York County is among the top 10 counties in Pennsylvania for a number of agricultural categories, but it leads the state in soybean, wheat grain, and winter wheat production.
“Field crops are still popular in the county,” says John Rowehl of the Penn State Agricultural Extension—one of the modern resources available to Pennsylvania farmers. It provides access to face-to-face and online education to help farmers address problems and take advantage of opportunities for improvement and innovation.
Rowehl said hog finishing and eggs are quickly growing areas of agriculture in the county.
“York County is pretty diverse in its agriculture,” he said.
More than $234 million in agricultural products were produced in York County in 2012 (the most recent statewide statistics available). This ranks it No. 6 among Pennsylvania counties. Roughly two-thirds of that was crops, nursery products, and greenhouse plants. The other third was animals and their products.
Competing against the big boys
Ali Abbes purchased the Balady Farm in Abbottstown in 2012. It’s a small, 28-acre farm that he would like to expand. The primary products are chickens and eggs. Abbes said he would eventually like to be able to have his own processing plant on the farm to reduce costs, but there are hurdles to overcome before that.
“The township needs to reconsider its definition of farming,” Abbes said.
Currently, a processing plant wouldn’t qualify as something allowable on a farm. But, Abbes says, “It’s part of farming and part of doing business.”
As a small farmer, he has to compete against large corporate farms that reduce their expenses because they can purchase large amounts of many of the things they need at lower prices.
One way Abbes can compete is to offer halal-certified meats and poultry. Besides chickens, Balady Farm offers beef, goat, and lamb. All are halal-certified, which means that the meat is permissible to eat according to Islamic law. To be halal-certified, the animal must be slaughtered according to religious guidelines.
Quarry Critters in Littlestown competes in a different way. Rather than raising sheep for wool, David and Julie Wysong raise alpacas for their fiber.
“My wife saw them at a sheep and wool festival and wanted to raise them,” says David Wysong. “We had less than three acres in Carroll County, though, so we wound up moving onto 30 acres here.”
Alpacas are sheared just as sheep are, and their raw fiber can be spun into yarn. Alpaca fiber has been compared to cashmere because of its luxurious feel, but it is also very durable. As one writer has noted, “[Although] it’s cheaper than cashmere, the Incas placed a higher value on the fiber than silver or gold — which isn’t really surprising to anyone who has cozied up in a coat or sweater made from the stuff.”
Quarry Critters makes itself economically competitive by offering something unique to the area.
Rowehl says that such niche markets are one of the things that interest new farmers. They come in wanting to raise a product for a small, specific market, whether it’s alpacas, organic produce, or grapes for locally produced wines.
Running a farm
Farmland is a enormous investment for the farmer. And the larger the farm is, the more money can be made from it, at least in theory. But even after the farmland is paid off, it still remains a costly expense for farmers because they have to pay taxes on the land.
“We pay $5,000 in taxes,” Wysong said. “We’re stuck with that even in retirement.”
That’s just one of the costs associated with agriculture.
“There are a lot of fixed costs with running a farm,” Abbes said. “We buy chicks from a hatchery. We buy feed. There are taxes.”
Other costs include insurance, electricity, and maintenance on equipment and buildings. Some farms need seed and fertilizer. Wysong has to pay for medical visits for his alpacas every six weeks.
“We grow our own hay, but we have to pay someone to put it up,” Wysong said.
He said that small farmers, in particular, need to watch their costs. Because it can be so expensive to run a small farm, it’s hard, if not impossible, to maintain self-sufficiency.
“If you are talking about farmland, you can get a few hundred dollars per acre. If that’s the case, then you have to get hundreds of acres to be self-sufficient,” Wysong said.
Community supported agriculture
Many farms are becoming part of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement. The concept has been around for a quarter-century, and it has become a popular way for smaller farms to maintain their viability. In a CSA, customers pay a farmer up-front for a season’s worth of produce, delivered a week at a time. It is sort of like buying a share of the farm — with the crops being the dividend.
Hanover has four CSA farms within a short drive of town. They are located in both York and Adams counties.
A way of life
Farming is not a job, as any farmer will tell you. It’s a way of life, one that many farmers are born into.
“My motivation to do this is not profit,” Abbes said. “I am proud that I am producing food for people.
Wysong said he raises alpacas because he enjoys it. “Sheep are pretty dumb, and alpacas aren’t dumb,” he said. “I talk to them. They have personalities. I think they know their names.”
Farming will remain part of the landscape for the Hanover area, but the look of those farms is changing. In addition to seeing a greater diversity among area farms, you also see increasing diversity on the farms themselves, such as Balady Farm raising chickens, goats, beef, and lamb.
Farmers are also working to get more from their land. “Farmland in the county has been slowly and steadily declining,” Rowehl said. “Over the last five to 10 years, it seems like there has been a lot of clearing of woods to become cropland.”
The reason that farming will survive in the area is that Hanover’s farmers won’t let it die. It is a demanding lifestyle, but it is one they love and continue working hard to improve.