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Can We Save the Planet with Regenerative Agriculture?

 An example of produce included in a weekly Dreamcatcher Farm CSA share. Produce varies each week based on what is in season and what is currently available through harvest.
Evangelical Community Hospital
An example of produce included in a weekly Dreamcatcher Farm CSA share. Produce varies each week based on what is in season and what is currently available through harvest.

The way in which food is grown impacts human health, ecosystems, climates, economies, and access to nutrition. The current industrial agriculture model, specifically, is not healthy or sustainable, biologists, healthcare experts, and economists agree. Community Supported Agriculture may offer a remedy, and it starts with supporting your local farmer.

Economist Joe Detelj’s dream, when he moved from New York to Lewisburg, Pa., in 1993, was to become a gentleman farmer. Not yet ready to retire, he worked for a time as head of the Union County Chamber of Commerce and then led the Union County Industrial Development Corp. while nurturing the idea. “The more I dreamt, the more I wanted that dream to come true,” said Detelj.

Detelj purchased just over 11 acres outside Lewisburg and set about learning how to farm organically. He attended annual Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conferences in State College (now held in Lancaster). And he traveled to Emmaus, Pa., home of Rodale Institute, to meet with founder J.I. Rodale who, in 1947, initiated a movement to promote a natural and more responsible way of modern farming through cultivation of healthy, living soils.

“I was laying the seeds for my farm before I actually quit working,” Detelj said. “I spent a day with Rodale and talked about my vision to create an organic farm. He was very encouraging.”

When Rodale died in an automobile accident shortly after that meeting, Detelj took it as a sign. “I decided I’m not waiting,” he said.

In the beginning

Detelj and his wife Jackie relocated to their burgeoning Dreamcatcher Farm and started tinkering.

“In the beginning, the idea of the farm centered more around satisfying myself,” recalls Detelj. “But the more I worked on the farm, I thought, how do we relate to the community we’re in? How do we support that community? How do they support us? How do we integrate ourselves in a meaningful way? How do we spread the word that there’s an alternative way of farming?”

One answer to those questions came as a result of meeting Dr. Geoff Schneider, professor of economics at Bucknell University. Schneider shares Detelj’s passion for sustainable agriculture, and a friendship blossomed over the mutual goal of promoting better farming practices.

“My grandfather was a farmer in Ohio,” notes Schneider. “As a child, I spent summers on his farm. To see the high quality of the food that was produced there and compare it to what’s available to us in supermarkets—which is not only doused in pesticides and herbicides, which we now know to be cancerous, but is not very good quality—led me to wonder about our food system, specifically the industrial food system, what it’s producing for us and the health implications.”

That inquiry led Schneider to look for alternatives. “When we moved to Lewisburg, one of the few ways to find fresh, healthy, untainted vegetables was Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA,” said Schneider, “in which people sign up and pay for a share of vegetables for a growing season at select local farms—and that’s what we were looking for.”

Detelj implemented a CSA on Dreamcatcher Farm after the concept of an onsite farmstand failed to attract enough customers.

“I stumbled across the Community Supported Agriculture model, a subscription service that originated in Japan and is employed by Japanese housewives looking to sustain their small, fresh food farms while facing competition from the industrial models of producing food. I thought it might work for us.”

 Joe Detelj, owner, and Leah Bingaman, manager, Dreamcatcher Farm, Lewisburg.
Erica L. Shames
Joe Detelj, owner, and Leah Bingaman, manager, Dreamcatcher Farm, Lewisburg.

In a traditional CSA, people pay for a season’s worth of produce (a membership) months in advance to help farmers prepare for the growing season. The CSA member receives a box of fruits and vegetables every week throughout the harvest season. CSA members benefit from the convenience and quality of fresh, locally grown produce while supporting a local farmer.

“What I heard from Joe was the alternative vision of the food system that I was looking for—fresh, local, high-quality, organic. He embodies that philosophy and sustainability. Our family joined his CSA in 2007,” said Schneider.

Down on the farm

Every Friday, when CSA food was distributed, Schneider and Detelj talked. “I realized what a good educator he was,” said Schneider. “Joe and I started envisioning a new kind of program where he would bring [Bucknell] students out to the farm more regularly [there already was a work/study program in place] to actually learn about why this stuff matters, and get some experience, so they could have their own garden or at least an awareness of what kind of food they should be eating.”

Schneider and Detelj started with a three-week summer course in which students from any discipline could learn about the food system. “We combined traditional academic learning with hands-on learning,” said Schneider.

On Mondays and Fridays, students read about the food system and why they should care about how food is grown and the quality of food—the academic portion. On Wednesdays, students saw and experienced firsthand the conditions under which food is being grown.

“When they tasted a fresh asparagus or tomato, students very quickly realized that the quality of food produced on the farm is much higher than the food they are eating,” said Schneider.

Schneider co-taught the farm-based classes with Bucknell biologist Steve Jordan, which highlighted another disturbing implication. When foods—fruits, vegetables, and meat—are grown in greater quantities more quickly, as is the case with the industrial farming model, they end up being less nutritional because they are filled with more water and grown in tilled soil missing living microbes.

“So, while the modern food system produces greater quantities more cheaply—greater quantities mean more money—the nutritional quality has declined by between 25 and 60 percent, depending on the vegetable,” said Schneider. “[With the students] we would do scientific testing to measure the nutritional quality of foods and talk about the health implications of food grown with pesticides versus non-pesticides.”

It turns out the mix of academic and experiential learning for Bucknell students at Dreamcatcher Farm was an ideal combination. The popular farm program morphed from 10 to 50 first-year students who travel to the farm once a week to see how fruits and vegetables are grown, sample the food, and help with farm-related tasks.

As part of the curriculum, students learn something most people don’t know: the industrial food system is not only unhealthy, unsustainable, and renders poor quality products, it is a major contributor to climate change. Feedlot beef cattle are fed mainly corn, because it’s cheaper than other grains, explains Schneider. But cows don’t digest corn very well, so they end up emitting a lot of gas—a major contributor to greenhouse gases. A lot of our beef in the U.S. comes from Brazil, where rainforests are being bulldozed to make room for more cows.

“The food [the industrial food system] creates is shipped across the globe; most of the fertilizers are fossil fuel based, so it actually involves dumping oil into our soil,” Schneider said. “Some estimates are that about a third of gases that contribute to climate change are generated by our food system, primarily industrial agriculture. If you care about sustainability, you can’t continue to eat like that.

“Outbreaks of E. coli and other pathogens are the result of creating really low-quality food with a major environmental cost,” continued Schneider. “It’s cheap in a supermarket sense, but it’s not cheap if you consider the actual cost to the planet and to people.”

How did we get here?

The problems with industrial agriculture, however, go even beyond today, according to Schneider. Starting in the 1950s, Schneider wrote in a paper entitled, “The Modern Food Industry in the U.S.: A Case Study of Industrial Sabotage,” (Journal of Economic Issues, June 2021), the food industry became one in which “industrial sabotage” is at play. The term, coined by Thorstein Veblen, a Norwegian-American economist, describes destructive behaviors by industry leaders to increase profits at the expense of consumers and workers.

In the food industry, Schneider says, this sabotage takes many forms: industrial meat processors abuse workers and sell unsafe products; industrial agriculture companies produce pesticides and herbicides toxic to people and the environment; and industrial food companies use misleading marketing and packaging to sell unhealthy, ultra-processed food-like substances laden with salt, sugar, fat, and flavorings. The competition for profits, adds Schneider, promotes this behavior under the approving eye of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), agencies closely tied with big agriculture and big food. Industrial food yields processed food, for the most part, considering the high amount of corn and soybeans grown.

“Americans now get almost half of their calories through processed food, which is empty calories and comprised of combinations of soy, sugar, corn syrup, and wheat assembled in various flavors with no nutritional value,” says Schneider. “It’s interesting to note that the rise of obesity directly parallels the rise of processed foods in the diet.”

And then there’s the economic impact. “We’re losing massive numbers of farmers every year,” said Schneider. “Farmers can’t make any money in the existing system because growing corn and soybeans, the main staples of farming today, brings in pennies compared to what farmers used to make selling a range of products. As the farmers go out of business, their farms are bought up by corporations. Monsanto alone is one of the biggest owners of farmland on which they produce only genetically modified crops on which chemicals they produce are used. Farmers need a different way of making money.”

A better way

CSAs, comprised of food grown in a sustainable way, it turns out, may provide a desirable alternative. In the Community Supported Agriculture model, consumers pay farmers directly for food they produce, cutting out the middleperson, and allowing farmers to earn a fairer price for their products and to grow a more varied array of crops. And Detelj believes it is the future of farming and food production.

“The folks who are on the cutting edge of what we’re doing are abandoning the term sustainable and favor regenerative agriculture—trying to make a whole farm conducive to a variety of life, and the healthful benefits of that,” said Detelj. “It’s about creating a symbiosis of all things on the farm. For example, how do we let a chicken provide us with sustenance at the same time we let that chicken live a life that’s favorable to its existence. That’s what we’re about.”

Other components of regenerative agriculture include an emphasis on soil biology, and recognizing the importance and value of rhizomes, horizontal underground plant stems capable of producing shoot and root systems of a new plant, that are vital components of soil biology. Rhizomes are used to store starches and proteins and enable plants to survive an annual unfavorable season underground. Also important is planting cover crops in the winter to keep soil biology alive. Conversely, the traditional method of farming relies on tilling the soil, which disrupts and kills living organisms.

The reality, says Detelj, is that we exist in a fully developed agricultural system that does not favor farmers. “There are many vested interests in keeping the system as it is,” he said. “That’s where all the big money is. That’s where the power is. It’s when people start reclaiming their power that we will see more of these changes being instituted.”

Harnessing the power

Dreamcatcher Farm manager Leah Bingaman, who has a degree in sustainable agriculture from Delaware Valley University, saw the efficacy of CSAs firsthand when she worked at Rodale Institute while earning a certificate in organic farming.

“The Rodale Institute manages a farm on the property of Anderson Hospital in Allentown, part of the St. Luke’s Health System, and the fresh produce grown on that farm is sourced to hospitals in the system to feed their staff, patients, and to sell in the cafeteria,” said Bingaman.

Bingaman wondered if that model could work at Dreamcatcher Farm and in 2020 urged Detelj to contact Evangelical Community Hospital (ECH) to discuss a partnership.

“We weren’t really sure what form this partnership would take,” says Ryan M. McNally, director, The Miller Center and Community Health Initiatives, Evangelical Community Hospital (ECH}. “Our interest in participating [with Dreamcatcher] stemmed from our desire to have a larger impact on community health, but also to offer the farm some financial support.”

In January 2021, the two entities entered into a collaboration, Evangelical-Dreamcatcher Farm Fresh Local Food Project.

“As a community hospital, we have a responsibility to care for not just the patients who come into our clinics and hospital, but the whole community,” said McNally. “In our community, there are about 7,000 people who are food-insecure—defined as not having access to adequate nutrition. And that rate is on the rise.”

Another objective of the partnership, now in its third year, includes getting fresh, locally grown produce into the hands of ECH employees. A future goal is to source enough locally grown food to feed patients and sell in the hospital cafeteria. The quickest way to achieve these objectives, it was concluded, was for ECH to purchase CSAs to sell to its employees.

The hospital pre-purchases 50 CSA shares from Dreamcatcher Farm, valued at $600 each. ECH employees may enter their name in a lottery to win an opportunity to buy a half or full share of a CSA; $200 of the cost of that cost is reimbursed to them through the hospital’s employee wellness initiative. Dreamcatcher Farm delivers the 50 shares to a pickup location at the hospital every Wednesday during the 20-week growing season.

“All the proceeds the hospital has collected from the CSAs have been reserved for future development of farming initiatives and community initiatives related to this fresh local food project, which is multifaceted,” explained McNally.

One aspect of these initiatives centers on educating middle school students on the importance of eating healthy, how a farm works, and how food is produced. The program, focused on the Shikellamy School District, involves Bingaman and ECH health educators interacting with fifth grade classes. Activities include students planting lettuce seeds virtually and culminate in a field trip to Dreamcatcher Farm to harvest and take home that lettuce.

“There were actually fifth graders who couldn’t wait to eat this lettuce plain, without ranch dressing, which is crazy to me,” said McNally. “We are working to expand that program this year to include other types of farming, including possibly beekeeping and dairy.”

ECH also donates five full shares of its 50 CSAs to the Union County Food Hub, an operation that receives, packages, sorts, stores, and redistributes food products to 25 local food pantries. “The Food Hub is unique in that they strive to focus on distribution of fresh foods, not just prepackaged or processed foods,” notes McNally. “Last year, 40 percent of all the food they redistributed was fresh, and received through donations from local farms.

As well as these benefits to the community, the ECH-Dreamcatcher Farm partnership yields financial rewards, beyond what the farm could achieve marketing CSAs on its own. Detelj and Bingaman utilized the extra revenue to build an additional greenhouse to start produce earlier in the season and ultimately grow more produce throughout the season.

“It’s expensive to operate a farm,” notes McNally. “It requires a lot of equipment, and all hands on deck. Maybe other employers will look at this model and figure out a way to find their own farm to partner with that has this tri-fold benefit for employees, the community, and local farms.”

A larger view

According to the 2017 Agricultural Census, the most recent figures available, Pennsylvania has 6,936 farms offering direct sales or agritourism. CSAs exist throughout Pennsylvania, and the country, and some are not restricted to produce. Farmers may include the option for shareholders to buy shares of eggs, homemade bread, meat, cheese, fruit, flowers, or other farm products along with their produce. Sometimes several farmers will offer their products together, to provide the widest variety to their members, as is the case with GroundWorks Farm in Millheim.

Since 2005, a group of farmers in the Penns and Brush valleys, in Centre County, joined together to direct market their products under the GroundWork Farm banner. Each of these farmers uses environmentally friendly methods to raise a variety of farm products, including vegetables, herbs, dairy products, eggs, meats, and berries. By joining together to coordinate growing, marketing, and distribution, GroundWork Farms’ goal is to provide an abundant and reliable source of fresh, healthy foods to grocery stores, restaurants, and individuals.

Agriculture is evolving slowly, Bingaman and Detelj agree, but there is reason to be optimistic about the future. “Growing food is the most fundamental thing we do,” said Detelj. “Changes must come because we can’t continue the way we’re going. First you have to bear witness to the fact that there is an alternative [to industrial farming]. And I think we’re doing a good job with that. That’s why we’re so focused on bringing young students in—they’re the agents of change. So how do you make that change? It’s incremental.”

Schneider underscores the value, benefit, and importance of supporting your local farmer.

“Through membership in a CSA, you can basically get almost all of your food of different types, all locally grown, all organic, showing up at your door once a week,” he said. “Even though it’s slightly more expensive than supermarket food, it doesn’t have all the baggage of supermarket food. “I think everyone should join a CSA.”

Erica Shames is the emeritus founder and publisher of Susquehanna Life magazine, Central Pennsylvania’s original lifestyle publication.