About 20 minutes from the familiar bullseye of a Pennsylvania Target, or a Waldbaums or a strip mall full of fast food choices, you can stock-up on groceries in the middle of a bucolic green field. Milk House Farm Market might not seem like an alternative to that weekly supermarket stop–after all there’s just one refrigerator and a grand total of three tables stacked with wicker baskets of vegetables–but both hungry consumers and area businesses are beginning to drive past the branded store and to this farm stand owned by Brenda Slack. Slack’s asparagus, sweet corn, beets, strawberries and over 40 varieties of tomatoes are grown spray-free on the grounds her family has owned since 1813; a far cry from the genetically modified veggies you’d likely find in the chilly aisles of that big box grocer.
In its former life as a dairy farm, Slack Farm was such a community staple that the very street it sits on carries its name. On your way to that farm, before turning on to a gravel driveway, be careful not to run smack into an enormous one-family home sitting on an immaculate bright green lawn, a common site surrounding farms like this one. Today, Brenda, a fourth-generation farmer with long blonde hair and a wide smile, greets you from her one-room produce shop on that grassy curb in Bucks County, bright-eyed but very aware of the changing landscape.
Hungry area residents and neighborhood restaurants have largely kept Brenda’s business afloat. Her baskets of blue, brown and white eggs, laid by a flock of 700 chickens, 25 Indian Runner ducks and 50 Muscovy ducks, are the main attraction at Slack Farm. If you’re lucky enough to score a seat for breakfast at Bucks County’s Pineville Tavern this summer, you’re in for a treat; Brenda has just signed an exclusive deal to supply the local favorite with their brunch eggs. Last year that very same restaurant added a new menu item, “Freddy’s Tomatoes,” an homage to another area farm. But Brenda Slack and her fellow Pennsylvania farmers face an uphill battle with the changing landscape of Bucks County. Over the last fifteen years, the skyline, if you could call it that, has shifted from red farmhouses and teetering John Deere tractors to rows and rows of McMansions. The rural wonderland, with wildflower patches and neighing horses on nearly every corner, is slowly morphing into a sea of condos.
Mike Tierney stomps through his field to a soundtrack of moos and a clucking chorus of free range chickens. “The farm has been here for 69 years. I know, I look young for my age,” he jokes. At just 30-years-old Mike is Penn State graduate and former Marine with a personal mission to spread the gospel of organic farming. Though he inherited the land from his family, who settled into the land in 1943, Mike’s farm centers on that organic mission, something his relatives never touched. His herd consists of a group of dairy cows and just one bull, the product of a 15-year-old embryo cryogenically frozen in the ’80’s from a prize herd. Just beyond that field you’ll run into a family of breeder pigs, pushing through the overgrown grass and weeds for egg and apple scraps. Their diet ensures optimal health for their eventual diner.
“They want to live next to a farm, but they don’t actually want to live next to a farm,” he says of his neighbors, part of the McMansion crowd that has moved in to occupy once-sleepy Bucks County. The neighbors don’t buy Mike’s raw milk, or the choice cuts of beef from his freezers. Instead, they complain about fence borders and animal noises and the smells that come along with a hen house full of chickens. Mike slices off chunks of fresh cheese between his thumb and a pocket knife, explaining the milking process with a twinkle in his eye and excitement flush in his cheeks. “It’s in my blood,” he says, when asked if this is the life he chose for himself; the family dog hot on his tails, certainly seems to agree.
This kind of dedication to locally sourced food and farming caught the attention of Lynne Goldman, who runs Bucks County Food Tours with her partner, Alan Brown, largely as a labor of love. “We do this because we want these places to continue,” she says. The tours, which have been running for about a year, visit both overcrowded tourist areas and isolated farms alike, with registrants meeting a cast of characters who have been living in the area their whole lives and becoming acquainted with the kind of love that goes into creating your own meals – and this is a neighborhood that deeply cares about creating their own meals.
Earl’s, a popular restaurant in Peddler’s Village, a tourist center filled with handmade shops, changed their menu a few years ago to reflect what local farms had in season and what they could find nearby. Across the street, Kerry Burns pushes his body into rough lumps of dough at the Town Crier Bakery. The bakery buys ingredients from within the neighborhood to make their infamous sticky buns and Burns, the proprietor of this shop, then makes the buns with a recipe he picked up after earning the trust of curmudgeon-with-a-heart-of-gold German bakers. Watching Burns press and roll the dough in the back of his own storefront, you see the impromptu nature of baking that he learned to love as an apprentice. He’s finished pressing the dough and is now discussing a recent business transaction: an ice cream shop and dairy farm a few miles over sent him a pint of fresh ice cream in return for the sugar he lent the shop. The crowd oohs and ahhs over the shops flavors as if they were stuffing their faces with the creamy confections that minute. But, this is the kind of conversation you come to expect in Bucks County.
But even with that strong backbone of community, hordes of new farmers who migrate into the keystone state to set-up shop are struggling to stay even, fighting taxes and the increasing prices of land, as well as a continually changing neighborhood makeup. “Because land is so expensive, many young farmers can’t afford to buy, so they are leasing and renting,” notes Goldman, her brow furrowed in visible concern. The businesses depend on word-of-mouth and food trends to bring restaurants and consumers to their doors. And while there is demand, farmers like Mike Tierney won’t deliver raw milk to New York City for fear of the steep tickets and harsh laws that could end their practice for at least ten years.
Every year several young farmers pick-up shop and leave the area to continue their practice on cheaper grounds. Goldman recalls the story of one optimistic couple who banked their entire savings into their brand new produce farm. “They had been looking for land of their own or a very long-term lease, which they were unable to find in Bucks County… They left. Bought a preserved farm in upstate New York.”
Lynne packs a cooler in the back of her car when she shuttles around participants on the tour. “Buy from them!” she lets out a tense laugh. After all, buying from them, sharing and talking about your experience is what keeps these farms going. It’s the only way these farms will prosper, insists Goldman. “It’s as simple as that.”
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on July 18, 2012 on The Huffington.