Not All Farmers at the Table

At The PA State Farm Show

The Pennsylvania State Farm Show is, at heart, an annual celebration of agriculture. Some local farmers who use sustainable methods, however, feel they have not been invited to the party. Sustainable farmers vary widely in their approach to food production, but the common thread among them is farming without the use of chemicals and pesticides.

It could be argued that the venerable Farm Show in its 97th year should stick to tradition and not change to embrace trends. Part of the charm of the farm show is the consistency. Every year offers the milk shakes, the square dancing and the butter sculpture. City folks watch the boy dressed in jeans and a plaid button-up shirt, as he directs a shiny black steer around the ring of the small arena. The scenes could have taken place twenty years ago or last Saturday.

However consistent, this year, the butter sculpture theme does reflect a change in both the perception of agriculture and the direction farmers are leaning to earn their living and manage their farms. Consumers are increasingly interested in food that is produced in their community. The butter sculpture is an homage to the PA Preferred program that identifies foods that are made in Pennsylvania.

“Things that are happening are pretty significant,” said Brian Snyder Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, “The butter sculpture celebrates the local food movement and the Department of Ag reached out to our cheese-making members to be part of the local cheese showcase.”

The interest in local food is an important shift in farming, but far from the only one.  A growing segment of farmers are implementing sustainable practices and many feel the farm show is not adequately reflective of their influence.

“The Farm Show is not embracing sustainable farming,” said Judi Radel who farms with organic practices and runs at CSA in Perry County at Yeehaw Farm, ”When I see an equally big sustainable agricultural farm display right next to the Big Ag display in the Farm Show building, then and only then, I will I feel that sustainable farming has been accepted by the state of Pennsylvania.”

Snyder and Radel agree that the Farm Show is an important way to introduce agriculture to the general public who would never otherwise have any exposure to farming.

“The Farm Show does an excellent job of keeping the public mindful of the importance of agriculture to the economy, environment and landscape of Pennsylvania,” said Snyder.

PennAg’s stunning Today’s Ag exhibit does just that. With lush corn and soybean plants and meandering farm animals, the display creates an indoor, mini-working farm and invites in the pubic. Visitors can learn about crops and technology currently used on farms. Conservation practices are also demonstrated.

“This year we included a larger section of cover crops,” said Kelly Caldwell, communication director with PennAg, “So visitors can see how farmers are using those crops to prevent run-off.”  Environmental benefits of cover crops include erosion prevention and improvement of the health of the soil.

“We also installed solar panels to show how farmers can use them to generate electricity for their farms,” said Caldwell. Part of the display is dedicated to technologies like GPS that are used to make farming more efficient.

Conventional farmers employ sustainable practices, cover crops and no-till are increasingly used, for example. Mike Martin, who has long farmed sustainably at Twin Brook Farm points out that conventional farmers and farmers who are adopting more earth-friendly approaches routinely work together.

“After all is said and done, farmers have more in common with each other than they have differences,” says Martin, “Every sustainable farmer has relatives, friends, and neighbors who they associate with and rely on who are not sustainable farmers. And every sustainable farmer relies on the agriculture industry. All farmers use tractors, seed, veterinarians, feed, etc., etc. “

Consider the journey of Melanie Dietrich-Cochran, of Newburg, PA. Raised on a conventional dairy farm, Dietrich-Cochran used to show cattle at the Farm Show as a 4-H member back in the 90’s. Today, she has a dairy farm where cattle are grass-fed, a successful artisan cheese business – Keswick Creamery – and she’s a board member of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Keswick Creamery is part of the local cheese showcase new to the show this year.

Dietrich-Cochran feels the show is spot on in celebrating the local food movement in Pennsylvania this year. She’s seen a steady increase in the interest in local food over the eleven years she’s been making cheese.

“Initially, it (Pennsylvania Cheese) was a hard sell to my customers.  Everyone wanted European cheese,” says Dietrich-Cochran, “Now, Pennsylvanian cheese is no longer seen as second best. People see Pennsylvanian cheese really is quite good.”

While the show embraces the local food movement, there still is admitted disappointment in the show by local organic producers. Indeed, there is tension between farmers who use conventional methods and those who are exploring more sustainable methods. This may be fueled by the inherent rejection of common farm practices by organic growers and the perception that the number of sustainable farms is miniscule.

“When we push sustainable agriculture and organic practices,” said Martin, “We’re telling other farmers that their practices are not sustainable and that they are producing poisonous food. That does not go down too well with your relative and neighbor who is also a farmer.” Martin would like the farm show to gently introduce the topic of food safety.

“I’d love big, glitzy presentations that focus on the top two problems in farming today: genetically modified organisms used in seed and elsewhere, and the routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock ,” says Martin, “This needs to be done very carefully. That is, they need to be educational in nature and scrupulously fair and accurate.”

Snyder, who’s organization, PASA, hosts one of the largest national future farming conferences, is optimistic about the progressive role and growth of sustainable agriculture in the state.

“Pennsylvania is the number three state in the nation for what’s known as – Direct Farm Sales for Human Consumption -which has not changed over the past decade or so,” said Snyder, “This statistic basically shows that we were doing the local food thing here in PA long before it was a national trend.”  Snyder cites the growth of PASA as an indication of the public interest in earth-friendly farming.

“It is significant that PASA membership has increased from about 1,000 to over 6,000 in the past decade, though not all are current farmers of course.” said Snyder, “It still shows a growing interest and awareness, which extends to the other Mid-Atlantic states as well. “





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About the Author

Laura Mathews

Laura is a garden writer and photographer. She writes online content for gardening websites, writes for gardening publications and blogs for three gardening blogs. Her interests are local food, organic gardening, backyard homesteading and native plants. She assists gardening related clients with social media. And occasionally, she'll offer a solicited opinion as a garden coach.


  1. Hi Laura, Thanks for this great article! I skipped over to your blog from Daniel Gasteiger’s PA-based blog, which I also recently found.

    I myself am a PASA member and registering for the PASA conference as we speak. It would have been interesting to mention the PASA conference in yr article as something of a sustainable ag “version” of the farm show & talk about how much it’s grown in the last 22 years…but maybe that’s just for another article!

    I think the issues raised in your article about the interactions and surface area between “conventional” and “sustainable” farmers is VERY important and deserves much more conversation and examination. It is one of my favorite things to think about, yet also something I know so little about. Although I grew up here in rural PA, I learned to farm in California in the sustainable/ecological/small scale tradition & actually know next to nothing about commodity crops & large scale agribusiness–which is mostly what people are referring to when they refer to “family farms” and “america’s heartland” and vague ideals.

    Oh, I could go on. But I will not.
    I’ll just say thanks for a great article. I will peruse your site some more. The title is what brought me–I was hoping it would NOT be a site devoted to rock gardens a la zen buddhists.

    Sarajane in Union County PA

    # Posted on January 28, 2013 at 5:45 pm by sarajane
  2. The Farm Show is designed to focus on Pennsylvania agriculture, after all it IS the PENNSYLVANIA FARM SHOW. PA Preferred is a program created to promote Pennsylvania agriculture. I don’t understand how you can say its not a traditional theme or how they are neglecting a segment such as sustainable agriculture. Last time I checked sustainable farmers could sign up for the PA Preferred program.

    # Posted on January 29, 2013 at 10:51 am by Joe
  3. Yes. And PA has a vibrant sustainable agriculture culture. PASA’s farming for the future conference is one of the biggest events of it’s sort in the nation. I’m not sure of your point. Thanks for reading!

    # Posted on January 29, 2013 at 11:30 am by Laura Mathews
  4. You’re not sure of my point? Read your article and then read my first comment. If you do not understand then maybe you shouldn’t have wrote the article. If PASA has an event already then why should Farm Show focus on it as well, wouldn’t that be redundant? You sound like typical hippie PASA complaining just to complain. As a “journalist” I would hope you’d be able to develop a better newsworthy story.

    # Posted on January 29, 2013 at 7:32 pm by Joe

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