We were heading back to the farm in the back of Dave Manning’s truck after feeding the cows, a number of Lowline Angus, a smaller, grass-fed and more efficient cattle when it started to rain.
“You want to get up front?” Manning shouted from the front seat with his sons, Ethan, 1 and David, 5.
“No, I’m good,” said Juliette Enfield, the agricultural extension educator for the Penn State Extension office in Warren County, as she shielded herself with an empty corn feed bag as we ride back across Dave and Margie Manning’s 450-acre farm. Riverview Farms in Tidioute is traditionally a corn and beef farm and Manning, a full-time husband, father, and teacher wants to produce more vegetables.
Enfield was there on Tuesday to talk with Manning about tomatoes planted in a high tunnel – a semi-permanent plastic structure used to extend the growing season for crops like tomatoes. They’re warmer, keep pests out, but most significantly, “You can grow later into the fall or start things earlier in the spring,” said Enfield.
“Not a lot of people have them late, everybody has tomatoes all at the same time, so if we could get them a little later, I think it would work out well,” said Manning.
“And that’s what the tunnels are for,” said Enfield.
Officially formalized in 1914 with a parnership between agricultural colleges and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Extension program now focuses on six areas including 4-H youth development, agriculture, leadership development, natural resources, family and consumer sciences, and community and economic development.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through state and county governments allow “Penn State Extension educators, faculty, and local volunteers work together to share unbiased, research-based information with local residents,” according to the Extension website.
The number of local extension offices has declined over the years and consolidation has brought offices under regional extension centers, however, that doesn’t mean the office isn’t an available resource.
Enfield is one quarter of the extension office that includes Ruth Valone, secretary, Carol Wilcox, nutrition educator, and Jennifer Grooms, 4-H coordinator.
If they don’t know the answer, a specialist in the Extension will.
Recent issues fielded at the office include questions about gypsy moths, garden winter preparation, how to deal with tomato blight, what to do about moss growing in your lawn, how to get rid of bats, identification for deer ticks, and how to control moles and voles in yards. What many people may not know is the office takes in insect and plant samples that it will identify for gardeners. If the staff can’t identify it, they’ll send it and get an answer. The same goes for soil samples before you start a garden.
“If you have a tree or something in your garden that looks diseased or has been eaten by something, you can bring a sample of that plant in, like a stem with some leaves on it, and we can send that to a lab where they’ll look at it under the microscope and they’ll tell you what fungus it is or bacteria and what to do about it,” Enfield said.
The Extension offers a number of classes and workshops across the Commonwealth. At a Food for Profit class, people came from as far as Pittsburgh and the demographic was “across the board”, Enfield said. That included a man from Jamestown, N.Y., interested in starting a roadside stand, a woman who wanted to learn how to start selling chocolate candies and another that wanted to sell baked goods at a farmers market.
The day-long class went over how to write a business plan, how to get a loan, marketing your product, and food regulations with a USDA inspector to talk about regulations and answer questions.
“It’s for people who maybe haven’t even started it, they just have the idea…they can come to this class and get a feel for what it’s going to involve before they can invest their money,” said Enfield.
The class can be discouraging to some, said Enfield, but at least they didn’t waste their money.
“They realize what they’re really going to be up against in the business environment,” she said. “They’re really going to have to be committed.”
Other classes Exploring the Small Farm Dream and Retail Farm Marketing are for people interested in growing and selling at a farm stand will give them information on how post crop production and the best time to harvest, how to keep vegetables crisp or set up a display.
“These classes are created because they are responding to a need from farmers,” Enfield said. “We’re not offering the same classes today that were offered 50 years ago.”
The Small Farm Dream Class is “showing you that people are really thinking about starting farms, small farms, they want to grow their own food, they want to make a business of and they’re not afraid of the work. They want to do it,” she said.
Back at Riverview Farms, Enfield asked Manning if they are looking to increase production, diversify their operation, or both.
“I’m good with where we are, I would like to be able to provide more,” he said, adding that they could produce more vegetables.
Riverview Farms offers pre-orders for chickens online and in a newsletter so they can plan accordingly. Manning said it’s easier to have people pick up their orders, and right on cue a pickup truck rolls up the dirt road.
“How big do you want?” Manning asks the man, who has stopped to buy a frozen chicken. “You want a smaller one?”
“This is where it gets interesting, you’re in the middle of three things,” said Manning as he removes a frozen chicken from the freezer, weighs it and adds up the cost all while holding Ethan.
While Manning and the customer talked briefly, Enfield said almost all of the full- and part-time farmers she visists in Warren County are busy … very busy.
According to the USDA, a small farm is a farm that has gross sales of less than $250,000. The 2007 Census of Agriculture, the most recent census available, indicates that 99 percent of farms in Warren County are classified as small farms.
“A lot of times when I do farm visits I try to be like “Is there anything I can help you with?” because they’re always so strapped for time,” she said, “and I want to see what they’re doing and I want to help them, instead of just be somebody to chew your ear off.”
For more information, visit the Warren County Penn State Extension on facebook or at extension.psu.edu/warren.