Kinsey Gensel makes no bones about it: She’s a massage therapist first.
But she’s always had an interest in raising food, starting from when she was a little girl and saw her grandmother raise vegetables in a small garden.
Two years ago, Gensel started volunteering at The Seed Farm in Emmaus, Pa. She wanted to find out what it was like to raise her own vegetables and have the feeling of raising her own food.
Today, farming isn’t just a hobby for her. She wants to make it a business.
“At the end of the day I take a walk around the whole patch and say, ‘Yeah, you did this today.’ It might not be perfect, but you did it,” she says.
The 42-acre Seed Farm has a dual purpose: it trains people to be farmers and it also gives farmers the chance to launch their own businesses through an incubator program.
The latter is important since access to land is one of the biggest barriers to getting into farming, especially if someone doesn’t come from a farm background.
In Lehigh County, an area brimming with development over the years due to its proximity to Philadelphia and New York City, more than 23,000 acres of farmland have been preserved since 1989, according to The Seed Farm website. But preserving farmland is only part of the solution to preserving farms in this fast-developing region.
“The farm is a response to the problem that we're seeing with people leaving farming and getting young people to come in,” says Lindsay Parks, program administrator of The Seed Farm. “They didn't rely on family land; they didn't grow up in the business and they don't have access to sites. Those things can be really expensive to procure, and they can be really expensive once they do own them.”
The Seed Farm was developed by Lehigh County, which donated the land and still owns it, and Penn State Cooperative Extension, which provided much of the initial farm training, with the support of a three-year USDA grant.
Meeting the needs of beginning farmers
The program was at first a training and incubator program — one year of formal farm training, then inclusion in the incubator program. But that’s changed over the years.
“Beginning farmers have their own needs and are in different points in their journey,” Parks says.
Now, the programs are separate to meet their own needs.
“Some people come for the basics and maybe already own land, others have learned but they need to be in an incubator,” she says.
Prospective farmers apply to be part of the incubator by writing down their business goals and how they will execute those goals. Once in the incubator they get a lease, pick out a plot and start farming. Plots range in size from a half acre up to 6 acres.
“At that point they are launching their own businesses,” she says, adding that most people in the incubator stay for two or three years, on average. “The whole goal is to build capital, a credit history, customer base and be involved in the farming community here.”
After they’re gone the farmers are on their own, with The Seed Farm offering referrals to programs such as Pennsylvania FarmLink or other programs to find land.
"We might help connect them with local bankers if they're looking to purchase land and finance it in the Lehigh Valley," she says.
Parks, who was in banking before getting involved with The Seed Farm, says that being a business owner is often overlooked by up-and-coming farmers.
“You know, I think they see farming as a passion or something that they’re going to do when they retire,” she says. “But they’re running businesses, and they have to be handling marketing and customer relations, and finance and HR. They have to keep their fingers on so many different areas in terms of keeping their businesses healthy, and that’s really an area that The Seed Farm focuses on.”
FARM INCUBATOR: The Seed Farm’s incubator program allows farmers to lease a piece of land, anywhere from half an acre to 6 acres, so they can build equity and eventually get a farm of their own.
Learning how and when to harvest crops, packing for farm shares, and working in a team environment are things Gensel learned during her time as a volunteer. She is now in the incubator, and since the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to temporarily stop her massage therapy business, she became a full-time farmer this spring.
She grows carrots, cucumbers and other vegetables on her plot.
She had to write a detailed business plan to get into the incubator, something she hadn’t done since before becoming a massage therapist.
“It was painful. Diving back into those skills was really hard because I haven't had to do it for a long time," she says. “But it was good though.”
Brad Pollack, farm manager, has been growing his own crops since 2000, when he was only 13. He grew pumpkins, squash and ornamentals on a 6-acre plot on his grandfather’s farm, which was a mixed hay and grain operation and also included beef cattle.
Today, he runs a 60-person community supported agriculture farm, and he runs maintenance and some educational programs at The Seed Farm.
Having started farming at just 13, it instilled in him a work ethic that he thinks many getting into farming should have.
“The experience, it definitely instilled in me that if you want something you definitely have to work for it. And the fact that it's never going to be easy. There's a lot of things that come up," Pollack says.