It started in 1992. It was never a program of Penn State, but it did start with faculty, staff and students and Penn State coming together on behalf of a sustainable farmers in Pennsylvania. It started with a first conference in 1992 at the Nittany Lion Inn. About 500 people (showed up), which was really starting with a bang. By the time I came about 10 years later, in 2001, it was about 1,000 members. But today it’s over 6,000 members.
It started with a bang, grew steadily through the ’90s and exploded through the first decade of this century, growing sixfold. We have more members outside Pennsylvania now than we had total members in 2001. They are in just about every state — just about all of them. And so I believe that today we have the largest sustainable agricultural membership in the United States. Some people may give me some credit, but I think PASA started the right way — with the right values, good people who understood what was at stake. It’s more than just saving farms (it’s about) saving food systems ... as well.
In recent years, we’ve seen the USDA, and even the White House take serious consideration for food sustainability issues. The White House garden lawn ... they brought in a Pennsylvania farmer. In fact, they brought in Pennsylvania soil. And so Pennsylvania, what people right in Centre County don’t know, is that actually this organization right here in Centre County has been a leader nationally in this movement.
Another example is the Buy Fresh Buy Local movement. It started in Centre County, in Millheim. It’s now in 23 states with around 65 or 70 chapters. If you’re driving around San Francisco, you’ll see Buy Fresh Buy Local on billboards and other signs. Local people don’t really understand what an impact there has been.
It’s very gratifying seeing something we have worked so hard on take hold. The number of farmers markets in State College has probably tripled since I came to Pennsylvania. It shows the movement is growing and there is demand.
On the other side, we see local abuse for green washing purposes. Big box stores want to use the term local. ... Some businesses are apt to abuse (the movement) without really supporting local farms. Now we are becoming more vigilant on that side. We’re doing more research on how we can help farmers who are legitimately selling to stores, restaurants ... and even consumers.
We have a number of partners in the Centre County area. We like to think that’s at least a good way to start. If they see that sign, they should at least make the assumption this is a place that shares those values. We really encourage customers to ask questions, to build on the practice of consumers asking about their food — where it’s from, where it was grown. They should not be bashful about asking where food came from and what staff knows about where it was raised. If they go into a grocery store and see the term local being used, they should feel compelled to ask questions about that. Just how credible is that? It really does matter, not only to the health of families, but to the economy that they buy local products.
We know almost every neighborhood wants a farmers market. ... It used to be people thought a grocery store was a convenient place to go. ... We know there are some big problems facing us around the world. A very basic way to start down the path of fixing things is to buy from local farmers, to find out what practices they use. Not every local farmer is stellar. But when you ask the question, you can find out what the practices they are using.
We use the line these days — farms plus food plus people plus planet. What we mean by that is healthy farms mean healthy people ... and ultimately healthy planet. We understand our mission goes far beyond the immediate need of getting food at the market and to people’s table.
We are talking about a whole new way of thinking about community. ...
You see offshoots of this — rideshare programs in cities where you can borrow a car or bike for a short time. It cuts down on volume on the roads and use of gas. You see it in the use of solar panels and wind ... to cut down on (fossil fuel use). You realize this is really a different way of living. For us, it all starts on the farm. It starts in the garden, the fields and pastures. It ends with a better life for everyone.
I travel a lot. I go the whole length of the state, to all corners, frequently. Just in the last three days, I was in Washington, D.C. ... Today, I’m down near Philadelphia. In some ways, somebody told me once, your job is the old-fashioned extension (coordinator) who used to go around and be a problem-solver. So in some ways, we go around solving problems, but I like to think of us as community builders.
Ultimately, we need to spread out even more (in regional offices), have pockets of PASA everywhere. If you don’t have local people organizing in order to improve food systems where they are ... our biggest challenge, frankly, that we struggle with is finding ways to organize on a local basis all across the state. That’s really what needs to happen. It can start with a church, with a single business like a restaurant making a difference. You just plant a seed like that ... one business (starts selling local food) and everybody else will follow. Kids understand faster than adults. You’ll see kids that gain understanding of what local food is all about and want to start a garden in the backyard.
You have to have different programming to involve the public rather than just farmers. If they take time away from the farm, they want focused (educational seminars).
Bike Fresh Bike Local (an annual cycling fundraising event that will be held Sunday in Millheim) and the farm tour, these things are all about engaging the public.
Some are better at greeting the public on their farms, but many find it to be a very wonderful opportunity. They may not want it on a daily basis, but one day a year, ‘come on in, we’ll show you everything.’ Some of them make a lot of sales on those days. Nobody loses in a case like that. In pouring rain, sometimes it doesn’t work. We do those things to reach beyond the farm community and get the public more engaged.
Peaches, sweet corn and tomatoes, they are all there right now. This is the time to get to the farmers market or out to the farms. I’m parked at a farmers market right now. The PASA really appreciates our home here in Centre County, and we hope the public understands what we’re all about.