MILLHEIM — It’s a Saturday night, and Elk Creek Cafe and Aleworks is filling with the sounds of the dinner crowd, the clanking of dishes and the companionable buzz of conversations and laughter.
At the bar, there’s more laughter and talk as patrons catch up with friends and neighbors at this Millheim spot, dedicated to local food and music, that’s quickly become a fixture in Penns Valley.
Taking it all in is Tim Bowser, manager and co-owner. He moves among the crowd, many of whom are here for the evening’s music, stopping at tables to say hellos, spending time behind the bar and occasionally checking in with the kitchen.
It’s the personal touch, as well as Bowser’s dedication to bringing only locally produced foods to the restaurant’s tables, that has helped make Elk Creek a successful bistro and music venue — no mean feat in a rural town with one traffic light 30 miles from downtown State College.
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Having grown up on a small farm in northeast Pennsylvania, Bowser has long been dedicated to the concept of supporting local economies.
“My father also had a barbershop,” he said, “and I learned early on that we shopped at the shops of people who got their hair cut with us.”
His family used traditional farming techniques to grow their crops. It wasn’t until Bowser did an internship with a small family farm during the energy crunch of the late 1970s that he began to consider the possibilities of more energy-efficient and sustainable agricultural practices. A further revelation came in the form of “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture,” a book by Wendell Berry.
“That really changed my outlook and perspective a lot,” he said. “I think the book was my initial eye-opener, then it became just realizing that as a society, we’re not dealing with reality in the way we are dealing with energy use.”
He first came to Centre County to attend Penn State. After graduation, he spent time working on a small farm program in California before returning to Penn State for his master’s degree.
“There was something about the Penns Valley area that always felt like home to me,” he said. “People are very tolerant of ideas and different ways of living. There’s a lot of creativity and a long history of taking care of each other.”
While working on his degree, Bowser served as small farms coordinator for the Penn State Cooperative Extension, a position he held for 10 years.
“I basically worked on alternative agriculture, which was a very modest realm at the time,” he said.
In addition to working to bring a focus on sustainable agriculture programs at the university, Bowser and a group of faculty and students in 1986 created a small-scale farm focused on sustainable agriculture.
“There was a need for hands-on farming experience, which students weren’t getting,” he said. But the program ended with a change in administration that didn’t see the value in the project, he said.
“We were a little ahead of our time,” Bowser said. “It’s a shame because I think if we had a chance to really get it going it would have been one of the premier sustainable ag teaching facilities in the country.”
In 1990, Bowser attended a large organic farming workshop in New Jersey where he found himself meeting familiar faces— Pennsylvania farmers he had worked with in the past who were interested in the concept of organic farming.
He had previously been frustrated by an apparent lack of interest in starting an organic farming association in the state, but now was encouraged by the new interest he encountered.
“We were the only state in the Northeast that didn’t have some sort of organization to support sustainable or organic farmers,” he said. “There were lots of Pennsylvania farmers there I knew, sort of a critical mass, and it seemed like maybe it was time to run it up the flagpole again.”
In 1992, Bowser organized Farming for the Future, a conference aimed not only at farmers interested in organic and sustainable farming but at businesses and consumers. It was an attempt to gauge interest in creating a state organization dedicated to those principles.
The conference, held at Penn State, drew more than 500 people. “That just blew some minds,” Bowser said.
That year, with recruits such as the Rodale Institute, Walnut Acres, Penn State faculty and farmers throughout the state, Bowser helped found and became executive director of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
While the group strives to help farmers interested in nontraditional and sustainable agricultural practices, its focus is not limited to the farms.
“We wanted to include eaters as well as the people who grew food,” he said. “We thought connecting the two groups was an important part of sustaining the food system.”
Kim Tait, of Tait Farms and former vice president of PASA, said Bowser’s leadership helped PASA grow into something much bigger than its founders anticipated: the largest statewide, member-based sustainable agricultural organization in the country.
“I would say PASA is probably the most well-respected sustainable ag organization in the country,” Tait said. “We have a conference that attracts over 2,000 people a year, we’re doing work through the halls of Washington, D.C., that is having impact on legislation and we’re very involved at the state level as well.”
In 2003, PASA presented Bowser with its Sustainable Agriculture Leadership award.
“In terms of creating validity, awareness, cache to the whole local food movement awareness, Tim was at the forefront of developing that for Pennsylvania,” Tait said. “He’s been very pivotal.”
In 2001, Bowser began working with a group called Food Routes Network, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping organizations working to rebuild local, community-based food systems. It’s a cause about which he feels passionately.
“Eating is a political act,” Bowser said. “We vote with our dollars on everything, and the way we spend our money says something about values.Why are we so eager to give our money to giant corporations who don’t give a damn about what happens outside those four walls?”
When it came to starting Elk Creek Cafe, Bowser and his partners practiced the “buy local” philosophy he preached.
“Instead of going through a bank, we raised capital within the community,” he said. “Basically there are 34 shareholders who put in varying amounts of money, so it is literally owned by the community.”
Investors were keen on the idea of basing the menu on locally available foods. “I don’t think anybody bought into this because they wanted to get rich,” Bowser said. “They wanted to have a place to come and keep our dollars in the valley.”
On average, the restaurant works with approximately 30 local farmers, bakers and food vendors every month.
“For me there wasn’t a choice,” Bowser said. “I was committed to using food from local farmers and producers. It’s a commitment to do it and a little more effort and maybe more cost but we’re looking at serving our community.”
In addition to being a popular gathering place and music venue, the restaurant gives back to the community by helping to raise money for local causes such as families in need, the library, the fire company, the community pool and the HOPE Fund (Helping Other People Everyday), a nondenominational nonprofit that raises money for those in the Penns Valley Area School District in dire need.
“Tim is very community-minded,” said Tom Stoner, who is on the board of the HOPE Fund. “He got to know about us and immediately wanted to help out.”
Bowser eventually became a director on the fund’s board. “He’s done a good job of helping us out whenever we needed help,” Stoner said.
In addition to the HOPE Fund, Bowser is a board member of the Penns Valley Conservation Association, a former board member of Centre County Farmland Trust and the White Dog Café Foundation and has served as co-chairman of the board of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. He's a member of PASA, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Millheim Fire Company.
“I know the people I buy food from and who the people who come in are,” he said. “They come back because they know we’re trying to support our neighbors, and it’s great to be able to make those connections.”
Bowser doesn’t think twice about the extra effort required to maintain those standards.
“Today you can run a restaurant by making one phone call,” he said. “My day is a lot more fun.”