Farming at the End of a Long, Winding Road

7/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

PORT CLINTON, Pa. — A couple of townies got together at the Penland School of Crafts in Asheville, N.C., discovered they liked each other and the sustainable, organic way of life, and decided to join their odysseys. They got married and ended up in the most remote part of Port Clinton, Pa., in Schuylkill County.

Sara Runkel and Andrew Dohner are the owners, creators of, managers and labor force of the Great Bend Farm. Their leased 60 acres of farmland are part of a 169-acre parcel that is at the very end of a winding gravel road so long that many first-time visitors stop part of the way to the farm and use their cell phones to tell Runkel that they’re lost.

“Keep on going,” she tells them.

The road travels through a state gameland and ends in a clearing in the woods. The space opens out to a rolling vista that, if it weren’t for the trees at the bottom of the hill, would include a U-shaped bend in the Schuylkill River, hence the “Great Bend” name on the modest sign at the end of the lane.

Runkel grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and claims some farming DNA from her great-grandfather, who had a truck farm in Stewartstown, York County, Pa.

Dohner grew up in Lebanon, Pa. He’s a blacksmith who thought his life was going to be spent over a forge, hammering iron into works of art, and hardware with the look of art. He had spent six years traveling the country, working for and with artisans in metal, usually for very little cash payment, but often with room and board and always with a generous amount of instruction included in the deal.

He was not a farmer until he met Runkel, who was working as a gardener for the Penland School, where Dohner was teaching. Runkel has a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., and a master’s in sustainable systems from Pennsylvania’s Slippery Rock University. The couple eventually migrated to Pennsylvania, where Dohner spent three years managing livestock for the Rodale Institute.

Runkel became director of Lehigh County’s Seed Farm, a training program for new farmers. She left that job in January, and Dohner left Rodale in late June. Now they are both full-time organic farmers.

Organic farming is in their blood. It’s also in their lease. The couple who own the 60 acres of farmland that Runkel and Dohner occupy, and the 109 acres of woodland that surrounds the farm, are John Spang and his wife, Tanya Russ. Spang and Russ actually recruited Runkel and Dohner, who have an unusual set of skills and experiences that seem perfect for the tasks at Great Bend Farm.

Spang and Russ are as committed to organic agriculture as are Runkel and Dohner, but Spang and Russ are too busy operating their organic chocolate farm in Belize to spend much time on their Schuylkill County farm.

Spang and Russ recently completed a conservation easement that will keep Great Bend Farm in organic agriculture forever. The Berks County Conservancy is charged with seeing that the terms of the easement are fulfilled.

Tammi Shimp, who is vice-president for development and community relations with the conservancy, said an organic farmland conservation easement is still uncommon. The conservancy works with landowners who do not typically receive a cash payout for relinquishing a portion of their property rights. Spang and Russ, in fact, had to pay some of the cost of preparing their easement, although they got some help from the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and the Schuylkill County Conservancy.

The appeal for the environmental groups lay in Great Bend Farm’s mile of frontage on the Schuylkill River as well as the sourcewater, wetlands and woodlands on the property.

Runkel and Dohner are happy with the lease arrangement, and are working hard to transform their new enterprise into a profitable business. They’ve spent the last couple of years just cleaning up the place — which had a series of renters in the years since Spang and Russ went to Belize — and this was their first real year to grow crops. They put about three-quarters of an acre into vegetables.

Their business plan calls for a three-pronged approach to building profitability. Cut flowers are one of those prongs, a winter vegetable CSA is another, and hay is the third.

Their business plan is a finely honed document that gets submitted to John Spang, who reads every word, Dohner said. Dohner said he appreciates the attention and Spang’s counsel, even if it’s tempting to veer off course. There was an opportunity in April of this year, for example, to graze a significant number of geese with potential income of $10,000 to $15,000.

But they didn’t do it. It wasn’t in the plan.

Cut flowers are in the plan, according to Runkel, because her research showed that flowers return more per square foot than summer vegetables. She wholesales flowers, sells some to florists and nearby stores, and markets directly to consumers at a Tuesday night farmers market held at the nearby Trexlertown Velodrome.

Last year’s winter vegetable CSA had 20 members; this year she’s aiming for 50 members. Every other week, those members will be picking up orders of such vegetables as winter squash, potatoes, onions, tomato sauce, parsnips, storage carrots, cabbage, brussels sprouts, beets and other root crops. They’ll also be getting greens, salad mix, scallions and other greenhouse-grown crops.

Dohner is pretty much in charge of the hay enterprise, and he also hires out to local farmers who need extra help. He hopes to eventually get his forge fired up so he can continue hammering away at a hot iron. It’s not summer-time sport, he said.

Together, this hardworking, inventive couple have found a way to make it all happen at Great Bend.

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