You’ve heard the slogans – Know your farmer! Buy local!
You know what to do – head to the farmers’ markets. Buy some u-pick berries. Visit a local farm for peaches and corn. Buy meat in bulk from a local farm or support a local business that buys local meats. Have a chicken in your backyard. Process, ferment, can, freeze.
You know where to grow – in pots, on windowsills, in the scrap of dirt at the bottom of the stoop, in your side yard, in the raised beds, in the yard if you’re lucky enough to have a spot big enough that gets decent sun.
But what else can the average city-dweller do to support and protect their food supply, especially if they want to minimize eating things produced through Big Ag? After all, it’s not like a city can sustainably raise all the food it needs to support its population overnight (even Cuba, when forced to start growing organic after it lost the USSR’s support, took years to figure it out). In Pittsburgh, we only have five acres of land zoned for farmland in the city limits. There is growing local support for green space, urban gardens, and community growing spaces (depending on the neighborhood), but not enough to feed everyone in each neighborhood. And I doubt very much your neighbors would appreciate a cow, goat, or pig wandering down the street. At the end of the day, people in the city need rural food production to feed themselves (especially since the estimated land needed to feed a family of four is 1-2 acres).
Which is why it felt like I got punched in the gut late last week when I read the Kretschmann Farm’s blog post about a Marcellus gas compressor station slated for installation on adjacent property. I’m as guilty as the next person for not paying enough attention to the reality of Marcellus shale issues in Pennsylvania, in not rallying to help other local farmers who are dealing with the changing rural landscape, in thinking just because we don’t see the frack water trucks lumbering down local roads, it doesn’t impact me directly. But rural Pennsylvania feeds Pennsylvanians. And the Kretschmanns have been feeding Pennsylvanians since 1971 and are one of the leading certified organic farms serving the greater Pittsburgh area. They’ve ran a CSA since 1993 – way before it was cool. They were my first CSA, and I’ve supported their operation whenever possible for almost a decade.
I won’t get into the details of how this can impact their land, their water, your food supply. You can google ‘frack water spills’ or ‘wellhead explosions’ or any number of other things that can scare you into action. But I want you to think about how this could happen under their nose – how they could be blindsided by a “surprise phone call last Wednesday from a neighbor about a meeting of the township board of supervisors at which they were to decide the issue.”
Rural Pennsylvania government doesn’t operate the same way a big city or inner ring suburbs do. The township where the Kretschmanns farm has an administrative staff of five for an area of almost 34 square miles. Although the township has a zoning code (parts of which I can’t find online quickly), zoning codes are allowed, but not required, by the state Municipalities Planning Code. And you may have heard of parts of Act 13 being struck down earlier this year, which included the state pre-empting local zoning rules on drilling. That’s a good thing – it puts local land use decisions back in the hands of the locals. This township has a Zoning Hearing Board (presumably all volunteer), a Planning Commission (also presumably all volunteer), and a Board of Supervisors (who may or may not be volunteers – often if paid, it’s a part time job). These are the local levels of review that manage the process for land use. The township also has a solicitor for legal assistance. Unless I’m missing something or mis-remembering something, that’s it. That’s a totally typical setup for rural Pennsylvania township governance.
The initial hearing in question was to inform and obtain public comment for a conditional use application for the compressor station. While I can’t find the township’s public hearing requirements online, it’s reasonable to assume that the hearing notice posted on the website, maybe posted at the local government office, and in a newspaper of local record is sufficient public notice (as defined by local ordinances). It’s not surprising to hear that adjacent property owners were not personally notified.
What’s my point in this pedantic government discussion? There is no huge city hall or city-county building in rural Pennsylvania. The people making decisions about the use of rural land are doing this in their spare time, after their day job, or after they’re retired. If they’re getting compensated at all, it’s probably not a lot. Their budget is not huge. And they’re up against large gas drilling providers with a lot of money and a legal team who probably have read the local ordinances line by line and may know them better than the people charged with enforcing them. That is who is on the front lines of food security in Pennsylvania.
We can’t afford to not pay attention. We can’t afford to think that someone else will figure this out for us if we also want truly organic local food without potential contamination. Everyone’s life is busy, but everyone’s voice needs to be heard to ensure our food supply isn’t negatively impacted. So if you care, take the time to write to the New Sewickley Township manager (email@example.com), cc: Don Kretschmann (firstname.lastname@example.org), and do it now. The continued public hearing is tomorrow – July 23, 2014 at 6:30 pm.
And stay informed about both local food and local public policy so we don’t continue to be blindsided.
Here’s what I wrote:
Walter Beighey, Jr.
Manager, New Sewickley Township
Dear Mr. Beighey:
I write this email today in support of Don & Becky Kretschmann and their business, Kretschmann Family Organic Farm. It is my understanding that the proposed “Pike Compressor Station” to be constructed on Teets Road is on property adjacent to their farm. I strongly urge you to deny the conditional use application for this proposed station.
As much as the Marcellus Shale gas industry has been an economic boon to our state, many people are concerned about accidents, explosions, leaks, chronic exposure, and other negative side effects of this industry, myself included. While some concerns may be accurate and others overblown, it is clear that the impact of a compressor station on the Kretschmann farm would be almost totally negative. The Kretchmanns have operated their farm since 1971, are one of the first farms to be certified organic in the greater Pittsburgh area, and have built a successful business model on serving residents of Pittsburgh and surrounding areas through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) since 1993. This collaborative community model ensures a steady supply of healthy, delicious produce for their customers and provides stability and flexibility to the Kretschmanns so that they can continue to be good stewards of their land. They have positively impacted the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of western Pennsylvania families and their farm is the pre-eminent CSA in the region. A compressor station would negatively impact their ability to attract new customers, potentially jeopardize their organic certification, and should an accident occur, possibly put them out of business.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture touts agriculture as “Pennsylvania’s Leading Economic Enterprise.” While the Marcellus development may give our region short-term gains, it is a finite resource. However, every Pennsylvanian must eat. It has been my pleasure to support the Kretschmanns over the years and I hope that the New Sewickley Township Board of Supervisors will consider long-term viability of a regional agricultural treasure over a compressor station with short-term gains and many potentially negative consequences.
Please feel free to contact me if you need more information.
photo courtesy http://www.kretschmannfarm.com/