Farm Visits - Spiral Path Farm and North Mountain Pastures

Winter seems to have arrived early to south central Pennsylvania. On Tuesday, with temperatures never leaving the 20s and a fierce wind blowing, I had the opportunity the opportunity to visit Spiral Path Farm and North Mountain Pastures, both in Perry County, PA, as part of our membership in the Young Growers Alliance. I packed on the layers and headed north. What a visit!

 Will Brownback in one of the seedling greenhouses, a welcome place on a cold day.

Will Brownback in one of the seedling greenhouses, a welcome place on a cold day.

Spiral Path Farm

Spiral Path is a large organic vegetable farm situated in Loysville. They farm 200+ acres of land to support their 1,800 CSA members and a large partnership with the Wegmans grocery stores of the area. The Brownback family just finished their 20th year running the CSA and their experience really shows.

 One of the 34'x600' greenhouses at Spiral Path, freshly tilled.

One of the 34'x600' greenhouses at Spiral Path, freshly tilled.

The scale of Spiral Path is what impressed me most. I cannot imagine the planning and work that goes into supporting that many members as well as a large grocery chain while maintaining practices of good stewardship of the land. Will Brownback, one of the sons of the current owners and a fellow graduate of West Perry, took us around to the various buildings and facilities while talking about the operation and his involvement. Will came from an engineering background and quickly found that the corporate life wasn’t for him (this seemed to be a theme for the day). So what was to be a one month visit back in 2008 turned into a new career. Will seems to be at home in his vocation though I imagine the first few years were filled with learning (and probably still are).

 Large beds of arugula fill the space in this greenhouse. Over a half mile of beds per my figuring.

Large beds of arugula fill the space in this greenhouse. Over a half mile of beds per my figuring.

My favorite part of the tour came in taking a look at the composting operation and the massive 34’x600’ greenhouses. The Brownbacks produce the majority of their soil amendments on-farm, with composted vegetable scraps and other various inputs, so they have a massive compost tumbler and equally impressive worm bins. The greenhouses are gigantic and used to grow greens on a very very large scale as efficiently as possible. The house we were in housed arugula, a hardy and spicy salad green, that withstands quite a lot of cold. Spiral Path has about 4 acres under plastic and worked with the manufacturer to build them to allow equipment access.

 Will alongside the gigantic compost tumbler.

Will alongside the gigantic compost tumbler.

 Magic happens here. Vermicompost bins finish off the compost and provide valuable worm castings (worm poop).

Magic happens here. Vermicompost bins finish off the compost and provide valuable worm castings (worm poop).

North Mountain Pastures

Next up on the tour was North Mountain Pastures, a farm specializing in pastured, grass-fed and naturally-raised chickens (and eggs!), turkey, ducks, cows, sheep, and pigs. We arrived for a pot-luck lunch, and what a lunch! Brooks Miller, the co-owner of North Mountain, grilled up some excellent sausage (from the farm of course) and gave us a great overview of the history North Mountain Pastures.

 Brooks and his pig explaining his keyline swale. He did the explaining, the pig was just there to look pretty.

Brooks and his pig explaining his keyline swale. He did the explaining, the pig was just there to look pretty.

Brooks comes from an aerospace engineering background (noticing a theme here?) but grew quickly tired of corporate life. He bounced around a bit before coming to own and operate North Mountain with his wife Anna in the late 2000s.

 A view of one of the pastures.

A view of one of the pastures.

They’ve done quite a bit since then and have a butcher shop with soon-to-be meat curing room, several large paddocks for rotational grazing, a number of outbuildings, and a multifunctional hoop house that’s been used for anything from growing fodder to raising tilapia and starting their meat birds. Oh, and he’s also produced his own maple syrup from sugar maple trees on the property. That’s a lot of work in a short amount of time!

 A look at the maple syrup harvesting setup. Sure beats buckets.

A look at the maple syrup harvesting setup. Sure beats buckets.

Lessons Learned

What did I learn from my visit to these two farms? I’m sure more will come across my mind later but here’s what comes to mind initially:

Continually Learn

Neither Will nor Brooks have formal training for their positions (which gives me hope!). They constantly are in the process of refining their trades and learning from year to year. There’s always something new they want to try to get better at what they do and improve their product (or create a new product altogether!). They’re willing to make mistakes along the way which leads me to my next point…

Failure is a friend

Whenever something is new to you, you’re going to fail. A lot. Rather than dwell on the mistakes, take some time to think them through and figure out ways to improve. Sometimes the simple act of thinking something through, trying new ideas, and doing a bit of research can have a huge payoff. In the computer world I was taught that if something is difficult and painful to do, do it more often. You’ll find ways to make the difficult thing much easier and perhaps even learn to automate it.

Take for instance our way of propagating figs. It took me several years to come up with our current method. The first year I had maybe a 5% success rate, the second year the rate had jumped to about 50%, and last year I was around 90%. I learned what was best by trying various methods and thinking about what a plant needed and went through in the process of rooting.

Soil is the foundation

For good farming, at least. Both farms I visit care deeply about good stewardship of the land and soil and building it up to support their operations. Spiral Path uses detailed yearly soil testing to determine how their soil could be improved and has programs to improve upon it. Healthy, biologically active soil is the foundation for healthy, thriving plants that can resist disease, drought, and other stresses much more than a plant grown in soil that’s been neglected and abused. I’m currently reading two good books on the subject: Teaming with Microbes and Teaming with Nutrients (full disclosure, purchasing via the links will benefit our farm)

I’d highly recommend checking out Spiral Path Farm and North Mountain Pastures on Facebook. Both have yearly farm visit days, so keep an eye out! In the meantime, we hope you enjoyed the brief overview and pictures.

 Turkeys enjoying their time prior to Thanksgiving.

Turkeys enjoying their time prior to Thanksgiving.

 The view from North Mountain is fantastic.

The view from North Mountain is fantastic.

 Sheep on the hilltop.

Sheep on the hilltop.