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Business owner revives family farm land in North Hills

| Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, 9:46 a.m.
Valley News Dispatch
Nic DiCio, owner of White Oak Farm and Reyna Foods, looks at some of the antique farm equipment in his restored barn as he stands next to a manure spreader at the Hampton farm on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Nic DiCio, owner of White Oak Farm and Reyna Foods, holds some of the eggs produced from the chicken coup at his Hampton farm on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Nic DiCio, owner of White Oak Farm and Reyna Foods, walks to one of the buildings on his Hampton farm on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Nic DiCio, owner of White Oak Farm and Reyna Foods, poses for a portrait in front of one of his barns as peppers hang to dry at the Hampton farm on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch

It's not hard to imagine someone rehabbing the barn of a multi-generational farm, but someone turning land in Pittsburgh's heavily suburbanized North Hills back into a farm is rare.

The change is not shocking, however, if you follow the farm-to-table trend and know Nic DiCio, who owns White Oak Farm straddling Hampton and Indiana townships, He also owns of Reyna Foods, the Mexican and Latin food market in the Strip District and a tortilla factory in Cadogan in Armstrong County.

As suburban sprawl has gulped up almost all of the farmland in Allegheny County, DiCio plans to turn White Oak Farm, which was bought by his grandfather Nicola Domenico DiCio in the 1920s, into a working farm and outdoor venue for dinners and special events.

His inaugural Pepper Farm Festival — with a $5 advance/$8 gate admission fees — attracted about 1,500 people two weekends ago. The festivalgoers lapped up freshly smoked chile peppers from New Mexico, plus locally grown or produced delicacies, food demonstrations and live Latin music.

DiCio's farm dreams are yet another effort in the locally grown produce boom.

Demand keeps growing for community-supported farms, farm-to-table produce, farms markets — businesses that are ushering locally grown food directly to consumers, markets and restaurants, according to Leah Smith, members services manager of the western regional office of Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA).

“People are concerned about food safety, and when they purchase food from local farmers, they know where their food came from and it generally tastes better,” Smith said.

And more folks hungry for local food are showing up at farm markets. The number of those markets in the state has increased by 17 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Everyone wants fresh food and DiCio knows it.

At his Pepper Farm Festival, DiCio slowly roasted chili peppers from Hatch, New Mexico, just until their skins blistered. He threw in some of his locally grown peppers but it was all about the Hatch peppers. He sent a driver to fetch about 300 sacks of them from the nation's chili pepper Mecca.

“The purpose of the festival was to get people outside where their food comes from,” said DiCio, 48 who splits time between his farm and the Reyna Foods store in Strip District.

After smoking them, DiCio will preserve Hatch peppers for use in a number of foods and sauces and sell them in his store.

Several vendors, including Freedom Farms from Middlesex Township, offered local food at the pepper festival.

A long-time believer in farm-to-table food preparation before it became the present-day foodie trend, DiCio plants some of his vegetables that have been used for public dinners before.

This summer, he teamed with chefs from some of the area's top restaurants, including Piccolo Forno and Cure in Lawrenceville, Dish Osteria in Southside and Vivo in Sewickley, for a gourmet Italian barbecue at DiCio's farm.

The elegant dinner was served at a long banquet table seating 100 people in a field lined with young fruit trees that DiCio planted.

“This is what it should be,” DiCio said. “People enjoying the land.”

DiCio wants to lease portions of his land to increase farming there.

“There's working farms, but they are so far away from the cities,” he said.

And DiCio said he's looking to generate enough money for the farm to be self-supporting and open to the public for special events.

He continues to rehabilitate and add to the aging facilities.

Far from being overgrown farmland with tired buildings, DiCio renovated the barn and a number of rustic buildings, including a machine shop with an antique metal lathe and a blacksmith shop.

All of the new buildings and renovations were designed by DiCio and built by Amish carpenters in rough-cut lumber and are flanked by local stone work, giving a pastoral, European feel to the property.

Old, original farm equipment like manure and lime spreaders are right at home along side vintage plows that DiCio collects.

But it's about the food.

And it always has been since DiCio harvested his first field of tomatoes at the farm in the early 1980s and went on to grow his tortilla chip business.

Named after his Mexican mother, Lydia Reyna DiCio, who died in 2002, Reyna Foods produces freshly made nacho chips and tortillas that are on many menus of local restaurants and the shelves of specialty stores.

Because he doesn't use preservatives in his tortillas, some of the larger commercial stores don't stock his products.

The freshness thing is more than talk.

And the farm-to-table movement isn't a trend to DiCio.

“I try to make everything I can from scratch,” he said.

For example, he prepares about 30 varieties of salsa for his Strip District store.

“If it's done in its pure form where they use stuff from the farm, it's a great goal to have,” he said. “We can't do everything off the farm but we do as much as we can.”

DiCio is planning to stretch his pepper festival to two days next year.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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