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Worthington farmers to 'mentor' program

| Monday, May 11, 2015, 7:12 a.m.
Louis B. Ruediger | Trib Total Media
A rooster roams the grounds at the Five Elements Farm in Worthington that is owned by Joseph and Sara Bozzelli.
Louis B. Ruediger | Trib Total Media
Sara Bozzelli, owner of Five Elements Farm in Worthington, waters young plants in the greenhouse.
Louis B. Ruediger | Trib Total Media
Joseph and Sara Bozzelli, owners of Five Elements Farm in Worthington, are pictured in an herb garden with their home in the background.
Louis B. Ruediger | Trib Total Media
Joseph Bozzelli, owner of Five Elements Farm in Worthington, talks about the solar powered electrical system that runs to a converter installed in his basement.
Louis B. Ruediger | Trib Total Media
A framed hole in the wall at the Five Elements Farm house in Worthington shows the straw that is used to insulate the walls.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Farmhand Benjamin Barron, of Penn Hills, talks about pollinators and their importance on crop production during an open house at the Five Elements Farm in Worthington on Saturday, April 18, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Five Elements Farm owner Sara Bozzelli holds an earthworm as she talks about their importance for the soil at a farm during an open house event.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Farmhand Benjamin Barron of Penn Hills talks about the wildlife and insects that can survive in even the smallest of puddles during an open house at the Five Elements Farm.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Medi
Five Elements Farm owner Sara Bozzelli talks about earthworms and how they like to hide in cool, dark places, such as under hay bales during an open house at the Five Elements Farm.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Five Elements Farm owner Sara Bozzelli talks about the importance of the pond environment during an open house at the Five Elements Farm in Worthington on Saturday, April 18, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Medi
Solar panels line the roof of the farm home at the Five Elements Farm in Worthington on Saturday, April 18, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Steven Kovacik, founder of ZeroFossil, talks with farmer Chris Brittenburg, of New Bethlehem, about a solar system Kovacik installed at Brittenburg's farm during an open house at the Five Elements Farm in Worthington on Saturday, April 18, 2015.

A mobile chicken coop at Five Elements Farm in Worthington unleashes hens into fallow crop rows.

They peck, spreading the soil. They pluck out harmful insects and errant seeds, and bestow their gift of fertilization.

The farm's 20 chickens will not be slaughtered this winter, which is the case at other farms after the birds are past their egg-laying prime. The birds will live out their lives helping the Bozzelli family work the land.

“They are a part of the farm program for us,” said Joe Bozzelli. “They are not product to us.”

The Bozzellis are a new breed of vegetable farmers doing things a little differently.

That hasn't gone unnoticed: They have been chosen as a “mentor farmer” for the Penn State Extension New and Beginning Farmer program, rolled out this year for prospective new farmers in the region.

Joseph and Sara Bozzelli, who bought their 10 acres in Worthington in 2007, are among a slowly growing herd of new vegetable farmers working the food movement.

The new local farmer

The Bozzellis' vegetables are organically grown and certified naturally grown, a grass-roots alternative to government certification.

They situated their home to collect the maximum amount of sunshine for solar panels and natural light. The brick ranch home, designed by Joe Bozzelli, is insulated with hay and features a large bank of windows providing natural light that pours into the family's kitchen and living area. There is no air conditioning as it is not needed because the house stays cool most of the year, according to the Bozzellis.

The young farm family catches rain from the roofs of their buildings with barrels and a special pump system that pipes the water to their greenhouse.

“Small farmers are seeing where they can fit into the scheme of things and where their marketing opportunities are,” said Bob Pollock, an educator who covers southwestern Pennsylvania for the Penn State Cooperative Extension.

“People want to know where their food comes from, it seems, and, if you are doing things like solar or integrated pest management or organic or naturally grown vegetables, that is resonating with the public,” said Pollock.

But are there enough new farmers like Bozzelli and more traditional small farmers to meet the growing demand for locally grown food?

No, according to Heather Manzo Mikulas, an educator at Penn State Cooperative Extension, Allegheny County, for agricultural marketing and economic development.

Local and regional farms produce only 5 percent of our food, according to Mikulas.

“Here's the kicker — which is scary — 80 percent of our food comes from California,” she said. “How stable is that given the drought conditions?”

The goal is to increase local production, consumption and access to locally and regionally production foods, according to Mikulas.

But to become a new farmer requires investment and skills for a business that can be enormously fulfilling but with slim profit margins.

“It has to be made easier for people to become small farmers,” she said. “The next generation needs to find a way to bankroll it.”

Coming to your neighborhood?

The Bozzellis are part of the food movement known as “slow foods,” an alternative to fast food. Slow foods are locally grown and prepared.

“The slow food movement is happening fast,” said Court Gould, executive director of the nonprofit Sustainable Pittsburgh.

His organization is in the process of creating a sustainable restaurant performance program, which the public can consult to know what restaurants are using local produce and other information.

“Large restaurant chains like Eat'n Park are prioritizing purchasing programs from local farmers and are helping to form networks,” Gould said.

“There's a trend that is starting to favor local produce and there's more opportunities for small local farmers,” he said, but warns, “It's still an extremely hard vocation and one should look very carefully before one leaps.”

Pollock said, “It's a challenge across the board.”

Labor and market place demand are huge issues.

“Vegetable farming is a labor intensive business,” he said. “We don't have machines to harvest every crop, unlike corn, soy, and hay.”

And, even if the technology or machinery is there, the economics might not work for a small farm.

Also, matching up a small farmer with a restaurant or a chain of food stores isn't easy either, according to Pollock.

“Large stores and restaurants know the amount, quality and quantity of produce that they need in a given week and they want to minimize the number of vendors they need to work with,” he said.

Mikulas said some small farmers are choosing to sell through a small farm aggregator — a middle man — to reach the markets.

She said efforts will continue to increase to better match the local farmers with the new and growing markets.

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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