Producer of the Week: Brian Steer

Steer's vegetable field at spring planting time in East Coventry Township, Chester County. Photo courtesy of Brian Steer.

Steer’s vegetable field at spring planting time in East Coventry Township, Chester County. Photo courtesy of Brian Steer.

Brian Steer refers to himself as a “potluck” gardener and grower. “I have learned from talking with other growers, from research, and from experience,” he said. “And I have come to realize that success or failure is often beyond my control. Thus, the potluck.”

Just take one look at Brian’s colorful selection of eggplants, peppers and heirloom tomatoes, and you might be inspired to adopt his potluck approach, too.

Brian is a Pottstown farmer and the owner of Steer’s Vegetables and Herbs. His fondness for farming began when he was 12-years-old and grew string beans from seed. “I was amazed that the beans grew so vigorously and that I could grow food right in the backyard!”

Brian began growing commercially four years ago when his efforts to grow a variety of heirloom tomatoes resulted in a plentiful yield. He had more tomatoes than he could eat or give away to his family, friends and neighbors.

At the UM Farmers Market, patrons seek out Brian for his delicious heirloom tomatoes. “These are tomato species that have been around for many decades, if not centuries, and are genetically unmutated,” he said. As such, growing them presents a fair share of challenges. “Once ripe, they don’t last long. Many appear oddly formed. Heirlooms can’t be transported very far without damage, and are vulnerable to disease. But the taste of a good heirloom tomato is unbeatable.”

While growing heirloom varieties may prove challenging, Brian maintains his passion for growing based on three main reasons. First, he likes receiving positive feedback from customers who enjoy his vegetables. They make the labor well worth it. Second, Brian likes studying the process. “Watching the growing season unfold, seeing what insects are about, and what animals, which diseases, what mistakes I made and need t0 correct next year, and how the weather affects the crop,” he said. And third, Brian finds personal rewards in his farming role. “The peace of being in the field at any time, but especially at dusk, even if soaked in sweat and covered in sunscreen and bug repellant,” he shared.

While the rewards are great, the effort involved in farming cannot be overstated. “I think many of us are unaware of just how much hard work is required to grow vegetables organically. You can’t just plant seeds and come back later to harvest,” Brian said. “You must water, control weeds and animals, pinch unwanted growth, tie up, cut away disease and blight. Constancy is a must.”

“Industrialized agribusiness and its exploitation of labor has made food very cheep in the United States,” Brian explained. “I think many people – maybe subconsciously – assume that the price is low because production is easy. We all would do well to remember that ‘the laborer is worthy of his wages.'”

The patrons at the UM Farmers Market, according to Brian, appreciate him as a laborer and are very curious about his work. They ask questions about what he grows and how he does so. Many will share their own “gardening adventures” and recipes with him.

Brian enjoys being at the market because of these patrons and the folks who run the market. “The staff is always positive and helpful. It’s amazing when you consider the staff is volunteers who show up every week – and simply do not fail,” he said. Brian refers to the market atmosphere as upbeat.

Brian also shared that three of the founding members of the UM Farmers Market – Erika Spott, Lydia Dan Sardiñas, and Tina Garzillo – recently presented at a meeting in Pottstown where an organizing committee is looking to start a farmers market there. “These are the kind of people who make the Upper Merion Farmers Market such a great pleasure,” he said.

Thank you, Brian!

Please stop by Brian’s booth this week to check out the unbeatable taste of his heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables.

Producer of the Week: Jack’s Farm

Jack's Farm“We’re USDA Certified Organic,” said Dan Heckler. “It’s just the right thing to do when it comes to producing food.”

Dan and his wife, Deb, own and operate Jack’s Farm. Over 15 years ago, they started their Pottstown farm from scratch to offer certified organic, non-GMO vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. Their children provided the impetus to follow these strict farming practices. “Having children really  made us both stop and make more deliberate choices in how we’re farming,” Dan shared.

A commitment to organic agriculture is a commitment to preserving the environment. In order to abide by this commitment, farmers who seek the USDA Certified Organic designation must adhere to a number of organic standards. These include avoiding chemical fertilizers, using organic seed, welcoming regular on-site inspections, keeping detailed crop records, and much more.

“It’s really the only farming method where the rules are public and the standards are routinely checked by a third party,” Dan said.

Dan credits his crew of dedicated farm hands with the growth of Jack’s Farm. “You know, the myth of the ‘dumb farmer’ isn’t true,” he said. “There’s so much planning and foresight, plus physicality, needed in this business that it’s not for the faint of heart!”

Dan learned this himself from a very young age. “I grew up in a farm situation,” Dan explained. “My Dad raised antibiotic-free turkeys for Whole Foods. It was a large-scale agriculture operation.” Dan’s Mom also grew up on a dairy farm in central Pennsylvania.

Despite its name, Jack’s Farm isn’t named for a specific “Jack.” Instead, the name is meant to signify a farmer’s need to be a “jack of all trades” to farm successfully. Dan is one of these “jacks,” using his multiple skills and talents to grow the farm business.

“For me personally,” Dan said, “I am using virtually every one of my talents from planning to mechanical inclination to research and customer service.”

You can find Jack’s Farm at the UM Farmers Market every Saturday. All of Dan’s products are popular among market patrons. Be sure to check them out and see this commitment to sustainable farming practices for yourself.

“We love our customers!” Dan said. The feeling is mutual!

Producer of the Week: Livengood Family Farm

The Livengood Family Farm stand at the market.

The Livengood Family Farm stand at the market.

You might say it’s called Livengood Family Farm for a good reason. The Livengoods have been been in the farming trade for generations. “My grandmother was raising items in the homeplace,” Dwain Livengood said. “My Mom was raising and selling at the market when she was young, and my Dad had a peddling route.”

Dwain can remember being in kindergarten in the early 1980s and working alongside his parents, Earl and Joyce Livengood, to sell their vegetables at a roadside stand. Today, the Livengoods are busy growing and selling their produce, meats, and other products like broths, salsa, and meat snacks at a number of farmers markets in the region.

At the UM Farmers Market, Dwain has noticed that patrons here favor an even split of both protein and produce. “Our customers at the market have a good appreciation of our meats and the vegetables to go along with them,” Dwain said. “Our beef snack items are particularly popular, too.” These products would include their beef jerky and snack sticks that are sweet and delicious.

While Livengood Family Farm has been a producer with the UM Farmers Market since it opened in 2009, many patrons might not know the farm was certified organic in the early 1990s through OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association). “We know the ins and outs of organic certification,” Dwain said. “We are not currently certified, however, because all our sales have become retail-based, and we found we can easily talk to our customers about our farming practices and answer their questions first hand.”

Of all the work to be done on the farm, Dwain is especially passionate about raising livestock. “All our dairy animals and cattle are pasture-raised and grass-fed,” he said. “My siblings and I did 4-H. When I graduated from high school, it was just at the beginning of the grass-fed movement locally. We grew with that movement.” Dwain’s love of tending to the livestock now fuels his days. “I’m almost full-time here on the animals,” he said.

As an inaugural producer with the UM Farmers Market, Dwain and his mother Joyce have watched our market grow. He remarked about our entirely community-organized volunteer staff saying, “You are unique; no doubt.” It’s this grassroots effort that Dwain attributes to the success of our market and his business at the market. “We see a good amount of customer loyalty based on the community feel,” he said.

We’re grateful to have Livengood Family Farm and all our producers as part of this community!

PRODUCER SPECIAL: This week you can stop by Livengood’s booth at the market to take advantage of their sausage special! Buy one pack of sausage grillers and get the second pack 50% off. These grillers are perfect for your outdoor barbecue or inside in the oven if you want to escape the heat outside.