Growing Community
Local farms enable people to make stronger connections with their food, the land, and each other.
by Leigh Ann Stuart

With four seasons, fertile soil, and a web of beautiful waterways woven throughout the state, Pennsylvania is a haven for those whose livelihoods depend on the land.

To put it in numbers, just over 49,000 farm families steward 7.3 million acres of farmland in the Keystone State, with agriculture contributing a staggering $132.5 billion to the state economy, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. The farming industry supports more than 593,000 jobs, accounting for one in every 10 jobs in Pennsylvania.
Tom Murtha and Tricia Borneman represent one of those farm families. As co-owners of Blooming Glen Farm in Perkasie, they’re approaching their 19th growing season.
“This chose us as much as we chose it,” Murtha says of his and Borneman’s livelihood in agriculture. “It spoke to us on a deeper level, and we knew it was something we could kind of run with.”
Murtha, a native of Haddon Heights, New Jersey, and Borneman, who grew up in nearby Buckingham, Bucks County, sought to start a farm and CSA (community supported agriculture) to fill a gap they saw in the market nearly 20 years ago. Today, they serve approximately 500 families from their 40-acre USDA certified-organic farm, which dedicates 22 to 25 acres to growing produce each year.
For those who are unfamiliar, the CSA model involves community members supporting a farm financially in exchange for a portion of its harvest during the growing season.
“A CSA is essentially a subscription program,” Murtha explains. “People pay during the off season, and in exchange, they get shares every week for 24 weeks—the last week of May through the first or second week of November. We also do half-shares, where people can pick up every other week.”
Each “share” represents a portion of whatever crops are in season. Murtha says Blooming Glen aims to offer patrons 10 to 12 items per week in each share.
“For most farming operations, they’re putting all their capital out to get to the first harvest in early May,” Murtha explains. “But at that point, they’ve put out so much money for things like seeds, fuel, supplies, equipment, and labor; most farms have to take out sizable operating loans every May. Starting a CSA was a way for us to work around taking out massive operating loans in the spring.
“It’s been neat because we love feeding people—that’s the cornerstone of it all—but we also love sharing the farm with people,” he continues. “It offers a connection to place and offers us the opportunity to distribute things we could never pick enough of with our crew, like strawberries, peas, lima beans, edamame, and flowers. It’s as much about growing food as sharing a sense of place with people.”
Whereas some CSAs deliver, Blooming Glen invites CSA members to visit the farm to pick up their shares.
“Being in a place like Bucks County, on the urban/suburban fringe, makes us kind of unique,” Murtha says. “Other CSAs are more like delivery sites, more remote farms that deliver to densely populated areas. We’ve always been on-farm pickup to get shares.”
Robert and Amy Todd prioritized technology and transparency when they set up their CSA, Down to Earth Harvest in Downingtown. With features such as online ordering, flexible payment options, and neighborhood pickup, they’re using modern conveniences to connect consumers with fresh-picked produce.
“When we started to give people absolute free choice, it helped us meet the customer where they’re at, in a way,” says Robert Todd. “With a traditional CSA, the farmer picks what goes in a box, but most people want cucumbers every week, cherry tomatoes, an easy salad green. In the end, giving people a choice took the burden off us to come up with the perfect farm share every week.”
CSA membership can amount to savings for savvy consumers looking to provide fresh goods for their family table—about a 15 to 20 percent discount over farmers market prices.
“You have to be hard-headed to be a first-generation farmer a thousand miles from home,” adds Todd, a Kansas native. “There’s a lot of pressure you put on yourself to grow everything, sell everything, be at farmers markets, and be good at marketing and logistics. Nothing happens overnight. This is year 14 and it still feels like a startup.”
True Grit
Murtha is plain in sharing that CSA membership comes not only with copious rewards, but also some degree of risk. Climate change, invasive species, rainfall, and soil health all can impact a growing season on any given year.

“Honestly the biggest struggle, top to bottom throughout agriculture, is weather and unpredictability,” he says. “At the end of the year, my wife and I have a look back. Last year was nuts. We had a six-week drought in spring that ushered in wildfire smoke, followed by a wet spring. We also had frost until May 31 and a freeze mid-May.
“It’s really getting wonky outside,” he continues. “I think that’s going to be the real challenge going forward for us as a race of humans on this planet, and farmers are going to be on the front lines of that.”
Pennsylvania’s four-season year has unique benefits in terms of countering disease and pests. Winter acts as a “reset” of sorts for the land, as compared with the likes of California and Florida, which tend to be warm year-round. With warmer weather brought about by climate change, however, pests and diseases from southern climes are creeping farther north.
Fortunately, the Northeast abounds with resources and manpower all working to combat such adversaries. Murtha cites nearby land-grant universities such as Cornell, Penn State, and Rutgers, as well as Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, which he describes as “a great advocate and educational outreach association,” and local chapters of Pennsylvania Certified Organic and the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
“I give a lot of praise and thanks to organizations like those that have the time and resources for advocacy work,” he says. “Education is critical.”
Seeding Change
Charles and Barbara Gerlach agree that climate change is one of the biggest factors impacting agriculture today. Together they run Berry Fields Farm, an organic farm-stay property in Bradford County, bordering New York State, that has been in operation for 22 years.

“The reason many of us desired to grow our own foods was because we wanted to practice being the solution to climate change,” Barbara Gerlach says. “So much farmland is being ruined by largescale agriculture. Unless we find a way to regenerate the land, which is time-consuming and expensive, we’re going to have to rely on small sustainable farms in our area to eat quality food in the future.”
“Here we deal with soil; large agriculture deals with dirt,” Charles Gerlach adds. “If you look at our soil and their soil, you’ll see a big difference. Now some people are keeping cover crops on their land at all times because it draws carbon down from the atmosphere instead of adding to it. The only way to get rid of climate change is to act.”
The terms sustainable and organic are not interchangeable, the duo emphasizes.
“It’s important for people to know where their food comes from,” Charles says. “Much of [America’s] food comes from Canada, Central and South America, Mexico, some from China. If you start looking at where your food is coming from, you’ll be surprised at how much we import.”
For Todd, farm-grown produce is about getting people to rethink vegetables.
“People don’t realize a fresh carrot is better than a bag of chips,” he says. “Our mindset is, if we can get people to eat one or two more vegetables a day, it will have a huge impact on environmental health, community health, and the health of individuals. We say, eat it because it tastes good.
“Something I realized when I got out here is that agriculture in Chester County, the Philly area, Lancaster, South Jersey, is not like anything l experienced out in the Midwest,” he continues. “I knew farmers who were in commodity crops; they farmed, but they didn’t feed their families. When I came out here, it felt so personal. The orchards, the dairies—it’s food for people. The human scale, the mindset, the personal touch that you have with production, it just felt real.”
With that in mind, Todd notes that some see a degree of classism in access to organic or sustainable produce. This is a notion he wishes to dispel.
“I felt that way growing up as a lower middle-class person,” he says. “It gets ingrained in people’s minds, I think. You don’t have to be bourgeoise—it’s something everyone can do. Vegetables aren’t for a certain class of people. A CSA is for everybody.”
This all underscores the importance of maintaining local farms in the face of encroaching development, climate change, and other factors. As Barbara Gerlach says, “Only the consumer can do that.”
Locally Grown
For some who tend the land, farming is a career choice passed from one generation to the next. Yet Pennsylvania farmers come from all backgrounds and walks of life.

In 2020, Dylan Ihnat traded in his role as a poker room supervisor with Parx Casino in Bensalem to dedicate his life to growing nutritious foods. As owner and farmer with Clean Green Growers, a certified-organic operation in Sellersville, Ihnat takes a regenerative and sustainable approach to farming.
“I really had never considered growing my own food before then, but as I looked into growing food for people, I wanted to do it in a way that was really healthy for them and created more nutrient-dense vegetables,” he says. “How you grow really has an effect on the nutritional quality of food.”
He likes the fact that his CSA helps people become more engaged with the food they eat—and to see how things can change for the better when produce is grown and harvested locally.
“In society, that’s been lacking in the past 15 to 20 years,” he says. “One of our biggest goals here, our mission as a farm, is to create a profitable model that we can pass on to other people looking to farm so that farming in general can be sustainable in our communities.”
Photo by Jody Robinson
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, March 2024.