University of Pittsburgh

GROW IT!

In Pennsylvania—and nationally, too—there’s a resurgence in local farming to meet consumer demand for fresh, healthy food produced near the marketplace. But farming, even on a small scale, requires business savvy, not just physical stamina. A new program at the University of Pittsburgh offers help, delivered by a hay farmer.

Written by Cara J. Hayden

On a green hillside beyond an old barn, dozens of Holsteins are out to pasture and wading through knee-deep sweet grass. They wander slowly along the slope, munching their cud.

Down at the barn, dairy farmer Stephen Magan leans against the tailgate of a pickup truck, chatting with a visiting farmer. The dairyman’s rubber boots are crusted in mud and cow manure. While the two talk, Magan casually throws a small PVC pipe for his German shepherd to chase. The dog scurries after the plastic pipe as it sails in the direction of a gravel pathway that leads to an 18th-century brick farmhouse.

Surprisingly, Magan has urban roots. He grew up in Wilkinsburg, Pa., a municipality that borders Pittsburgh. But his vision is to create a productive 200-cow dairy farm—an organic operation, which makes his task even more difficult. To achieve his goal, he’s getting help from an unusual source—a program at the University of Pittsburgh that’s being run by Craig Sweger, the hay farmer who is visiting on this spring morning.

Sweger is the director of Pitt’s new Agricultural Entrepreneurship Program in the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. He’s leading a team of Pitt business consultants in assisting farmers in the Pittsburgh region with improving their business savvy to get milk, eggs, meats, and vegetables into the mouths of local folks. For years, large agribusinesses have been feeding much of the nation, and small farms have been sold to housing or strip mall developers as older generations of mom-and-pop farmers have passed away. But with an increasing number of eaters nationwide who are joining the “farm-to-table” movement and buying food from local farmers, there’s a demand for the revitalization of the small-farm industry.

As an urban university, Pitt isn’t known for having a trough of agricultural knowledge about how to raise pigs, or llamas, or dairy cows. What Pitt does have, though, is an award-winning business school and its Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, which provides expert advice in business management. The agricultural program is the institute’s newest venture. Sweger and his Pitt team have been helping farmers in a variety of ways, sometimes through farm visits like this one to the Grand View Dairy Farm.

Equipment in the milking parlor.

Equipment in the milking parlor.

At the barn, Magan and Sweger move inside to admire a newly installed milking system. The equipment is Magan’s latest investment, and Sweger—in his role as a Pitt business consultant—is checking things out. The equipment is still shiny, except for some splotches of mud that the cows have smeared on the silver pipes.

“How long does it take to get ’em through?” Sweger asks, wondering how the cows are adjusting to the new milking process.

“Monday night it took us four-and-a-half hours with five guys,” says Magan, recalling the first milking three days ago with his farmhands. “But we’re speeding things up. This morning, it was a half-hour with four guys!” He pumps and wheels his fists in the air like a basketball player celebrating a slam-dunk. Magan is young, a 30-something guy wearing a Steelers T-shirt and a ball cap embroidered with “Grand View Dairy Farm.”

Sweger chuckles at his fellow farmer’s enthusiasm. Then he steps across the mucky barn floor to better examine the parlor. “Parlor” is farm lingo for a milking system that draws milk from multiple cows at once and then pumps it all into a tank to await processing. Eventually, Magan wants to do something about the fact that his milk is trucked 250 miles out of state, instead of to local milk drinkers, but some things take time.

Magan’s farm in Washington County is about an hour’s drive southwest of Pittsburgh. Originally, the property belonged to the Manchester family during the Revolutionary War era. It’s still owned by a descendent of the family, a woman who resides in Connecticut with her husband. Magan and the Connecticut couple—Margie and Joe Pagliarulo—began a business partnership in 2006, after the farm had been sitting idle for 10 years, growing thorny briars instead of grass for cows.

For the Pagliarulos, the partnership keeps the farm producing even though all of their family members have moved on to nonagricultural careers. For Magan, it allows him to operate a farm that he couldn’t afford to buy, and it keeps him close to his extended family in the region. His parents knew that he had a call to farming at an early age—back when he used to push a lawn-fertilizer cart down the sidewalks of Wilkinsburg just for fun.

These days, Magan is devoted to his calling, and he’s serious about making it work. In just three years, he has earned organic certification (the only dairy farm in the county to do so), expanded his herd from 50 to 65 (new calves are born each year), and upgraded the milking parlor.

While Sweger looks over the shiny pipes and udder cups of the milking parlor, he knows that upgrading to this system, which can milk 21 cows at once, is a big step forward for the dairy farmer and his business. Yet the list of chores is long and there’s still a lot of work to be done—sales sheets need to be analyzed, grants need to be applied for, corn needs to be planted, and so on.

Magan is up to the challenge. He’s the type of young, passionate, and unconventional farmer that Pitt’s Agricultural Entrepreneurship Program wants to nurture to revitalize Western Pennsylvania’s small-scale agricultural industry. For years, farmers nearing retirement have been visiting Pitt’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence to seek assistance in succession planning—what to do with their farms when they retire or pass on. The institute contains multiple centers and programs, like the Small Business Development Center and PantherlabWorks, which provide free consulting services to small-business owners, family-run enterprises, and inventors.

Over time, Ann Dugan, executive director of the institute, and her staff began noticing that farmers were a unique niche of business owners who had concerns that were different from other clients. First off, many of them wanted to pass their farms on to other farmers after they got too old to grow their crops, but they didn’t know who would want them. Their children were pursuing other careers, and they didn’t know any energetic newcomers like Magan who would be willing to continue working the land. Some of them hadn’t been saving much for retirement because they were losing money on their crops and were simply surviving on the equity of their property. Many of them wanted to sell their milk or vegetables to chain grocery stores like Giant Eagle, but found it difficult to satisfy the corporate requirements of providing large quantities of food year-round.

So in 2006, Dugan formed a farm committee to further investigate the problems facing Western Pennsylvania farmers and to brainstorm new ways for them to succeed. She’d been seeing a boost in consumer demand for a stronger small-farm industry. There were increases in the number of farmers’ markets and the number of people who were signing up for vegetable subscriptions from local farms, for example. In Oakland, a new farmers market supported by Pitt and other community groups was founded in the summer of 2007. That same summer, Pitt’s Community Relations Office helped faculty and staff to sign up for farm subscription programs.

Dugan’s committee was composed of a number of volunteer farmers, including Sweger. During monthly meetings they talked about building greenhouses that would grow lettuce, tomatoes, and other veggies year-round for grocery chains like Giant Eagle. They tossed around ideas for helping farmers to negotiate fair contracts with companies interested in mining gas and oil underneath the land. They talked about the fact that none of the milk processors in Western Pennsylvania is organically certified, which is why Magan and farmers in other counties have to send their milk all the way to Buffalo, N.Y., for processing with the national Horizon Organic milk brand. They brainstormed many ideas, but how could they implement changes?

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Magan, Dugan, and Sweger.

On the dairy farm, Sweger and Magan have strolled over to the loafing barn, which looks like a giant pavilion for cattle—there’s a roof to keep the rain off, but no walls to restrict airflow. It’s fenced in but doesn’t have stalls, so the cows can move freely. It’s another new investment in the business, and an investment in a more humane kind of farming—one that doesn’t keep cows inside a dark barn for their entire lives like some agricultural operations do. The two farmers are now talking about the state of the industry.

“Agriculture is like a ship without a rudder,” Sweger says, musing about how the industry isn’t very speedy at changing directions. “You need—”

“A big storm,” Magan says, jumping in with both his words and his boots. As he speaks, he stomps his feet into the muck and tosses the PVC pipe to his German shepherd again.

“Yeah, a big storm,” Sweger agrees.

Storms have been hitting the agricultural industry in recent years. There have been outbreaks of food-borne diseases in peanut butter, spinach, and beef that have affected people all across the country, drawing into question whether enormous agri-industries are the best way to grow food. There has been more concern about global warming and carbon footprints, which makes shipping apples and tomatoes 2,800 miles from California to Pennsylvania seem more ridiculous than it did in the past. There’s the growing organic industry, which is evidence of public resistance to the use of pesticides. Yes, the agricultural ship seems to be rocking, as Sweger and Magan would say.

Farmers have a way of speaking in metaphors about their world.  As Sweger continues chatting by the loafing barn, he uses an age-old farm reference to explain the paradox of the lack of an organic dairy processor in Western Pennsylvania. He says the processor would need to know that there’s a critical mass of organic dairy producers in the area for them to make the switch from conventional to organic. And the farmers would need to know that an organic dairy processor in the area would want organic milk from them.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg sort of thing,” Sweger says, tickled by the pun. Magan laughs uproariously, smiling underneath the brim of his ball cap.

The two have a good working relationship, which is one reason Sweger was named director of Pitt’s new program. He relates to the nitty-gritty details of farm life, and he understands the challenges. He also knows what’s at stake for the farmer—just about everything.

Dugan, who recently won a 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year Award from Ernst & Young, founded the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Program  as a way to address all of the ideas that had been raised at the culmination of all those committee meetings. Sweger was a natural leader for the project. As a farmer who maintains 130 acres of hay that he sells to neighboring farmers, he knows the challenges of being dependent on the land and weather. As a former farm-equipment salesman, he has some business acumen. And as an active member of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, he has been a leader in the farming community for years. He’s also open to new ideas about ways in which farmers can adapt their practices for modern markets—a characteristic that, he says, occasionally causes him to be accused, like Don Quixote, of attacking windmills.

Grand View Dairy Farm, with the original farm house circa 1800.

Grand View Dairy Farm, with the original farm house circa 1800.

For Pitt, it’s important to have a go-between man like Sweger. Many of the University’s management consultants are, well, business people who wear suits and clacky shoes. One agriculture program consultant, Lindsey Biddle, showed up for her first few farm visits in heels. She quickly learned to wear more casual shoes and clothes that she wouldn’t mind saturating with a mud-manure odor. And sometimes the farmers are a little wary of city folk with big ideas. Having Sweger around, a man who’s comfortable in the field or the office, helps everyone feel more at ease.

Although Biddle doesn’t know how to operate a milking parlor, she does know how to run numbers. Recently, she completed a financial assessment of Magan’s dairy business and compared his finances to those of similar farms nationwide and in Pennsylvania. Sweger read through the 22-page report and highlighted and color-coded important things for Magan to note. Some of Magan’s feed and fertilizer costs were high, but if he can get his corn planted this year (last year there was too much rain), and if he can scoop up manure from the loafing barn to fertilize the crops instead of buying fertilizer, his business will be more efficient.

The report has been helpful to Magan—another step for his business, as well as a step for Pitt’s agricultural program, which is just getting off the ground, so to speak.

So far, Sweger has consulted with more than 80 farmers throughout the Pittsburgh region. Some have just 10 acres of land to tend goats, others have 700 acres to raise beef cattle; some use organic methods, others do not; some have decades of experience, some are just learning. He expects to connect with even more farmers in the coming months and years. Together, all might create some new waves to keep the agricultural boat sailing forward.

Before Sweger leaves Magan’s farm, he tells him about a $100,000 state grant that the dairy farmer could apply for and use toward building a bottling room. That way, Magan could pump milk from his new parlor into his own bottles, without having to send it all hundreds of miles northward for processing. Magan says he’s already had some neighbors asking if he could sell them raw, unhomogenized milk—the kind people used to drink “back in the day.” Sweger approves. They’ll get to the paperwork soon. Magan has to get ready for corn planting, and Sweger has to get back to the office. There are lots of other farmers to call.

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