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Next Generation Farm Summit teaches younger farmers concepts to remain viable

Tribune-Review - 6/30/2018

June 30--Mike and Jill Little hope to diversify their Unity livestock farm by adding produce. Air Force veteran Shecholle Winmon of Charleroi is looking to follow her dream of starting a farm in the country.

They're among close to 100 people who attended Friday afternoon's Next Generation Farm Summit at the Westmoreland Conservation District headquarters in Hempfield, a first-time gathering meant to connect younger generations of farmers with newer concepts for increasing the viability of their operations.

The Littles were intrigued by the idea of contained environmental agriculture described by Barry Kukovich, director of community relations for Peoples Gas.

Kukovich said the utility hopes to partner with the Bidwell Training Center's Drew Mathiessen Center to expand upon the Pittsburgh center's year-round, greenhouse orchid production.

He said Peoples is looking for funding that would allow it to retrofit the greenhouse with a Combined Heat and Power system, providing both electricity and warmth to support crop production.

Ultimately, he'd like to see small, local farmers cooperate in use of such indoor facilities so they could market crops throughout the year to area grocers.

"There would be a lot less risk in this (indoor) facility than having a season with too much rain or an insect infestation," Kukovich said.

The Littles are contemplating use of contained agriculture or high tunnel structures for growing microgreens.

"They have really caught on locally, and there's a need for them in the restaurants," Mike said. "These are greens that are basically sprouts that are raised a little bit longer so they have some substance to them. They're nutrient-dense because they're early on in the plant's life cycle."

After four years of military service, Winmon is studying for a career in social work while also volunteering to help raise produce for distribution through the Greater Washington County Food Bank.

"I've always wanted to have a farm, with chickens and sheep," Winmon said. "I'm here to get as much information as I can. I'm trying to find a mentor farm."

Winmon was among many summit attendees who showed interest in an industrial hemp presentation by Matthew Mallory, founder of Commonwealth Alternative Medical Options. According to Mallory, CAMO is growing about 260 acres of hemp in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, including 22 acres at a site in South Huntingdon it secured through Westmoreland'sIndustrial Development Corp.

The hemp CAMO grows is non-euphoric because of its low concentration of the psychoactive chemical THC that is found in marijuana. But Mallory is able to harvest the plants for cannabidiol (CBD) oil that is in high demand as an alternative treatment for various maladies.

The market is so lucrative that he's looking to pay other farmers $750 per acre to grow collectively another 1,000 acres of hemp for his operation next year.

"That's better than getting $300 per acre for corn," said Roger Suter of Connellsville, whose family farm in Ruffsdale has transitioned from a dairy operation to raising beef.

"We want to try to keep the family farm in operation, but it's getting harder and harder to maintain," he said.

Mallory said he hopes to eventually branch out into growing hemp for other uses -- including animal bedding, production of paper and possibly lightweight materials for auto manufacturing.

"We're focusing on CBD oil initially, but that market will get saturated," he said. "Our long-term goal is to offer up the full spectrum."

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau President Rick Ebert found the summit valuable. He's investigating new options to help sustain his family's Derry Township dairy farm -- including raising lambs or poultry and growing vegetables in high tunnels.

"Dairy is such a hard thing to do anymore, and crops, unless you're on a large scale," he said. "You have to find an enterprise you can do on a smaller scale and try to make a living out of it."Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622, jhimler@tribweb.com or via Twitter @jhimler_news.


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