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No, farmers are not on the endangered species list in Pennsylvania. But if many were not getting involved with niche-market, fresh-food production, they might be thinking twice about their long-term future in farming.

Thatís where the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) comes in. PASA - through its CommunityFARM (Farm Alliance for Regional Markets) Initiative, known as CFI - creates ways to help farmers sustain the environment, their quality of life and their bottom line. And PASA has found that building local marketing opportunities for farmers is one way to sustain those elements in the state, especially near urban areas.

"In a very real sense, community-based markets are about connecting farmers to consumers - planting the seeds to grow sustainable agriculture with rural development," says Lauren Smith, PASA administrative director in Millheim, Pa., geographically near the center of the state. "PASA feels that the time is right to begin to turn the conservation of natural resources by farmers into a marketing tool - one that will increase farm profits."

Smith says CFI programs are designed to improve and strengthen marketing opportunities for farmers and enhance community awareness about the importance of local and sustainable agriculture. Projects focus on community-based marketing strategies that increase the consumption and profitability of Pennsylvania farm products, as well as develop alternative markets, encourage adding value and initiate partnerships that link rural and urban communities.

"We are concentrating on local market development and building the capacity of farmers with sustainability as the marketing angle," says Allen Matthews, PASAís part-time CFI coordinator and a producer from Scenery Hill, Pa. With his parents and brother, Matthews operates a vegetable farm and greenhouse business where they grow lettuce, sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins and other vegetables.

"We have several projects under way that are targeted at bringing rural and urban communities together through local markets, and we stress to potential customers that food is locally grown, high quality and very fresh," Matthews says.

For example, PASA is developing a network to link farmers with chefs and restaurants and support development of farm-scale, value-added food processing enterprises. To that end, PASAżis helping create farmer cooperatives such as the Pennís Corner Farm Alliance, which sells year-round to Pittsburgh-area restaurants such items as honey, eggs, fruits, vegetables and various meats. Farmers in southwestern Pennsylvania collaborate to market and deliver products to the restaurants and also to Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank farm stands. Matthews says the group supplies about 15 restaurants and hopes to increase that number to 30 during the next growing season.

"Restaurant chefs take notice when they learn that local lettuce is so fresh that it will keep for up to 10 days, while lettuce that has been vacuum packed with nitrogen and shipped in will last only about three days once that package is opened," Matthews says.

In a partnership with the Pennsylvania Farmerís Union, PASA also is helping form the Pennsylvania Family Farm Beef Cooperative. The cooperative has test-marketed hormone- and antibiotic-free beef with restaurants and specialty grocery stores. "When we did test markets for the beef, we had a great deal of media coverage. We did a survey that educated consumers on the beef, as well as provided us with positive feedback," Matthews says. "In fact, restaurant chefs continue to ask about the beef and purchase the product because their customers are asking for it."

PASA next hopes to launch a "locally grown and sustainable campaign" to inform consumers about the value of supporting farmers by purchasing locally produced goods. PASA also is pursuing a permanent regional farmersí market site in Pittsburgh where farmers can offer food products all year and personally connect with urban consumers and a network of 14 seasonal farmersí markets. The regional "producer-only" farmersí market network would mean local growers would sell only their own farm products.

"Establishing these networks will help keep farmers in business, as long as the emphasis is on quality," Matthews says. "In the future, our success depends on partnering with consumer groups. We must network and get involved with planning our own marketsÉand value-added sales while we connect with urban consumer groups so they develop a tie back to local, sustainable agriculture." AM

Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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