The Faces of CNG: Lori and Ben Sands, Silver Wheel Farm, PA

Posted on December 07, 2012

When Lori Sands started Silver Wheel Farm in western Pennsylvania, the condition of the soil was so poor she couldn’t even get radishes to grow. Since then Lori, with her husband and farm partner Ben, have worked diligently to improve the soil on their 10 acres. They have literally tasted the fruits of their labors (as have their eager customers!). 

Lori took a moment to answer some of our questions about farming, her favorite vegetable, and when to go to the beach. 

What do you grow? Do you have a specialty?
We grow produce, herbs, raspberries, eggs, flowers. We specialize in scallions, garlic, hops, and ginger (the ginger is produced in our high tunnels).

What are your markets?  
We sell at Farmers @ Firehouse Market, the only all-Certified Organic or CNG market in Pittsburgh. [Correction: Farmers at Phipps is also an all-Organic or Certified Naturally Grown market in Pittsburgh.] We also sell to restaurants, a multifarm CSA and a year-round webstore through a grower’s cooperative, Northwest PA Growers Cooperative Association (of which Lori is currently the Board President). We also have a 'pre-pay-for- pick-your-own -privileges-program' here at the farm. 

Talk about the biggest challenge you’ve encountered as a farmer.  
Our soil is poor "hill" soil. It was pretty bad when I arrived, so bad it would not grow radishes. We have steadily improved it by using a permanent bed no-plow system. Ben tills with a BCS, we cover crop and fallow continually, and incorporate as much organic matter as we can find, mow, or create. The upside is loamy beds that can now grow great carrots; the downside is sacrificing  2/3 of the available field space to covered and fallowed beds.

How do you further your farm learning?
I go to the PASA conference every February without fail. I also attend as many PASA (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) and PA-WAgN (PA Women's Agricultural Network) field days and classes as I can.  I do 2 or 3 CNG inspections per year, which I love doing because every grower has or does something cool that can help me to be a better grower. Some inspections are like mini-master classes.

  Ginger grown in the high tunnel at Silver Wheel Farm

Why did you get involved with CNG? 
I was Certified Organic until the federal takeover in 2002. I saw an ad for CNG in Growing For Market magazine in 2004 or so, and immediately loved the concept. The participatory aspect was particularly appealing, very Pay-It-Forward.

How do you include customers in your farming operation?  
For the past three seasons we have offered a 'prepay-to-pick-your-own' program at the farm. Customers pre-pay a set fee by the month to pick as much as they want, whenever they want to. Sooo--- different from a traditional CSA in that customers get only the produce that they really want, and on their own schedule to boot. This is very much influenced by the Associative Economics theories espoused in biodynamics.   

Ben tills with a BCS

Who is your hero in the farming world?  
Mark and Kristen Kimball of Essex Farm in Vermont. I attended Mark's workshop at the NOFA conference in 2009 and was blown away. A full-diet CSA?  Trampoline butter-making? No powerpoint? but instead a series of hand-drawn poster 'slides' lining the hallway floor outside of the workshop room.  A beautiful mind.  I frequently peek at Kristen's blog to see what they are up to.

Most unusual farm tool  
A scythe, which is not so unusual these days.  I use it to whack down very tall weeds for use as mulch. The Amish drive by in their buggies and laugh. (Why does that crazy English woman not have a real weed whacker?) Also we have a small fleet of bicycles (including the infamous Chinese Tricycle) that we use for transport between field and house. This summer we acquired three motorized bicycles with 49cc engines.  Definitely ride-at-your-own-risk! Lori in front of high tunnel

What’s your most useful piece of clothing for working on the farm?   
Drawstring cotton pants-- with big pockets -- from Goodwill.

Favorite vegetable  
Summer: eggplant
Winter:  butternut squash 
(These are Lori's favorites as Ben will eat neither)

What’s your favorite dish to cook at home?   
Pasta with my almond -asiago pesto and roasted sungold tomatoes. Ambrosia.

Favorite season?  Why?    
Reason 1: The obvious   
Reason 2: Our farm is a cross-country ski paradise. We step out the back door to ski the trails that Ben made in our fields and 30 acres of woods. 
Reason 3:  We have two woodstoves and cozy chairs by the window to watch the snow fall on the pond.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?  
Shhhh-  I go to the beach in July, or August, or both. I apprenticed on a farm where the grumpy farmer growled "Farmers do not take vacations and they certainly do NOT go to the beach".  This farmer does.  As often as possible.

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