A trip to Peru detours an art major onto a path to farming

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If Margaret Schlass could go back in time to her first year as a farmer and give herself a piece of advice, it would be this: Stop throwing up so much.

Ms. Schlass, who grew up in Bethel Park and went on to major in art history and anthropology at the University of Delaware, discovered her passion while studying art history in Peru, where she met farmers who worked along a river bank.

Back home, she spent a summer working for Don Kretschmann on his organic farm in Rochester, Beaver County, and the year after she graduated, she worked an equipment manager for a farm in Riverhead, N.Y., on Long Island.

She was 23 when she decided to return to Pennsylvania and start her own farm, triggering her beginner's anxieties.

Now the owner of One Woman Farm, Ms. Schlass, 28, said the business has tripled in acreage since she started and she is looking to expand even more.

But it wasn't easy getting to this point.

When she moved back home five years ago, she rented 7 acres in Richland and found herself a 1942 Ariens walk-behind tractor on Craigslist. It was built, as she said, "before people got stupid and they had to build in safety equipment."

She started growing peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, beets, squash, onions and garlic.

For initial support, Ms. Schlass signed people up for a community-supported agriculture project, known as a CSA, in which she would deliver crates of produce to subscribers in return for the seed money, literally, for her farm. The subscribers picked up a crate of vegetables weekly at her farm.

In the hunt for customers, she also sold produce at one farmers market and to one restaurant.

"My first year, I had very little help," she said.

But she did find ways to grow, tapping into a growing movement of people who want to eat locally sourced food that is organically grown. She can't label her food organic because it has not passed the certification, yet she uses organic growing methods.

The number of farms in Pennsylvania has grown since 2000, although the acreage devoted to farming isn't up much. In 2012, the state had 62,100 farms with 7.7 million acres in agriculture. That was up from the 59,000 farms in 2000, but about the same amount of acreage.

The National Agriculture Statistics Service in the 1974 survey of Pennsylvania farms found that about 52 percent of farms then were between 50 and 179 acres, another 23 percent were even larger at 180 to 499 acres.

Farm sizes have dropped since then. In the 1970s, just 20 percent of the farms were under 50 acres. By the 2007 farm census, that had risen to 41 percent. Larger farms (180 to 499 acres) dropped from about 23 percent to 14 percent.

Ms. Schlass' acreage falls into the smaller category. Since her first foray into farming with the seven acres, she has added another 15 acres to her business, but that land is located miles away in Valencia. Instead of driving a tractor down Route 8, she has had to buy two sets of equipment.

It's not just the crops that have blossomed with her hard work.

Ms. Schlass, who had been casting about in college, also has grown through running her own business.

Her father, Greg Schlass, helps about a day and a half a week -- his daughter lives with her parents in Marshall, which she says helps her spend more time dedicated to farming. Mr. Schlass said it has been a pleasure watching her work with her customers.

She has had to learn the ins and outs of buying and maintaining equipment, building and working in greenhouses. She has learned about purchasing seed and fertilizing plants. Her first year, she lost her entire tomato crop to a blight that spread in the cold damp spring.

The setback hurt her budding business, but did not kill it.

Mr. Schlass hadn't been terribly surprised when his daughter came home determined to start her own farm after the trip to Peru brought out her love of farming.

The stint on the farm in Long Island just fed the urge. After she came home, he said, she holed up in her room, reading about farming and watching any video she could find.

Mr. Schlass said anytime his daughter is with another farmer, she never stops asking questions and listening to explanations.

Since she neither came from a farming family nor attended an agricultural college, her training comes from spending time with other growers and learning the best methods by trying them out.

For her part, she said she has gained confidence by taking on challenges.

"I could do anything now because I've done all sorts of hard [stuff]," Ms. Schlass said. "Farming is doing real problem solving with your mind and hands and body."

All summer long, she keeps her to-do list, written in Sharpie, on her thighs. "I can see it because I am always in shorts."

She has gone from a single site at her farm feeding a few dozen families to providing crates for 150 families in Squirrel Hill, the North Hills and the South Hills. She will also be one of the young farmers featured in the upcoming movie "Farmland" about the next generation of farmers.

"I have a lot of people who signed up for that first CSA who are still with me," she said.

As for that advice to her earlier self, she said she wished she hadn't been as stressed because that first year was all about learning, building relationships and building a brand.

That early work has carried her to this point.

Next Up: Todd Palcic went against the tide and started building condos Downtown in the middle of the Great Recession.

Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699.

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