On a hilltop in Baldwin, Churchview Farm sustains a family enterprise and its new subscribers


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If heaven has a corner, you wouldn't expect it to be on this hilltop down a long road that begins by a convent in middle-class Carrick, winds through urban-suburbia and its foursquare houses, through a community of split-levels, past the Baldwin Borough Building and its pulsating LCD sign, to a gravel drive nearly buried in bushes and trees.

But you wouldn't expect a library audio-visual procurer and her A/V technologist husband to be running a sustainable, organic-practice farm on that hilltop, either. A small farm -- slightly less than an acre of its six is producing vegetables, flowers, fruit and honey -- but a farm nonetheless.

The farmette, as she calls it, is a slice of heaven for Tara Rockacy and her husband, Todd Pander, who have lived there for two years. Called Churchview Farm after its Baldwin Borough street, it is a new venture in community-supported agriculture. Seventeen families are subscribing to its produce this year; 60 more are on a waiting list for next year.

It branched out from being a big garden in which Ms. Rockacy -- who grew her own produce for 10 years, once convincing her Squirrel Hill landlord to dig up part of the yard to expand from containers -- grew so much produce she had to give it away.

She hopes Churchview Farm will have a future of vigorous sustainable agriculture and be a strong stitch to community.

"It's just going to be huge plots of gardens," she says on a tour of the farm, warmed this day by bright sun that bathes her crops generously on this hilltop 5 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh.

The farm, once 13 acres, is tied firmly to Ms. Rockacy's roots. Purchased by her grandfather, Emil Rockacy, son of Hungarian immigrants, in the 1930s after he married, it was homestead and farmstead to his family, which included wife, Hilda, and 10 children. Besides produce, they raised goats, cows, pigs and chickens, all used to feed the large family. Ms. Rockacy, 32, has memories of the animals and their slaughter, and her grandfather's well-cared-for fields.

Emil Rockacy (pronounced rock-a-see) died 20 years ago. Hilda Rockacy lived at the farm until she had to go to a care facility. She died two years ago. Although their property, which included a small, two-story brick-and-shingle house that Emil Rockacy built, was kept up by Tara Rockacy's father, the house had not been lived in until her mother mentioned it to her as a place to live.

"I never thought about living here, but once she said it, I got so excited," Ms. Rockacy says. "It's a lovely piece of property."

The land is typical of Western Pennsylvania. Atop the steep driveway, it flattens out to accommodate the house, a garage, two lush black walnut trees, and a picnic table. The portion of the farm now in production is level, but the rest slopes gently up to fields Ms. Rockacy hopes to use in the future, and down to the vestiges of a barn, chicken coop and small stable.

Her parents, Bill and Marjean Rockacy, live next door, within hailing distance, in a house built on a subdivide of the farm. They help out, as part of the community spirit that fuels community-supported agriculture programs, known as CSAs.

Another assistant is Julie Inman, a former marketing manager for the western region of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. She spends Saturdays harvesting, pulling weeds and consulting in exchange for a CSA share.

Pausing from yanking Purple Haze carrots -- a test crop with a purple ring inside -- Ms. Inman says the unusual planting is an example of what CSAs can do, adding variety to the choice in local crops, and praises Ms. Rockacy for her initiative.

"[Tara] has to kick me out," says Ms. Inman of her enthusiasm for the farm.

For Ms. Inman, leaving the job at PASA was not due to dissatisfaction ("I love PASA") but an opportunity to get at what she truly desired. "The technical part of farming was what I craved." It is, she says, "feeding the soul."

Such sentiment, and Churchview Farm, are typical of the face of modern CSAs, says Linda Stewart Moist, senior extension associate for the Pennsylvania Women's Agricultural Network (called PA-WAgN). According to federal surveys, CSA farms have burgeoned from 400 nationwide in 1993 to 12,500 today.

"Most small CSAs have less than 2 acres in vegetable production," she says.

The number of women as principals of farms also has grown exponentially, says Ms. Moist. Between 2002 and 2007, there has been a 41 percent increase, and "I noticed that many of them are women over 50 . . . who had gained management and marketing skills and decided that they really wanted to operate a farm. Many of them have philosophical interests in running a sustainable or organic farm business."

Ms. Rockacy, a member of PA-WAgN, clearly has that philosophical passion. Walking around her property, carrying a cup of coffee and chatting, she is enthusiastic, pointing out such things as the two fruit trees she asked for and received from her parents for her birthday -- the beginning, she hopes, of an orchard -- and the new hives from which honey is being harvested.

She talks about why each plant is placed in the garden: Nasturtiums nestle among squash, providing an edible flower for her customers, bringing in beneficial insects and providing ground cover. For similar reasons, Brussels sprouts share space with radicchio; thai, cinnamon and lemon basil are neighbors to tomatoes.

Part of her field -- anything that would entice deer -- is behind an 8-foot-tall wire fence. Crops there, besides those mentioned above, include corn (in a three-year rotation with cover crops such as peas) and Nicola, Red Thumb Fingerling, German Butterball, Red Pontiac and Yukon Gold potatoes. Depending on the time of year, she also grows snap peas or cucumbers, parsley, dill, beets, kale, and heirloom, beefsteak and cherry tomatoes.

"Because space in there is so valuable," she says, "anything I can plant outside, I do," and so there are onions and leeks in hand-dug, raised beds that "won't be tilled, won't be walked" to keep it from compacting and discouraging earthworms. "You want to use as little machinery as possible."

A "beneficial mix" of dill, calendula and bachelors' buttons grows outside the fence, drawing ladybugs, beetles and flies that assist crop germination and reduce harmful insects.

Her husband, part of the community muscle behind the farm, is working in the plot, crouched among the rows, when he yells out: He has found a pale, nascent praying mantis, no more than an inch long. Donated by a friend, the mantises had been recently released as yet another natural way to control pests -- in this case, aphids.

"I really hardly have seen any aphids," says Ms. Rockacy.

This is not to say that the plot has been without issues. Flea beetles struck her eggplants and her first crop of tomatoes suffered the blight that has hit other farms this year, although that has been controlled with a copper spray.

"It's easy to get discouraged."

But customers signed on knowing that a startup comes with stumbles. She praises them as "awesome and patient."

Among the group is Heather Mallak, her husband, Dror Yaron, and their 6-month-old son Zeev, of Lawrenceville.

Ms. Mallak says that flexibility, the anticipation of what will be in the full CSA share -- in a handmade Churchview Farm tote -- she picks up each week at a home in Wilkinsburg, and the personal touches Ms. Rockacy brings to her endeavors more than compensate for any minor surprises or inconveniences, such as the kale crop that just kept coming.

"We just figure out interesting ways" to use it or pass it along to vegetarian friends, she said.

As a modern CSA farmer, Ms. Rockacy communicates with customers via a blog and e-mail. So when the kale proved to be a first-year mini-monster ("I planted too much. I hope you all aren't sick to death of kale!" she blogged), Ms. Rockacy posted a recipe for Kale and Potato Hash.

"Being supportive of what she's trying to do weighs a lot" in deciding to join the CSA, said Ms. Mallak. "We like her ingenuity of raising her family farm again."

Whether the farm is profitable -- that is a question that as a newbie, Ms. Rockacy cannot yet answer. Ms. Inman is assisting her with calculating that. Full shares in the 20-week season this year were $425 and $350 for half; she doesn't know what the rates will be next year.

For now, she and her corps of volunteers are digging in and loving the experience.

"Of course, I do get tired. But a lot of times, it doesn't seem like work work," says Ms. Rockacy. "People say, 'How do you do this alone?' But I absolutely have an enormous, generous amount of help from family and friends.

"It's a lot of work but it pales in comparison to what I get out of it and what other people get out of it."


Margi Shrum can be reached at mshrum@post-gazette.com and 412-263-3027. First Published August 27, 2009 4:00 AM


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