Newsmakers you should know: Couple started organic farm long before it was popular

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One morning, Don Kretschmann was preparing to set up an irrigation system to prepare for a possible drought at his 80-acre organic farm in New Sewickley.

A few days later, along with his staff, he was picking the harvest in torrential downpours and inches-deep mud.

Such is the life of a farmer.

Mr. Kretschmann, 64, and his wife, Becky, own Kretschmann Farm, which includes a robust community-supported agriculture program in which customers agree to pay in advance for produce grown on the farm that season. Through those subscriptions, the Kretschmanns supply hundreds of families in the Greater Pittsburgh area with fresh organic produce.

Now knee-deep in harvest season, Mr. Kretschmann said farming is anything but predictable.

"Half of it, I don't even want people to know because I want people to be able to keep their idyllic idea of what the life of a farmer is like," he said.

Unlike many Pennsylvanian farmers, neither Mr. Kretschmann nor his wife grew up on a farm, although he remembers the big garden his grandfather and his parents had when he was a child.

"I went to college as a physics major, but it was the time of the Vietnam War and I figured I would end up working in the defense industry and weapons, and I didn't want to lead a life doing that," Mr. Kretschmann said.

He changed his major to psychology and thought maybe a career growing things would fit him well. Part of that decision might have been due to meeting Becky.

"She was sitting on a friend's couch at a party and I went over and started talking to her. She was already working at a greenhouse," he said.

It was a good match.

The couple began renting a small farm and growing corn and tomatoes. It was in the 1970s.

"We went to college in that era and the dangers of pesticides were becoming really well- known," Mr. Kretschmann said, so the two chose to farm organically from the very start.

It was a style of farming that wasn't as popular back then as it is now, Mr. Kretschmann said.

"There were farmers who said, 'Oh, those crazy, new, organic farmers -- let's see how long they last,' " he said. "Now, we have continued to grow and grow, and many of them are now gone and the farms have been sold."

The Kretschmanns began their CSA program in 1993 when there was "hardly any other competition," Mr. Kretschmann said.

"Now there are lots and lots of CSA choices," he said.

The awareness of what is in the food we eat also has changed over the nearly four decades the Kretschmanns have farmed, with more farmers choosing to farm organically.

"One of the most gratifying things is the young farmers that have come to me for advice and have gone the organic route," he said.

Farmers face numerous challenges, and the weather is just one. The dates of long spells without water come easily to Mr. Kretschmann.

"In the summer of 1988, we had seven days over 100 and no rain until late summer. It was tough," he said.

In the summer of 2011, they faced another rough spell.

"If I had been a new farmer, it may have done me in," he said.

The Kretschmanns drilled another well and used a lake on their property, but they still didn't have enough water.

"The one thing you cannot do without is water," Mr. Kretschmann said.

"In total desperation," he said, they ran a line from a lake on a nearby farm and finally, the rain came.

Mr. Kretschmann said his oldest daughter, Ann, is making plans to take over the farm. The older Kretschmanns enjoy traveling in the winter and hope to do more, although they will probably keep a hand in the farm.

Despite the challenges, being a farmer was a good choice for Mr. Kretschmann.

"Every year, there are challenges, but I figure it has always worked out," he said.


Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: First Published August 8, 2013 9:00 AM


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