Philly Foodworks Offers New Way to CSA

by Sandra Kay Miller

photo courtesy of Philly Foodworks

(photo courtesy of Philly Foodworks)


As the modern sustainable food movement matures, there have been numerous dynamic business models evolving to bring together producers and consumers. Long recognized as food deserts, many urban communities are engaging in a variety of methods for offering fresh, local foods to the inhabitants, regardless of their socio-economic status. Many of these ventures begin as community development and gradually morph into viable businesses.

Philly Foodworks, an online CSA working with a growing number of producers within a 150-mile radius of Philadelphia, has its roots in the Urban Tree Connection (UTC), a non-profit which has been transforming low-income and crime-ridden neighborhoods in west Philadelphia by transforming vacant lots into green spaces.

While working together at the UTC project Neighborhood Foods, an urban-farm CSA, Dylan Baird, Jamal Bell and Ryan Witmer encountered other small producers in the area with similar challenges. Out of the desire to find solutions for distribution, education and financial investment for producers, while at the same time serving the community, Philly Foodworks was founded.

“We were young people in the farming world and saw a lot of others having problems with their distribution,” said Baird.

In just a few short years, it has grown to serve over 800 people with 50 drop-off locations throughout the greater Philadelphia area.  In speaking with co-founder Dylan Baird, he pointed out their distribution model meets the smaller-volume-in-higher-density paradigm that speaks to the metropolitan consumer.

photo courtesy of Philly Foodworks

(photo courtesy of Philly Foodworks)

Unlike a traditional CSA that is focused on one farm, Philly Foodworks uses the CSA share model, filling the boxes with seasonal products from a number of area producers. The shares are available in four basic sizes—small, large, chef’s and customized—ranging in price from $28 to $43 each. While consumers have the option to pay up-front for a season’s share, there is also the option to purchase single shares, as wanted.

In addition to the bi-weekly basic share, Philly Foodworks offers a variety of add-ons that include dairy, meat, eggs, fruit, mushrooms, artisan cheeses, seafood, soup, herbal apothecary and boutique food items unique to Philadelphia.

“Philly has an awesome food scene. We’re trying to bring on a small, local company that has been making perogies and kelbassi in Philadelphia for over a hundred years,” explained Baird.

As with many CSAs, buying clubs, food hubs and farmers markets, technology plays an important role in bringing together producers and customers.

The Reuben Reihl family farm (photo courtesy of Philly Foodworks)

The Reuben Reihl family farm (photo courtesy of Philly Foodworks)

“Technology is a core part of our business,” Baird pointed out. The Philly Foodworks CSA utilizes the Farmigo program that offers not only a clean user interface, but a robust platform that can handle a wide variety of products, while streamlining transactions on the back end for producers. This allows Philly Foodworks to go far beyond a basic CSA, where you sign up at the beginning of season and then pick up your bag each week. Through the Farmigo interface, customers have more flexibility to make changes to their share, put shares on hold, change pick-up location and update payment methods.

In addition to using innovative technologies, including social media, Philly Foodworks is dedicated to helping their producers raise, grow, create and bring to market those products in demand, through education and financial support.

For Baird, a natural extension of Philly Foodworks’ core mission to support farmers and increase access to good food was to participate in the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) CSA Challenge. PASA created the challenge to raise funds for the Arias M. Brownback Memorial Scholarship Fund, and Spiral Path Farms has stepped up to match the amount raised by CSA programs, dollar for dollar, up to $10,000. The fund provides scholarships for beginning farmers to attend PASA’s annual Farming for the Future conference.

Philly Foodworks has pledged to donate $1 for every share sold in May and $10 for each new customer who uses the code “BROWNBACK”. Customers can make additional donations to the fund through the online store. Visit to sign up and start shopping.

“We are really excited about this scholarship. It is great when we can align our marketing efforts to support an awesome cause,” said Baird.

Join PFW

If you are a producer in the greater Philadelphia interested in being a part of Philly Foodworks, contact Dylan at

About the author: Sandra Kay Miller has been farming and writing for over thirty years. She is the owner of Painted Hand Farms, which raises and markets diversified livestock in the mid-Atlantic region. She is a Lifetime Member of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) and frequent contributor to PASA’s print newsletter Passages.  

Getting Hooked On Cooking With CSA

Cooking with CSA

by Katherine Deumling of Cook With What You Have

(reposted with permission from Small Farm Central)

A CSA share offers a plethora of produce every week and with it varieties we may have never seen before, let alone cooked—a delight and a bit of a challenge, for sure.

Fresh, delicious vegetables chosen for me week after week is my idea of heaven. It hasn’t always been but I get more hooked every year. I’m hooked on the deliciousness, on not having to make any decisions about what vegetables to purchase, and on the creativity it inspires.

So, how does one get hooked?

Stock your Pantry, Two Ways:

Shop mostly to restock rather than for specific dishes. You’ll spend less time (and money) running to the store for last minute items and can instead spend your time cooking, eating, and creatively using what you already have.

This is a basic list but you certainly don’t need everything listed to cook many dishes. And, your pantry will reflect your particular taste. This is just a loose guide.

Purchased Goods for Pantry, Fridge and Freezer:

  • Lentils: French green, red, brown
  • Beans: black, pinto, white, chickpeas
  • Grains: brown and white rice, barley, farro, cornmeal/polenta, quinoa, pasta, couscous, bulgur
  • Seeds & nuts: sunflower, pumpkin, hazelnuts, walnuts, peanuts, almonds, etc.
  • Spices: cumin, coriander, mustard seeds, dried chilies, turmeric, caraway, paprika, cardamom
  • Herbs: thyme, oregano
  • Vinegars: cider, rice and red wine
  • Oils: olive, sunflower, coconut, sesame
  • Hot sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce
  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Lemons and limes
  • Meat and fish in freezer: sausages, bacon, chicken, etc.

Semi-prepared Items:

When you have a little spare time you can add semi-prepared items to your fridge/ pantry that will make life much easier and tastier when you don’t have those extra few minutes to get a meal on the table.

  • -Make a jar of vinaigrette and keep it in the fridge. Dress lettuces and greens as well as roasted vegetables or plain chickpeas/beans with the same vinaigrette, adding some chopped herbs and toasted seeds. Be creative!
  • -Cook a good quantity of beans. Put beans out to soak before you go to work in the morning. Cook them that evening while you’re in the kitchen cooking something else for dinner anyway and have them ready for the next day or freeze half.
  • -Cook twice as much rice, barley or farro as you need for any given meal and freeze half of it to make fried rice, rice and beans or a soup the following week on a particularly busy night when you need the head start.
  • -Toast a cup of sunflower or pumpkin seeds and keep in a jar. Your salads will be better for them; your soups will have added crunch; your snacks will be cheaper and more nutritious!
  • -Use a whole bunch of parsley or cilantro to make a quick, savory sauce with garlic, olive oil, lemon juice or vinegar. Stir in some thick yogurt for a creamy version. Having a flavorful component like this on hand means a plain bowl of rice or beans or a fried egg turns into a meal in no time.
  • -Make chicken or any other meat, fish or vegetable stock and freeze.

Free Yourself from Strictly Following a Recipe & Learn to Improvise and Substitute.

The more you cook—and you will be cooking (!)—the easier and more fun it is to substitute and adapt as you go. Families of vegetables such as brassicas and alliums have certain common characteristics that in many cases let you substitute one for another. However, there is no real shortcut to learning how to do this so experiment as much as you can—you’ll have plenty of opportunity. Here are a few general guidelines to get you started.

Root vegetables love to be roasted as do brassicas like kohlrabi, cauliflower, romanesco, Brussels sprouts and broccoli. Cut up, tossed with a little oil and salt and roasted in a single layer, they are delicious as is or can serve as the foundation for soups, mashes, salads, etc.

Onions, like their allium compatriots, shallots, scallions, leeks and garlic, are pungent raw and quite sweet cooked. If you don’t have an onion by all means use a leek, though leeks are sweeter and you might add a little acidity to balance it out and leeks are not so good raw. Scallions (green onions) and shallots can be substituted for onions and vice versa in many recipes, raw or cooked.

Sweet potatoes, potatoes, celery root, rutabagas and turnips and sometimes winter squash can often stand in for one another in mashes, gratins, soups and stews.

Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, spring rabe and romanesco, all brassicas, have similar flavors and behave similarly in many dishes, though certainly not all. Mashed cauliflower is delicious but I would not mash Brussel sprouts.

Leafy greens are eminently substitutable. Chards, beet greens, kale and collards, are all good raw (very thinly sliced) when young and tender. They behave quite similarly when cooked and can be mixed and substituted for each other at will. Turnip, radish, and mustard greens are all tender and often interchangeable, though radish tops are a bit fuzzy raw. Make sure to blanch those.

Get Good at a Handful of Dishes that Showcase most any Vegetable.

It’s not so hard to keep up when you have a handful of recipes that can accommodate most any vegetable and in a variety of combinations.

A simple frittata elevates most vegetables, from leafy greens to peppers, peas, herbs, potatoes and both summer and winter squash.

Pan-fried vegetable fritters/savory pancakes/patties transform mounds of vegetables of all kinds into savory nuggets. Broccoli with parmesan, leftover mashed potatoes, leeks and plenty of parsley, rutabaga and carrot latkes, Japanese-inspired cabbage pancakes with scallions, sesame oil and soy sauce…

Fried rice with loads of finely chopped vegetables; simple Thai-style coconut milk curries; and soups and stir-fries, of course, are all good vehicles for delicious CSA produce.

A quick, stove top version of mac ‘n cheese with whatever vegetables you have, chopped finely, never fails to be devoured.

Finally, recipes can often accommodate way more vegetables than they call for. Perhaps a recipe calls for 1 lb of pasta and 3 cups of vegetables. Invert that ratio and use ½ lb of pasta and 6 cups of vegetables or just add more vegetables and have plenty of leftovers. You’ll figure out how to make such changes and have recipes and tips work for your particular selection of produce.

Get comfortable making a few of these dishes and make them your own, with different spices, herbs, cheeses.

And then. . .

Cooking (with a CSA) can in fact simplify one’s life—a way through the general madness and a treat for the senses and body. Yes, this is work and it takes time and organization but the deliciousness of that regular infusion of produce is well worth it!

Cook With What You Have offers subscriptions for both CSA Farms and individuals to an online Seasonal Recipe Collection, organized by vegetable. It includes not only 600+ recipes but posts such as Lettuce Management and the Dressing Jar and recipe categories such as CSA Heavy Hitters and Meals that Make Great Leftovers and Pantry Stocking Guides. Katherine Deumling, owner of Cook With What You Have, wrote custom weekly recipe packets for CSA Farms in the Willamette Valley in Oregon for years before expanding her cook-with-what-you-have approach to cooking to this more accessible platform for farmers and eaters everywhere. The Seasonal Recipe Collection covers 80 vegetables, herbs and some fruits. Katherine’s enthusiasm for vegetables, any time of year, never wanes and the site is regularly updated and expanded with tips, recipes and lots of reasons to love produce!

Business Profile: Radish & Rye Food Hub

by Jay Eury

Radish & Rye Food Hub, run by Dusty and Julia James, is a small food hub serving Central PA growers and consumers.  A food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of food products, primarily from local and regional producers, to satisfy retail, wholesale, and/or institutional demand.  Radish & Rye focuses on retail and is part of the larger Broad Street Market, coming back to life in Harrisburg, PA.

(photo credit: Radish & Rye)

(photo credit: Radish & Rye)

Dusty and Julia have been PASA members for years.  Dusty is the builder and fixer.  Julia has the business background.  They both love really good food and bought the fledgling Radish & Rye in April, 2015.  These two loyal customers became retailers for the same small and mid-sized Central PA producers they did, and continue to, enjoy supporting.

Still so young, the main purpose of Radish & Rye right now is to keep on growing – steady, smart growth – inviting new customers in, providing an expanding line of high quality products, and guaranteeing the satisfaction of all their customers who return week after week.

(photo credit: Radish & Rye)

(photo credit: Radish & Rye)

As a small, local food retail outlet, logistics is the main obstacle, by more than a mile.  At this scale, there is no economy of scale.  “Everything we do from farmer to transport to retail is more expensive,” says Dusty.  The path forward, then, that he and Julia have embraced requires informal solutions developing organically.  This means growing their network of friends, customers, and producers.  This takes time.  And patience.  And creativity. Cooperation is the key, both to Radish & Rye and the Central PA growers they coordinate with, as well as the Broad Street Market as a whole.

As a standalone business, Radish & Rye has been growing by its own light.  It’s also part of the rising tide of Broad Street Market overall.  With more new vendors and increasing customer traffic, Broad Street Market is beginning to reach the critical mass for quality and dependability that’s necessary to begin to shift Harrisburg shoppers’ perceptions of the space and their community.

“The [Broad Street] Market can be, and I think should be, the main place where people are buying food in the city,” says Dusty.  “The Broad Street Market is finally becoming a place, once again, where you can go shopping, buy your food, have lunch…  People need to know about that.  ‘Oh, you know I’ll come here more often,’”  Dusty overhears.  “That starts to add up. It takes time,” he says.  “That’s fine.”

“People need to know about our existence and the existence of the Broad Street Market.  Such a big part of my life since I’ve been an adult, and even as a kid when my grandparents shopped here.  I’m always surprised at people who live within a mile or two of the market that have never been here or don’t know it exists.”

(photo credit: Radish & Rye)

(photo credit: Radish & Rye)

“Don’t just support us because we’re local, small, and trying hard, either,” he declares.  “We’re trying to provide value, sell you really high quality food as cheaply as we can do it, and we hope that you want to shop here.  That’s what we try to project as much as possible… Everyone, anyone, that loves really good food can get their shopping done here.”

Broad Street Market hours:
Thursday and Friday 7 AM – 6 PM
Saturday – 7 AM to 4 PM

Check out Radish & Rye’s offerings for the week on their website.

About the author: Jay Eury is a gleaner, good food worker, and community food system weaver.  He coordinates The Gleaning Project of South Central PA in Franklin County.

Business Profile: The Sweet Farm Sauerkraut

by Kate Flewelling

sweet farm

(photo credit:

While at Farming Our Future this year, I had the pleasure to speak to Rachel Armistead, co-owner of The Sweet Farm. The Sweet Farm makes a variety of flavors of sauerkraut, using cabbage and other ingredients. The Farm is based in Frederick County, MD and sells to stores in MD, VA and DC and online. They also sell at farmers markets in the DC area and at special events.

The Sweet Farm makes sauerkraut year-round and features limited-time, seasonal flavors, along-side their standard ones. Most of their ingredients come from farms in Maryland and Pennsylvania, though they hope to grow more themselves in the future.

I asked Rachel how they choose their seasonal flavors. “A lot of our seasonal products come about because farmers say ‘we’ve got stuff, do you want it?’ and we’ll figure out what to do with it,” she explained. For example, they made a green tomato chow chow because local farmers were at risk of losing their tomato crop due to an early frost. The result was one of Sweet Farm’s most popular seasonals.

(photo credit:

(photo credit:

The Sweet Farm is committed to supporting local farms and would like to be able to get all of their ingredients locally. When asked about a “wish list,” Rachel expressed a desire for more local red bell peppers, mustard seeds, and big, straight carrots.

Prior to visiting Rachel and her co-owner husband Luke Flessner’s booth, my experience with sauerkraut was limited to ballpark hotdogs and Crockpot kielbasa and kraut. While Sweet Farm makes a Classic Kraut, there are so many more flavor options. Year-round offerings include: Classic, Chesapeake (made with Old Bay Seasoning!), Beet, Curry, and Curtido (their Latin-American style sauerkraut). Seasonal flavors include Juniper Caraway, Horseradish Kale, and Kim Chi. I have already added Curtido to tacos—so good. And when I am done using Chesapeake sauerkraut as a yummy side dish, I am going to take Rachel and Luke’s suggestion to add the remaining juice to Bloody Marys!


Kate Flewelling is a PASA member in Pittsburgh, PA. She works as a librarian by day and as an aspiring urban farmer by nights and weekend. She knew it was true love when her boyfriend gave her a compost bin for Christmas.

The Dirt on Everblossom Farm

by Debbie Yahnke
We want our food to taste good.  We enhance flavor by adding salt, or butter, and maybe we’ll fry it up.  Nothing wrong with that, but we tend to over-salt, add too much butter, and let’s face it, anything tastes good when it’s fried.  When we buy produce at the grocery stores, much of the food was shipped many miles–sometimes thousands–from big farms.  In many cases, these big farms have very minimal soil fortification, because over-plowing and poor soil maintenance leaves little nutrients to give fruits and vegetables their flavor.  As a result, food becomes bland, and this is what we’ve become accustomed to eating.

I regularly get my produce at the grocery store, simply because it’s convenient, and it’s been my habit.  It pains me to admit it, because I know buying locally offers better quality.  With having a busy life, the grocery store is always calling, but I leave the store with the same old boring food.  Last spring, I bought asparagus from Everblossom Farm, and it was so flavorful!  I could tell they put a lot of attention to what they harvested.

Elaine, via

Elaine, via

Recently I checked out Everblossom’s website. The first thing I saw was the section titled Dirt on Our Farm, which describes what sets them apart from the rest.  Their mission is to work the natural system of the land and work with the balance of the soil.  I wanted to check out the farm, and see how they operated.

When I met with farmer/owner Elaine Lemmon at Everblossom, we immediately walked to one of the greenhouses on the 15 acre farm.  There was no time for small chitchat; a farmer’s life requires constant attention, and her job doesn’t stop as I tried soaked in all she had to tell me about her farm.  A farmer’s energy never quits as the continuous growing system works nonstop.  Elaine has been farming for over ten years, and her hard-working demeanor was coalesced with her mission to maintain land and soil health, not only for optimal growth but for environmental health. She emphasized the soil is key.

When we entered the first greenhouse, I was introduced to her assistant Lauren Sadler. Lauren stood beside a crop of bright, rich green Swiss chard.  My eyes were fixated on the chard’s vibrant sinewy green leaves, hefty and perky and radiating through the wintry cool day.  The waxy leaves shined, and the colorful stems seemed to siphon the nourishment from the ground–proof the soil is working its magic.


chard, via

Then Lauren proudly showed me a patch of salad burnet they grew over the winter and had me taste the herb’s flavor.  It had a cucumber flavor, and I agreed it would be a good alternative for cucumber flavoring on salad—maybe a better alternative. With all they grew this winter, Lauren informed me they could provide for 90 families.  Elaine added, “Our goal is to feed 225 families in the summer time.”

As Elaine guided me through the farm, she remarked that they don’t use any machinery; it’s all done with manual labor.  Also no black plastic is used; instead, planting cover crops like rye, triticale, wheat, and clover is more beneficial by keeping a healthy balance for soil fertility, keeping carbon in, and putting nitrogen back into the soil. She also uses their own compost for mulching to ward off weeds, but compost can be acidic, she said. Cover crops and crop rotation is more effective for enriching the soil with nutrients and keeping microorganisms happy.  Soil health is key, Elaine said, and as a farmer with over ten-years’ experience, hopes to see some big changes. “Younger farmers are realizing soil is number one, but we need more awareness and government assistance for younger farmers to make fresh starts. And people need to realize that the average farmer is 65 or older.”  We need more beginning farmers to continue to make improvements.

Everblossom Farm is the model of sustainable farming, where life in the dirt is nurtured, to work its perfect design.  We tend to think of farming as a machine that can be constructed as though it has mechanical features.  “Agriculture is a biological system.  It adapts and changes, and is unpredictable,” Elaine assures us.  By treating it as a machine, it disturbs the system.  And for many years humans disturbed the perfect design with slash-and-burn techniques, overgrazing, plowing fields, and using technology and machinery.  It’s manipulated, and we resort to ways that act as nature to control nature. In other words, instead of nourishing crops, we use poisons that act as agents we think help crops. Or for another example, we put food into laboratories that are treated and altered through genetic engineering, that act as natural food.

cover crops in action, via

cover crops in action, via

It turns out this way isn’t the solution; the continued use of pesticides, for example, creates more problems like super (resistant) pests.  This becomes a never-ending practice of destruction that tries to combat Mother Nature, and we think we know what’s best, but all it does is create more resistance. Mother Nature has a way of restoring balance.  Weeds and pests are nature’s way of saying something is off-balance, and through proper soil management, this can be remedied.

From what I understand and what I have learned, in order to have great tasting food, the soil should be filled with life. Over-plowed fields typical in conventional farms destroys the soil, and vegetation can’t get the necessary minerals and organisms to grow to its optimum state. At Everblossom Farm, they farm unconventionally, through sustainable and organic practices, which sets them apart from the rest, just as their website says.  This is why it’s more rewarding to buy from local, sustainable farms–because not only does the food tastes better but Mother Nature is treated with care.

About the author: Debbie Yahnke has worked in the food industry for over 20 years. She combines her experiences behind the scenes and her passion for learning about the farming industry to help others gain a better understanding of where our food comes from.

Business Review: Columbia County Bread & Granola

by Kate Flewelling

On the way to the Farming for the Future conference, I decided to make a detour to picturesque Columbia County to visit Columbia County Bread and Granola. CCB&G bakes and sells GMO-free sprouted bread, pita, flatbread crackers and flax granola. Their breads are made without flour or yeast. Instead they use sprouted whole grains. Owner Doug Michael told me, “If you eat bread, it should be sprouted.”

My first stop was to their retail location, the Bakers Guild Café, in Bloomsburg, for lunch.

The Café was a welcome reprieve from the wintry mix that was falling outside. The day called for hot soups and beverages, and Bakers Guild delivered. In addition to CCB&G products, the menu features ingredients from local farmers and suppliers. With the exception of local free-range chicken and smoked salmon, the menu is vegetarian, and vegans would have no trouble finding plenty to eat here. As their website says, “No SYSCO trucks backing up to this cafe, dropping off Peruvian lettuce or Central Valley spinach.” They always have two soups made with seasonal ingredients and several salads and sandwiches. My lunch partner had grilled cheese on sprouted bread and soup, and I had delicious herbed egg salad on pita. Even my coffee was locally roasted! In addition to breakfast and lunch, the Café has a full selection of CCB&G bread, flatbread and granola to purchase. Here’s a picture of our lunch, but the Café’s Facebook page has better, more mouth-watering food pics.


After lunch, I met owner Doug Michael at the production bakery in Danville. The location gave me a sense of déjà vu, as it is the kitchen and cafeteria/gymnasium of a former elementary school that has been converted to offices.  The smell of cinnamon led me to the right door. Inside, two of CCG&B’s multitalented employees were breaking up freshly baked flax granola.

All of the company’s baking and labeling is done in-house. The company does its own design and printing at the production facility, as well. They even have a small studio for advertising. The day I visited, the company was preparing a shoot to compare 100-calorie serving sizes of its products with those of other commercially available snacks.CCBG2

After the tour, I talked to Doug about their local suppliers. Not all of their ingredients are locally sourced, but they buy locally. One of their grain suppliers is Small Valley Milling, who I later saw at the Farming for the Future conference. I really enjoyed hearing about the “shared relationships” the company has with some of their suppliers. For example, the Baker’s Guild Café uses coffee from Bason Coffee and smoked salmon from Wild for Salmon, both in Danville. At the same time, those businesses sell CCB&G products at their retail locations.

You may find CCB&G products at your local health food store. If not, you can purchase online from the bakery or Amazon.

Kate Flewelling is a PASA member in Pittsburgh, PA. She works as a librarian by day and as an aspiring urban farmer by nights and weekend. She knew it was true love when her boyfriend gave her a compost bin for Christmas.

Managing Problems with CSA Members

This post originally appeared in an email written by Simon Huntley, founder of Small Farm Central and Member Assembler. It is intended primarily for CSA managers.


For the most part, CSA members are wonderful and supportive. 

However, it is not always flowers and gum drops. The difficult members wil drive you crazy and keep you from enjoying the management of your CSA. You need to deal with them.

Chris Blanchard, drawing from 25 years working in and around farms, has put together some tips for you on how to deal with members in a variety of settings: member does not pick up their box; does not make payments; wants special treatment; complains about price; or complains about variety of product in the box.

Once you deal with the problem members, you can get back to the fun task of serving the 98% of members who are fun and supportive.

Chris now runs a consulting firm for farmers called Flying Rutabega Works. You can sign up for his great newsletter at his website. Chris formally ran Rock Spring Farm, growing 20 acres of flowers, vegetables, herbs and greenhouse crops for a 200 member CSA, food stores, and farmers markets. Simply put: he knows his stuff.

Read the whole article HERE.


Not a CSA manager? Remember to sign up for your CSA share on CSA Day, February 26!

Making and Breaking Bread in PA


by Debbie Yahnke

I’ve never baked bread. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I used flour. To me, it used to be that bread was bread was bread.  Sure, there are many flavors and types, but to me bread was never the showcase of the plate. It was just an accessory to sop up sauce or keep the sandwich ingredients together. Bread is food that is acceptable to eat with your fingers, and it’s just like an edible utensil.  So who cares about taste, right? Wrong. Since learning about the agriculture of grains and tasting the difference in locally processed, naturally leavened breads, I’ve got a new view on bread.

I recently read that grains are milled to dust, eliminating all the nutritional components of the grain and making the flour bland to the taste. Before over-processing (milling the flour down to just the endosperm) became common practice, the bran, germ and endosperm in most grains were intact, giving bread its distinct flavors and aromas–and nutrition.  So I set out on a quest to find some flavorful, locally made bread.

I found a bakery (or bakehouse) near my home town called McGrath’s Brick Oven Bakehouse and read that they make their bread using naturally-leavened dough and that they don’t carry any yeast in-house. But I had no idea what “naturally-leavened” meant. So I contacted the McGraths to learn more.

Melinda and Kevin McGrath greeted me in the bakehouse that was once their garage. Their huge wood-fired oven that they built themselves sat deep along the brick wall. Being inside a bakehouse was a first,  and I really showed my lack of knowledge. I told them I never heard of naturally-leavened bread, and that not using yeast was unique to me. So they gave me a lesson. The bread dough is fermented by mixing water and flour together, and the yeast and bacteria are naturally contained in the flour.  The yeast feeds off the sugar contained within the flour. The fermentation gives it the slight tangy or sour taste. When it ferments it does give off a sour smell, and the taste can be sour, but mostly it’s a tangy taste. This is what is referred to as a sourdough starter. The great thing about sourdough starter can be used over and over again, whereas baker’s yeast can only be used once.  The McGrath’s have a sourdough starter that’s over seven years old.

I also learned that naturally-leavened bread is healthier. “Sourdough breads break down the gluten,” they informed me. “For some of those that are sensitive to gluten, this might be an alternative.” Also, on their blog, they report that sourdough “consumes starch and glucose, which lowers insulin shock, and creates lactic acid.”

The McGrath’s became interested in fermented bread when they worked at a bakery in Michigan while in school for environmental studies. When they moved to Pennsylvania, they didn’t leave their bread-baking passion behind. They baked for friends and family, and it caught on. People loved it and wanted more. So in 2012, through crowd-funding website, they were able to raise funds to build their bakehouse and sell to the public.

The styles of bread they bake are old European. Pfeffernuss bread is one type they offered the week after the holidays, inspired by the German cookie. It’s a smooth rye-based bread with anise, walnut, allspice, and black pepper. Each week they offer a cheese bread, a fruit bread, a seeded bread, and a pan loaf, and will always offer McGrath’s original loaf. They also offer cookies made with organic oats, and a par-baked sourdough pizza crust. Not only do they get creative, they also take quality very seriously. They get their flours locally from Daisy Organic Flour and Small Valley Milling.

I learned a lot from the McGraths, and they informed me of two farmers with a bakery called Talking Breads who also bake with naturally-leavened bread. The owners Shana Slossberg and Joe Amsterdam have a 45-acre farm that’s been in operation for less than a year. They built a bakery in a section of their house on the farm. Shana’s passion for sourdough baking (or as she likes to refer to as long-fermented bread) happened when she worked at Hideaway Bakery in Oregon. Just like the McGraths, she wanted to take her baking passion to Pennsylvania.

Since Shana and Joe just started their farm, their goal is to grow their own organic grains, and use farm-fresh ingredients. For now they get their grains locally at Small Valley Milling and Pecan Meadow Farm. Shana wants the best ingredients in her bread, and that means she mills her own grains. She uses a stone flour mill from Austria, which keeps the germ, bran, and endosperm intact for a healthier and flavorful flour. They also want to make it their mission to connect with the community by having a few open-farm days to have tours on the farm, to educate folks about leavened bread and the nutritional benefits of the milling process.

Just like the McGraths, Talking Breads bakes old European-style breads. Shana’s favorite is baking limpa, inspired by her Swedish heritage. It’s Swedish-style rye bread, like the McGraths’, that have come out of old-fashioned cookbooks that people have either never heard of or that remind them of their childhood, making it a new discovery of heritage, reinvented.

Then I came to discover there is another baker who has a penchant for baking with fermented dough: Philly Muffin. Pete Merzbacher makes an English muffin made from his own sourdough starter.  To ensure the quality of his baked goods, he mills the grains in-house, and he also gets some of his grain from Castle Valley Mill. His spin on the English muffin is his own, and it’s not like a typical English muffin, but has the airiness with a slightly denser texture. I have to say the Everything English Muffin, which has garlic, sesame, onion, and poppy seed, is just like the bagel and with the sponge of an English muffin.

Philly Muffin is located in a bakery district section of Philly called Olney, an area bringing together different varieties of bakeries.  He loves having this connection with the area and the idea of having a community of other bakers who express their passion through artisan bread. With his popular muffin, he hopes people will associate this sourdough English muffin with Philly—no one can get anything like it anywhere else except Philly.

Artisan bread, especially naturally-leavened bread, has become a trend, similar to home-fermented kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut, kombucha, and of course craft beer. And just like the other home-fermenters, these bakers are creating bread with the right ingredients and have a reverence of working with the natural processes of fermentation that enhances the product’s quality. It goes without saying there is an art in baking bread, but the love and passion for this style of bread could be found in the intricacies of working with the dough at precisely the right humidity, weather, temperature, and other environmental components. Or maybe it’s the care of keeping the organisms in the sourdough starter thriving so the dough can be used over and over–where baking becomes a lifelong endeavor and skill.

About the author: Debbie Yahnke has worked in the food industry for over 20 years. She combines her experiences behind the scenes and her passion for learning about the farming industry to help others gain a better understanding of where our food comes from.

February 26 is CSA Day

by Plaxedes Chitiyo

It is that time of the year again to celebrate Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)! CSA Day is February 26 and marks the second year of celebration since its inception in 2015 through the initiative of Small Farms Central. According to the organization’s annual report, in 2014, February was the month during which most people across the country signed up to join a CSA. It is a time when CSAs across the country celebrate this sustainable community driven initiative as well as raise awareness to the public at large about a great opportunity to support their local farmers and get high quality produce in return.

So what is CSA? CSA is a community-based program that connects communities with local farmers such that they benefit from each other. Consumers provide up-front financial support to local producers, to enable them to jump-start their growing season, and the local producers in turn provide seasonal produce to their customers, delivered to their door or picked up at specific locations. Different types of CSAs exist across the country with some managed only by farmers and others operated as multiple-farm co-ops offering a wider range of products. Some are summer-only while others offer special winter shares. Some CSAs offer a discount to members who help out in the field during the growing season.



Joining a CSA is a great opportunity to connect with your community, eat healthy and support local farms. CSAs enable consumers to know where their food comes from through relationships with their local farmers, hence a better appreciation of human environmental conditions for food production. In addition, consumers get fresh, seasonal, highly nutritious produce and have the opportunity to try new food varieties, leading to better eating habits. CSAs promote economic development, by keeping money and jobs within their region and community. They also enhance community cohesion, as the community interacts and builds relationships around local food businesses.

The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), a non-profit that supports profitable farms, healthy food, and environmental protection, produces a yearly Pennsylvania CSA Guide that promotes its members and Buy Fresh Buy Local partners offering CSA programs. The 2016 PASA CSA guide is coming out soon.

Buy fresh. Buy local. Join a CSA!

About the author: Plaxedes Chitiyo lives in Bethel Park, PA.  She has a PhD in Environmental Resources and Policy from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her research interests are in the areas of sustainable agriculture in developing regions, sustainability, and community development.

Recipe Contest: Winter Fresh & Local Harvest

Calling all home chefs! 

Do you love cooking seasonal local (Pennsylvania) food? Do you open up your winter CSA box eager to create a new seasonally-inspired dish or whip up the one your family can’t get enough of? Consider entering your recipe in PASA’s Fresh & Local Recipe Contest.

Deadline: February 15, midnight

Recipe Contest poster


First Place – Cash prize of $300 & one year, Full PASA membership

Second Place – Cash prize of $150 & one year, Full PASA membership

Third Place – Cash prize of $75 & one year, Full PASA membership

Honorable Mention (5 to be awarded) – Apron & One year, Full PASA membership

Click here for rules.