Leadership Spotlight - Pottstown FARM

leadership Aug 20, 2023

Sheila Dugan is the Director of the Pottstown FARM which is currently in its eighth season.

Sheila said in the early days, the team was excited when they counted 50 people coming to the market in a day. Now, an average Saturday looks like 500 to 600 people coming to shop at the Pottstown FARM!

Originally, the market was held on Thursday nights, and the team tried a few different locations, eventually landing on Saturday mornings in Smith Family Plaza.

Sheila shared, “Smith Family Plaza is such a beautiful park, and the FARM fits there perfectly!”

In all it’s been about 10 years since Sheila and her team of volunteers started the process of getting the FARM up and running and to where it is today.

The process of growth is typically not always smooth sailing, so I asked Sheila what some of the lessons are that the team has learned over the years.

She shared one of the biggest learning curves has been with the vendors, specifically farmers and also learning about the process of farming.

“When we started out, we wanted the vendors to be 100% self produced. The reality was that when you look at farmers that are self producing, many of them are not coming to markets. They're selling to auctions or selling to restaurants or things like that. So we would have vendors that would come in and say they're self producing but then find out they weren’t producing anything. And I learned that the hard way. So that was probably my biggest challenge.

Now we have the understanding that we want about 85% self produced. For example, we have a co-op farmer is that produces about 80% to 85% of their own product. But another 20% of that is gotten from other local farmers. So when our local farmers that are smaller don't produce peaches or corn or anything on their farm like that, they go to other local farmers who just want to sell to other farmers. They bring in those other products. So that's a really big addition to the farm.”

 Sheila continued, “We have really great farmers who work with our co op farmers and they communicate and work with each other so that there isn't any animosity.”

Sheila also shared that the team has learned a lot from surveys and focus groups of customers who visit the FARM and feedback shows that customers want to know that what they’re getting is more local than what they get at the supermarket. Whether one of our farmers picked the produce directly or whether they got it from another local farmer didn’t make a difference to the end customer.

She mentioned the farmers who support the FARM are all from the local region, Reading to Philly to Lancaster, and are all producing their products in the local soil. In fact, two of the farmers, Microgreen FX and Limerick Homegrown Produce and Trading Post are 100% organic certified.

I asked Sheila what she feels the biggest value is that the Pottstown FARM brings to the local community.

She said, “Our mission is to help provide access to healthy food. Pottstown is considered a food desert.”

According to the USDA, a food desert is, “A tract in which at least 100 households are located more than one-half mile from the nearest supermarket and have no vehicle access; or at least 500 people, or 33 percent of the population, live more than 20 miles from the nearest supermarket, regardless of vehicle availability.”

Sheila said, “We want to make food accessible locally and economically, not just for those with disposable income. “

One of the ways Sheila and the team at the FARM put their mission into action is through the program they’ve developed for customers using SNAP cards.

“SNAP” stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which according to the Department of Human Services is a program that helps Pennsylvanians who are eligible in low income households, obtain more nutritious diets and increase their food purchasing power at places that accept the SNAP cards.

Sheila and the team recognized the number of hardworking, good families in the community that could use some help, so they developed a program that when someone uses their SNAP card, they can put $10 on it and the FARM gives them $15 back in coins, so they gain an extra $5. Only food can be purchased with the SNAP cards, and everything at the FARM is fresh, healthy food that people are gaining access to.

Another area of expanded accessibility is the Two Bite Club which is FREE and encourages all children under 12 who visit the FARM to participate. Each week, the FARM purchases an item from one of the vendors for children to sample. The goal is to introduce children to a new food that they may not have in their everyday life.

Sheila shared, “We color code our coins that the kids get from the Two Bite Club and we’ve discovered that 85% of the coins go back to the farmer or the vendor that they tried their sample from. Which is great because when kids have some zucchini, with raspberry flavored vinegar and they like it and to go to those vendors and say, ‘we want to use our Two Bite Club coin’, it’s great to see that program is actually helping these families introduce healthy foods and helping our vendors bring in good stuff and give it to families.”

Another added value to the Pottstown community is the partnership between the FARM and Operation 143, which is a non-profit organization that focuses on feeding hungry children. At the end of each market, Operation 143 feeds 14 families with fresh, healthy food.

With a small but mighty team of volunteers, and so much that goes into operating the Pottstown FARM each season, I asked Sheila, what people can do to support and how people can help so the FARM can continue to positively impact the Pottstown community.

Sheila said, when you come into the FARM each Saturday, you’ll notice flower pots on our FARM table that you can put a donation in, even $1 helps, and money collected goes to one of the biggest expenses, which is funding the Two Bite Club. She said there are also business sponsorship opportunities, volunteerism opportunities, and Haunts on High, (one of my favorite events of the year), is coming up in October, which is one of the FARM’s biggest fundraisers. In addition, Sheila said come support the vendors and share on social media.

To see when the next FARM Saturday is, you can check the schedule here. See you there!

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