Clarion River Organics is a cooperative of 15 family farms near Clarion, PA that are all within roughly 6 miles of one another and that are all Certified Organic. I recently got the chance to speak briefly with Zeb Bartels, their general manager. He was kind enough to fit me into his very busy schedule to help you learn more about himself and Clarion River Organics. Zeb is not only the general manager, he also is a bit of a “jack-of-all-trades” – doing a lot of their marketing and bookkeeping, as well as managing their warehouse, distribution and transportation. He also acts as a go-between for communication between the farmers and their customers. Since most of the farmers are Amish, he explains: “they don’t have any email or telephone or anything like that.”
When asked how he became affiliated with Clarion River Organics, Zeb explained that he studied agriculture at Penn State and also comes from a farming background. Before Clarion River Organics was officially started, Zeb had been hired to make deliveries for a number of Amish farmers in the area who at the time were primarily selling their organic produce to stores in the Pittsburgh area, such as Whole Foods, the East End Food Co-op, and to us – Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance. Eventually, Zeb along with Nathan Holmes, who had also been doing deliveries, built a warehouse for shared use among the farmers, and Clarion River Organics was born shortly after in 2009. Now, Clarion River Organics operates a CSA of their own, sells their produce at farmers’ markets in the Pittsburgh area, and sells to other retail outlets in addition to continuing to provide lots of fresh produce for Penn’s Corner. Much of the kale, cabbage, collard greens, zucchini, broccoli, pac choi, and lettuce you’ve been receiving in your CSA shares this summer have been graciously grown by the farmers at Clarion River Organics (including my favorite treat from last week’s CSA share: honey puffed corn!).
One thing Zeb mentioned about Clarion River Organics that people may find surprising is how they cool the produce once it’s been picked. Since the farmers are primarily Amish, they don’t use any electricity and that means they don’t use conventional refrigerators to cool their produce. Instead, the crew at Clarion River Organics prepare for their summer cooling needs months ahead of time, in the middle of winter. Typically in January, or once temperatures have been cold enough for adequate ice to have built up on a pond to work safely, they use a gas-powered circular saw to create 15 by 30 inch blocks on the ice. They then use boards and prods to send the ice chunks up onto a chute that propels the blocks into the ice house. Inside the ice house, more workers are waiting to catch the ice blocks and stack them around the walls. This ice room is connected to the produce room, and, once complete, the farmers can open or shut the door between the two rooms to keep the produce at the optimal temperature throughout the growing season. Amazingly, the ice in the ice room lasts throughout the summer and does a great job of keeping the vegetables at the ideal temperature and humidity levels – which is something that even mechanical refrigerators often struggle with.
As always, thank you for supporting your local farmers such as those at Clarion River Organics through the purchase of your Penn’s Corner CSA share. When you are cooking up some of your fresh produce this week, we hope that knowing how much time, effort, and preparation went into growing your produces makes it taste that much better!
Here are some pictures to illustrate the ice cutting process