(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — The field is positioned on a downward slope. It’s surrounded by trees and forest growth. Throughout the field are signs of small-scale agriculture — a short greenhouse, rows of blueberry bushes with leaves turning an autumn red, an outbuilding. And throughout the field also are the signs of nature with natural growth welcoming swarming bees. Cats meow and lazily roll on the ground, clearly happy to see people. They play with the baggy material on pant legs and bite at shoe laces. Two personal solar arrays are in the field.

It’s the scene at Raintree Farms in Cambridge Springs. The land formerly grew corn and soy. Now it’s 80 acres of trees of various ages, small-scale farming and bees for honey. Owner Stephanie Thauer says much of what the farm grows is subsistence farming (meaning food to feed her family of three), but whatever they don’t consume is sold at local markets.

Raintree Farms owner Stephanie Thauer.

Raintree Farms and Wild Field Urban Farm of Erie (owned by Stephanie Ciner) have teamed up for a farm stand in Erie. The two farms suggest prices for their goods, but the stand operates as “pay what you can.”

“We’re trying to remove any barriers to food and local food,” Thauer said at her farm on Oct. 24. “We want to figure out ways to get around barriers so everybody has access to local food.”

That’s a common talking point and goal among local, smaller-scale farmers in Erie and Crawford counties. Farmers and the markets that sell the locally-produced food note a higher quality among a litany of other benefits compared to mass-produced food purchased from grocery store chains. Thauer and Ciner are but two of the many people in Erie and Crawford counties attempting to bridge the gap between people and local food.

Thauer said the main goal of Raintree is feeding her own family. She’s a mother. She’s a farmer. She’s working to remove barriers to local food. And she’s the co-chair of Erie’s Food Policy Advisory Council. She wears a lot of hats.

“I feel a lot of pressure from the day-to-day stress — I can’t control the weather; I can’t control pest problems; I can’t really control how things are going to go. It’s a waiting game,” Thauer said. “It’s a little different compared to an office job. Unless you own the business yourself and rely on the income to support you, it’s not the same amount of stress.”

Stressors

There is a movement of growing support for local farmers.

Katie Chriest is the Sustainable Food Systems Program Coordinator at Penn State Behrend. She and a team of four paid interns have been working on a project called “Growing Roots of Understanding.” The project teams PSU Behrend with Erie’s Food Policy Advisory Council, local farmers and Penn State Extension to raise awareness and advocacy around farmer stress and mental health, Chriest explained. The project began shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic. That slowed the project’s progress, but recently efforts have ramped up.

Stress can be dangerous — it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic website. A 2020 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that agriculture ranked in the top five of suicide rates by occupation. That has sprung the community into action.

“There’s a movement happening… it’s emerging in tandem with more acceptance of mental health discussions than what we have had in the past. Talking about mental health is generally more accepted, even since the 1980s,” Chriest said. “At the same time (as the acceptance), the situation has gotten worse for a lot of people.”

The four interns working with the “Growing Roots of Understanding” project come from vastly different backgrounds — biology, English and sociology, creative writing and agriculture majors. They’re tasked with interviewing local farmers about their stressors and compiling the data. Some trends have emerged from those discussions.

A common stressor is the interdependence of farms. One farm impacts the other. Chriest said that comes with positive and negative consequences. How one farmer treats their land could impact another farmer’s crops, but if a small group of farmers establish a trend, other farmers could follow and capitalize all the same.

Another stressor is isolation and how vital community is to farmers. Community could be as organized as a farm bureau, but it also could just be another farmer or two they know and chat with. Community, theoretically, could intervene if they see signs of isolation.

Solutions

Gathering the information is just one part of the project, however.

“The fact that a lot of people talk about it doesn’t fix it. The solution isn’t awareness, it’s about fixing the problems. And now, we’re talking about major policy changes,” Chriest said.

On Thursday, Nov. 3, “Growing Roots of Understanding” will host a community forum. The forum will be from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at McGarvey Commons Reed Union Building (4701 College Dr. in Erie). The forum will offer an opportunity for discussion and resource sharing about stress and mental health in agriculture. Local farmers, mental health advocates, and state and local organizations will gather for panel discussions.

“The event is just about community, period. It’s just about having the opportunity for people who are interested in doing things about this to see that they’re not alone,” Chriest said. The general public is encouraged to attend the free event. “At the very least, it will let the people in the farm community know you see what they’re going through, it will let them know that you want to support them, and it will let them know that they’re essential. It’s a challenge to get that daily reinforcement.”

As a farmer and as co-chair of Erie’s Food Policy Advisory Council, Thauer appreciates the work of the “Growing Roots of Understanding” project.

“It’s a great project that highlights the struggles of new and older farmers alike,” Thauer said. “I hope it opens peoples eyes up more to the importance of this kind of work.”

Bee hives at Raintree Farms in Cambridge Springs.

Thauer also will be a featured farmer in the panel. During a discussion with JET 24/FOX 66, she highlighted some of her biggest concerns as a farmer. Interestingly, her number-one struggle is shared with other small business owners — whether they be other growers, restauranteurs or even retailers. She needs support; as in, workers and volunteers.

“Unfortunately, my husband has to work full-time, so that leaves almost all of this to me. His main focus is the bees,” Thauer said. She said one of the main reasons her husband works full time is for health insurance for the family. That jibes with the results of the PSU Behrend project (“The simple fact is the way farming is set up in the US, many farmers are working two jobs… a lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s not really affordable health care, so they’re working at full-time jobs to ensure that’s available to them,” Chriest explained).

“Farmers used to have a larger support system through family and neighbors. We don’t have that,” Thauer said. “We need to figure out how to create that system and how to get younger people involved.”

A hired hand is great, but a hired hand costs money. Small-scale farms traditionally aren’t lucrative ventures. For Thauer and many small-scale farmers like her, paying a livable wage is not possible. “We can’t even pay ourselves,” she said. Currently, she trades labor for rent to tenants who live on their property.

Rows of blueberry bushes were changing colors for the fall at Raintree Farms in Cambridge Springs.

There’s a disconnect between consumers and their food, Thauer said. Produce and meat come from all over the country, sometimes even through global trade, and they’re placed on national grocery store shelves for bottom dollar. That has created an “imbalance in food,” Thauer said. “Everybody wants it cheap and quick, and we’ve moved away from the work aspect. And I get it — it’s not easy. I’m trying to raise a kiddo and make sure she’s focused while also trying to raise food for us and make money at it.”

The solution could be to connect people back to their food, she said.

“People still have this view of farms being really large one- or two-crop operations with heavy machinery,” Thauer said. “I don’t know that people really understand (small-scale) farming. It’s small, locally-focused and locally supportive.

“Personally, I want to see everybody with a garden again. In the not-so-distant past, that was the norm. And a big piece is for people to see the value in local food,” she added. “You may be paying a little more for a dozen eggs, but you’ll know where they come from, you’ll know how they were raised, and you’ll know who raised them. By supporting local, you’ll start to understand that and you’ll get back into your food.”