Driving through the rolling hills of Cranberry to Don Kretschmann’s 80-acre produce farm, faded silos and hoop houses faced new neighbors: sprawling housing complexes — Springfield Manor, Eden Square, Winchester Farms — and freshly dug gas pipelines that collect and transport drilled gas.
“Most farmers are scraping by, if they’re making any money at all,” Mr. Kretschmann said forlornly. “They don’t have any retirement account, so the only thing they can do is sell to [a housing] development or sell for gas.”
On Friday afternoon, a bus with a few dozen farmers and food advocates rolled up to Kretschmann Organic Farm, near Zelienople, to see it firsthand.
Farm Aid, a nonprofit known for its annual fund-raising concert, is often celebrated for its music, as a loaded line-up of talented musicians headlined by Willie Nelson and Neil Young are set to perform before a sold-out crowd at KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown on Saturday.
In more subdued venues earlier this week, Farm Aid’s behind-the-scenes advocacy work unfolded in the Pittsburgh region, which is hosting the annual concert for only the second time since the nonprofit was founded in 1985.
In its 32nd year, the annual concert has raised $50 million for the nonprofit that aims to help preserve family farms and shepherd locally grown food into urban restaurants and grocery stores.
“We go where people want us,” said Carolyn Mugar, Farm Aid’s executive director, kicking off a series of speaking panels led by food policy experts and local leaders Thursday evening in the Hill District. “We feel very wanted here.”
In many ways, Pittsburgh-area agriculture is in a pivotal moment unlike many other farming regions of the country.
With the sharp decline of coal mining and natural gas drilling in recent years, farming has emerged in high-level economic development discussions in Appalachia — much to the surprise and delight of local food advocates.
Food-growing experiments are cropping up to provide a lifeline for both blighted neighborhoods within cities and in struggling communities in rural areas. One $3.5 million project, headquartered in Fayette County and partially funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, launched in August to find markets for new livestock farmers and produce growers to scale up their operations.
“We’re on the brink of a game-changing time here,” said Dawn Plummer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council based at the Penn State Center Pittsburgh.
As agriculture has shrunk in its role in the American economy amid rapid urbanization, farmland economics largely became a study in widespread development and leasing.
Across Pennsylvania, farmland has fallen from 14 million acres in 1950 to 7.7 million acres in 2012, according to the most recent census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During that span, the number of farms statewide declined from 146,887 to 59,309.
While the decline of farming has been long been charted, Western Pennsylvania has experienced booms and busts more recently.
The boom in natural gas drilling here set off a mad rush for land, said Ross Pifer, a Penn State University clinical professor and director of the Center for Agricultural and Shale Law.
Mr. Pifer, a former lawyer for the USDA who founded the center at Penn State nine years ago, has given dozens of lectures and presentations to farmers on how to negotiate an oil and gas lease and to municipalities on how they could regulate the industry.
While energy development provided a much-needed boost to some farmers, Mr. Pifer said, it didn’t last. Leasing activity fell when drilling leveled off following a drop in natural gas prices in 2014. Though drilling still continues, companies are much more selective about the properties they lease.
“I think some landowners were maybe expecting royalties based on a higher percentage, and didn’t understand the volatility that’s associated with pricing,” Mr. Pifer said. “They’ve seen a dramatic decline in gross royalties, but their expenses haven’t declined.”
Farm Aid organizers, by bringing together food experts for public panels on Thursday and organizing tours of local farms on Friday, sought to show that farming can be a viable business in the face of encroaching developers.
The challenge, farmers and advocates said, is generating enough value that current farmers see a future and new ones are willing to make the investment.
Mr. Kretschmann acknowledged he has been one of the holdouts.
While fielding technical questions about irrigation and pesticides, he pointed to the adjacent hillside where a new natural gas compressor station and a tall crane now commanded the view. A gentle hum emitted from the site, but sudden fiery emissions were not uncommon, he told them.
“This has been such a disappointment,” he said. “Becky and I thought we’d build a house here ... not anymore.”
This week, food advocates tied the challenges in rural areas together with those facing inner cities. “We see threats of displacement of low-income and residents of color with rising values of land in neighborhoods targeted for development,” said Ms. Plummer, head of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council.
The council, one of about 300 in the United States and Canada, was created to advance efforts to that help small farmers keep their business running and others start their own, she said. It brings together about 80 different groups — one of them the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-op, created to help black residents at risk of gentrification to build farms on lots that might otherwise go to developers.
Meanwhile, the City of Pittsburgh is stepping up efforts to reclaim blighted and tax delinquent properties. Shelly Danko+Day, the city’s urban agriculture and food policy adviser, was brought on by Mayor Bill Peduto to hash out a strategy for Pittsburgh’s abandoned land.
The food discussions came more recently, with plans for an urban agriculture model ordinance that can streamline the process of accessing vacant plots in the city.
“Bad food is cheap and good food is expensive — or it doesn’t have to be, especially if you grow it yourself,” Ms. Danko+Day said. “The more we empower communities and individuals to grow their own food and share with their neighbors and to pass that on, I think that’s going to be the solution.”
Daniel Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.