Melissa Ingaglio is the farm manager at Charlestown Farm, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, about 40 minutes outside of Philadelphia. Born in rural Pennsylvania, she moved to New York City after high school to attend the New School for Urban Planning. While studying urban food systems she discovered her interest in farming that led her back to Pennsylvania. Now only in her third year of farming she’s balancing managing a succesful CSA, a farm crew, and that so-called personal life farmers tend to forget about! But Melissa is destined to find a balance for it all and show what kind of power young farmers have.
LR: What kind of farm is Charlestown Farm?
MI: Charlestown Farm is a diversified fruit and vegetable csa, so we grow a variety of small fruit and vegetables for 150 families. We’re non-certified organic but we try to practice sustainability on all fronts from our produce to our labor, soil health, and we’re working towards energy efficiency. It was started by Bill and Liz Anderson, and their entire family pitches in and helps out with farm. But they really give the farm manager and crew the autonomy to run the farm on a daily basis. So you work alongside Bill and Liz for the big picture but on the day-to-day they really let you practice farming.
LR: How long have you been farming?
MI: This is my third season, I’ve done two full seasons so I’m still relatively new. I’m a very young farmer in a lot of ways.
LR: How long have you been the manager?
MI: I came to Charlestown Farm in May 2008 right after graduating from the New School in New York City, I apprenticed for a year and became the assistant manager in 2009, then half way through that season I took over managing. So its been just about a full season of managing!
LR: That’s exciting! What kind of crew do you have?
MI: We have a crew of three wonderful apprentices that stay through April to November and there’s absolutely no way that this farm could happen without them. Our ultimate goal is to teach people how to farm. Our crew is myself and three apprentices, then we hire some part-time work usually from the area. We always have volunteers; large school groups, csa members, and people from the farmers’ market.
LR:What made you choose a young farm crew?
MI: That’s a good question….I’m a young farmer and this is a good place to learn how to farm and to have an opportunity to stay. I’m also sympathetic towards young farmers and it makes for an incredible farm crew. Everyone here has an amazing education, everyones either been to a little bit of college or graduated from college, not that that’s a deciding factor. But my mentor Sue Kilpatrick told me in the very beginning that the best thing you can do is surround yourself with the most brilliant people you can find. And I really try to do that when finding people to work here because you’re spending 10 hours a day at least with them, five days a week. So you know, people who can add something or bring a little perspective to round out the day is really nice. But ultimately we want to teach people how to farm and encourage that.
LR: That’s great, what inspired you to choose the farm career?
MI: I was studying urban planning at the New School and we started looking at how to make cities more ecologically and environmentally sound. So we looked at food systems as a way to do that and in looking at that we looked at farms in the region. In doing that I started to think that maybe I wanted to get into urban farming and then I thought maybe I should try farming first before I commit to that! So I worked on a farm in Michigan, Three Roots Farm, for a summer between my junior and senior year and I just knew that was what I wanted to do. It was obvious, made sense like nothing had before and it kept my interest.
LR: Does your family have any history farming?
MI: I grew up on a christmas tree farm, my Dad would grow christmas trees then sell them in Philadelphia. So I didn’t grow up on a vegetable farm but I grew up seeing the idea of investing your energy and time at one point then you get the harvest later on.
LR: Have they been supportive?
MI: Yes. Absolutely. This is their dream, they’ve always wanted to have a farm and I think they were a little confused and shocked at first but now they are incredibly supportive.
LR: Has your local farm community been helpful?
MI: The Southeaster Pennsylvania farm community is awesome. There are a ton of young farmers and a lot of farmers in general. A lot of sustainable or organic operations that employ apprentices, which is really nice when you’re in the learning phase and trying to figure out what you want to do. That community has been incredibly supportive for all apprentices by teaching them through workshops. Then on a different level, by becoming manager, the farmers have been incredibly helpful by sharing resources and equipment and knowledge. There’s a good community.
LR: What are some of the most difficult things that you’ve come across by choosing a farm career? Maybe as whole or season to season.
MI: Well….hahahha….mid-July to mid-August, that pretty much sums it up. Haha. I think the first year the physical and emotional stamina it takes to farm. the first year was about can I just show up and do the work everyday. After that you build up stamina. Now it becomes more of how do I balance this with everything else in my life? It’s a process but as a long as everyone is supportive in your life, ya know they know that the winter comes and you come back. Haha.
LR: How do you see yourself moving forward in the next couple years?
MI: I would love to stay at Charlestown Farm for a few years and really develop my skills as a farmer, as an educator, and a mentor. I’d really like to start my own farm one day, there’s so many ideas of which direction I’d like to take it, but I really like the csa model. I like staying connected to the consumers on a deeper level. For right now, that’s another thing I’m trying to do is to just stay present and really dig into Charlestown farm and develop something that I can leave if I decide to start my own farm some day. And leave it in better condition that I found it.
LR: So in your future farm what do you think you couldn’t live without?
MI: Well I could not live without hot peppers. They are just so beautiful. I would love a wet spot, a lake or a pond to develop an ecosystem of beneficials. A barn and a walk-in cooler. Haha, I would be happy with all those things, it would be a great start!
In this first week of August members were getting 8 lbs of tomatoes each! With great weather for most crops, maybe not as ideal for the farmers themselves, this is proving to be an ideal year to belong to a CSA. Charlestown Farm is keeping things moving and focusing on their new fall crops, as well as their winter growing in the hoophouse. Melissa is planning to keep some apprentices on to learn what happens in the winter months, a fairly new approach to many teaching farms across the country.
Charlestown Farm website:
— Submitted by Leslie Randall