Since 2016, a small faith-based retreat has been growing more and more fresh produce in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
By donating everything it grows—thousands of pounds of vegetables and fruits every year—the Wittel Farm is directly addressing food insecurity, an issue impacting communities nationwide. But the Wittel Farm’s mission goes further, focusing on how the food is grown in order to build relationships between people and the land they depend on.
“Initially I was interested in producing high volume of fruits and vegetables for food relief,” said the farm’s director, Pastor Matt Lenahan last fall, after picking some of the last few peppers that had escaped a hard frost at the farm. “Now I’m more interested in what we produce and how we produce it—who’s involved in the production process.”
Lenahan is the only paid staff member at the 85-acre farm, which is owned by the Lutheran Camping Corporation of Central Pennsylvania. And while he may handle most of the heavy machinery himself, hundreds of volunteers take on everything from planting to harvesting.
“The whole time, we’re also thinking about land use, ecology, stewardship,” Lenahan said. “We really wanted to farm sustainably and as organically as possible.”
The labor can be intensive; one challenge is controlling weeds without using chemical herbicides. But the payoff is establishing lasting relationships between people and where their food comes from.
“It’s harder to, I think, neglect or be wasteful after spending some time caring about the soil and about the seeds and the plants and the fruit that’s produced,” Lenahan said.
The Wittel Farm grew from about 1.5 acres of crops its first year to almost seven acres by 2019, when 400 volunteers showed up to help. In 2020, the farm scaled back due to the coronavirus, and only used 100 volunteers. As in previous years, Lenahan is planning lots of sweet corn, as well as potatoes, squashes, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuces, kale, onions, pumpkins, broccoli, and possibly cabbage. Everything is donated to the Lancaster County Council of Churches food hub in downtown Lancaster.
Despite its name, the Wittel Farm had been primarily a spiritual retreat for the past 30 years. It is only in recent years that the land is once again being farmed as well, fulfilling the wishes of its last private owners, Chuck and Katie Wittel.
By the 1980s, the Wittels determined that they were no longer able to keep up the farm, despite the farm having been in the family for over a century. With no children interested in farming, the elderly couple knew they wanted to give their land to the church in order to see it preserved.
“They were interested in the farmland not being turned into a parking lot or development,” said Conrad Youse, then-director of the Lutheran Camping Corporation. “They wanted it to continue to somehow be a farm.”
The Wittels also hoped the property could be used as a spiritual retreat, and they forged a close relationship with Youse, who had previously founded Camp Kirchenwald, the Camping Corporation’s nearby summer camp. After the Wittels donated the property to the Camping Corporation, the work of cleaning out the farmhouse and making the farm usable began.
“[Chuck] was typical of farmers in those days,” Youse said. “He never threw anything away.”
Among the treasures discovered, however, was the original deed to the land. It was signed by sons of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. The document is now displayed in the farmhouse.
Today, in addition to the sustainable farming, the Wittel Farm is in the process of being permanently preserved by a local conservancy.
“[The Wittels] would be extremely happy about what’s happening here,” Youse said.
Bringing the land back
When the Wittel Farm was donated, the trusteeship governing it “said that the property would be used for spiritual retreat and agriculture when possible,” Lenahan said. Though it was quickly put to use as a retreat, the farm use didn’t really become possible until recent times.
“The land was in pretty bad condition,” Youse said. “So for years we just had a farmer planting timothy grass to restore the soil.”
Eventually, Lenahan, who had a long-standing relationship with the Camping Corporation and had also helped start Hunger-Free Lancaster County, proposed using a small part of Wittel Farm to grow food. Six years ago, the current executive director of the Camping Corporation, Conrad’s son Michael Youse, reached out to ask Lenahan to lead the project.
That first year, about 70–80 volunteers grew several thousand pounds of food.
“We thought that that went really well,” Lenahan.
Buoyed by success, Lenahan began expanding—adding heavy equipment, bee hives, fencing to keep out deer that ravaged their sweet corn, a system to capture stormwater for irrigation, a native pollinator garden and a greenhouse.
In 2020, the Wittel Farm went further, enrolling in a turf conversion program to reduce stormwater pollution and create habitat, that is a partnership between the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. That October, volunteers helped plant over an acre of native trees and shrubs—species like serviceberry, elderberry, plum, persimmon and paw paw.
They also added sugar maple saplings, in hopes that a future generation would be able to tap the trees to make maple syrup.
“It’s life-giving when you come here,” said Christina Smoker of Lititz, Pennsylvania, donning a mask along with her 11-year-old daughter Rivers while helping add protective tubes and netting to the maple saplings. “It’s just one of those places that feels like a respite.”
Smoker said she has been bringing her young children to volunteer on the farm every year so far, and values the experience it gives them.
“You don’t often see the fruits of your labor, but it’s very rewarding in that sense,” Smoker said. “But then there’s also that more ambiguous spirit of giving, and I think those are two really important concepts.”
Lenahan’s church in Lititz participated in the turf conversion program at the same time, choosing to plant 200 trees and two acres of native meadow to replace three acres of grass. When the volunteers were assembled last fall, Lenahan listened as his church’s other pastor spoke to the group, and told them to imagine that it’s about 100 years from now, when the trees they had just planted had grown into a mature forest.
The pastor called to mind a future child asking where the trees came from and why there’s a path through them. Lenahan recounted the imaginary reply: “One hundred years ago there was a group of people that in spite of this pandemic were hopeful enough to plant trees.”
Lenahan is hoping that the project at his church and at the Wittel Farm will serve as an example to others.
“There’s a lot of land that churches and other faith communities possess but they don’t know what to do with it—and sometimes that’s ok, but oftentimes they’re mowing,” Lenahan said.
“And can we do something better than that?” Lenahan continued. “Can we restore habitat? Can we reforest?”