by Courtney Llewellyn
Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture put out the call for farmers and prospective farmers to apply for a round of Farm Vitality Planning Grants. The program helps fund professional services for those planning the future of a farm – and farmers responded. One million dollars in grants were awarded to 133 farms across 46 counties. Trolley Line Vineyards was one of those operations.
Run by Deb Phillips, her husband Jack Russell and his son William Russell, Trolley Line Vineyards, located in North East, PA, features sustainably grown Concord, Niagara and French hybrid varietals. “We’re fortunate to still have an opportunity to make a living off the farm,” Phillips said. “We have this unique little microclimate south of Lake Erie, in the lake plain growing region.”
Her grandfather started the farm the fourth generation now manages and lives on. At the time her grandfather started the farm, Phillips said there was a lot more diversity in agriculture in the region. “There were lots more tree fruit. The grape industry was just getting started. It wasn’t as prevalent as it now is,” she explained. “There was always a job for me on the farm, particularly with cherries. Our U-pick operation was very popular – people would leave with 400, 500 pounds of cherries. That really has changed.”
Their liability changed. Their fruit trees were mature, and enormous, and putting visitors on tall ladders wasn’t always the safest option. The transition into vineyard went into motion pretty smoothly, Phillips said, with the orchards being replaced with grapevines in the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. They now grow 10,000 acres of grapes in Erie County.
After graduating from Penn State, Phillips came home. Her parents passed away – “but the farm was still here,” she said, so she dove into running it. In the last 20 years or so, she and her husband have been making a transition with a number of different wine grape varieties, looking at other potential opportunities. They even planted hardy kiwi a few years ago, with some moderate success. “The marketing is the big issue there – what free time do I have for that?” Phillips joked.
The Farm Vitality Planning Grant Program aims to enhance the long-term vitality of Pennsylvania farms through sound business planning, efficient transitions of farm ownership, strategic farm expansion, diversification of agricultural production and building a team of financial and technical expertise as a resource for Keystone State farmers. Phillips said she was led to the program through the business development team at Ag Choice.
“Our main objective in applying was to develop and define our business plan and our transition plan,” she said. “We had some things in place, but we also met with our lawyer, and our accountant, and outlined some things. This made a better business plan, and better sharing of information in the family would prove very valuable to us.”
With their award, they set up several meetings with Ag Choice to outline their goals and objectives. “The real value in our case was to take the opportunity to write things down and talk about them,” Phillips said. “My stepson said ‘I know what Dad does; I have no idea what you do’ – and I do all the bookkeeping. We’re still in the middle of our farm vitality program, and I think it’s very valuable.”
Phillips added that if someone has an idea for an ag enterprise, this grant has a lot of possible applications. “If these are things you have to do, it’s nice to have some help. The grant offers 75% reimbursement,” she noted.
Ultimately, Phillips is optimistic about the future of farming. “You have to be,” she said. “And we’ve covered sustainability long enough. It’s time to focus on vitality.”
For more information on the Farm Vitality Planning Grant Program, visit agriculture.pa.gov/pages/farm-vitality-planning-program.aspx.