Farming the Way to a Sustainable Future — Elizabeth Wagner

Our world is evolving, to a more environmentally conscious state. Many of us are doing our best to combat climate change. We do what we can to fight the good fight by changing our diets and the way that we source foods. We shop local, make efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, and cross our fingers for the future. After living in Philadelphia, Pa., for five years, Liz Wagner, then a 23-year-old undergraduate in journalism, took it a dozen steps further when she left the city to start an organic, sustainable farm in rural Pennsylvania. Ten years later, Crooked Row Farm is a thriving certified-organic business with a retail store and two farm locations within a short distance of one another at New Tripoli and Orefield.

Liz’s parents were both brought up on farm homesteads, growing vegetables and raising animals. When they had childen, they moved to a cul-de-sac in the countryside and kept a backyard garden. As such, the idea of starting her own farm began to germinate in Liz’s mind. After a few years of living in the city of Philadelphia, she began to miss the open spaces of her childhood. When her parents bought some land in New Tripoli, near her childhood home, Liz decided to take a farming apprenticeship and make a go of it on the family land. With determination, perseverance and grit, Liz created Crooked Row Farm and raised it from the ground up.

To prepare the newly purchased land, Liz crossed state lines for a year to work on an organic 14-acre farm in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York, learning about crops and selling fresh produce at the famous Union Square farmers market in New York City’s bustling lower Manhattan. During her apprenticeship in New York, she started a clover crop on the acreage back in New Tripoli to give the land some time to adjust from what had previously been grown there. In 2013, she returned home to Pennsylvania, where she began growing crops on a hill with a fierce incline in New Tripoli, where it was nearly impossible to keep the alignment straight — Crooked Row Farm was born.

For the first five years, it was pretty much entirely my family and friends from my childhood who were suddenly popping up saying, “Hey, you have a farm now? What’s that like?” I’d say, “I’ll tell you if you come help me weed these onions!” It started like that, and my parents were so instrumental.

Liz’s parents have always been a huge inspiration in her life and her journey toward sustainable farming. Her mom has been a driving force at Crooked Row since day one and remains to this day heavily involved in all aspects of the farm. Her dad is also a big influence at Crooked Row and, having owned an auto body shop since the ‘80s, he was essential to the mechanical side of Liz’s agricultural education.

My dad is very mechanically-minded. He was teaching me about tractors and machines and tools in a way I had never really known how to use before. And my mom just slid into the role of co-pilot: seeding, planting, harvesting. We planted a quarter acre of garlic, and you harvest that all in one day and dry it. It was thousands of plants. So we called up all the cousins and the aunts and uncles, and it became this whole family ritual once a year — they came out and helped me harvest all the garlic. It’s pretty fun.

In 2017, Crooked Row acquired a second location, a farm property in nearby Orefield with a farm stand attached. At that point, straddling two locations, plus a retail space, Liz looked outside of family help and started bringing on extra staff, most of whom were women: friends, community members interested in farming, nutritionists, baristas — all were welcome additions to the Crooked Row family.

Then the pandemic hit. 2020 initially shuttered a lot of farmers markets due to the fear of coronavirus transmission, but as grocery stores continued to experience shortages of staples, local markets and farm stands adapted with pre-packaged goods and pick-up orders. Liz brought on a field manager, Brandon Haines, who helped with a major production scale up, and contributed significantly to the farm’s growth in the midst of a pandemic. From there, Crooked Row continued to thrive.

In 2020, when everything exploded, my business quadrupled overnight, and it ended up that my ragtag crew just kept growing because people were stuck here. In the last two years I’ve had maybe 12 full-time and part-time folks here. People from different farms or just people wanting to learn how to farm.

Liz’s drive toward sustainability came from living and working in an urban center, where she came to realize that importing conventionally grown foods was producing massive carbon footprints and would gradually become untenable practices.

Moving into agriculture, I knew I wanted to learn how to do something that was going to make an impactful difference. The piece of property we were on had been conventionally farmed for a very long time. A lot of synthetic pesticides, a lot of tillage, and a lot of fossil fuels went into that ground over the years. Being able to take a piece of land and reverse that [damage] over time has been really amazing. There’s a lot to be said, nutritionally, when it comes to harvesting something and being able to consume it within a couple of days, as opposed to [waiting] several days to a week.

According to the Chicago Tribune, most produce loses 30% of nutrients just three days after harvest, and up to 55% of vitamin C within a week.[1] Liz aims to get her produce in the hands of her customers as soon as possible after harvest.

That was in my mind when we started this … learning how to make our own compost, learning how to use less tractor gear. I buy most of my seeds from small seed companies out of New England, just little spots where [our] carbon footprint is getting smaller.

The overriding philosophy of Crooked Row Farm is that Liz considers her whole team “stewards of the land.” A lot of big business farms grow excessive produce as a strategy to mitigate losses in the event of crop failure (or to cherry-pick produce with the best aesthetic). Fiscally sound, perhaps, but certainly not ecologically or sustainably so. Crooked Row does not adhere to this industrial mindset of thoughtless wastage. Rather, Liz opts for a strategic and conservative crop plan to maximize efficiency and quality, avoid spoilage and unnecessary food waste.

I grow what makes sense based on the previous year’s sales numbers plus a percentage of growth. Something that I pay a lot of attention to is, once [the harvest is] here — even if it’s not through a sale — how do we get it out into the world? During the pandemic, we partnered with a food pantry right down the street. At that time, they were doing food drives every couple of weeks and anything we had, that was extra, we gave to them. They had 200-plus families going through those lines every two weeks! To be able to give them a head of lettuce — something green, as opposed to [other] things you get in a food pantry bag — was incredible.

Another thing Crooked Row does to minimize food waste is offer a community compost site. When customers visit the farm store, they can bring their food waste from home to help boost the farm’s supply of natural fertilizer.

It’s a twofold enterprise: taking care of the soil and working on the microbiology of the land. We’re doing a lot of regenerative practices. One of the properties has a lot of woodland, so we’re doing a lot of restoration in there, putting in native understory plants, really trying to take care of everything. Teaching and working every year, I feel like I’ve learned so much more. We work with an organization called the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and they have been doing extensive soil tests and record-keeping in a multi-year system to explore how our soil health is doing over [time], offering us guidance on how to keep the soil health up.

Unnecessary food waste is an increasing and alarming problem for our planet, and so much of it stems from cosmetic defects that are unseemly to consumers. Is your apple skin slightly mottled? Is your carrot misshapen? Aesthetic doesn’t matter if the produce is fresh and unspoiled. What should matter is where your food comes from and the mindful practices that brought it there.

The main goal of farming is to learn how to grow food for people. So, again, it’s so much learning every year: learning about where we should be sourcing seeds, how we should be practicing our own seed saving, teaching folks about why some of what we can grow in Pennsylvania might look a little different than what you see in the grocery store, but why it’s important [that] we’re growing what we’re growing [and] how we’re growing it.

Liz says that, despite growing a wide range of crops and varietals, she specializes in greens. She grows lettuce mixes, baby greens, and mustard greens all year round. Her spinach is known throughout the area for its “greatness and tastiness.” Looking at her farm and hearing her story, it’s easy to believe.

Though people tend to think of running an organic and sustainable farm as more costly, Liz tells us that’s not always the case. At Crooked Row, Liz chooses, both from an environmental and an economic standpoint, to work with biocontrols, a form of agricultural pest control found at the forefront of sustainable farming. Chemical pesticides have long been lambasted for the damage they cause to the environment and to human and animal health. Veering clear of harmful chemicals, biocontrols focus instead on introducing natural enemies of destructive pests to crops and managing soil interactions. It is a total system approach that makes crops safer for consumption and for those who work with them.[2] Agroecologists at The University of Rhode Island argue that biocontrols are also a more effective alternative with regards to long-term productivity and the economic viability of crop farming.[3]

For me, creating an ecosystem on the farm, there’s beneficial insects that are eating problematic insects. At the same time … as the soil health is rejuvenating, we’re getting a lot of mycorrhizae [and] good biome activity in the soil. That is when the plants themselves, as you plant into a healthy soil, become healthier plants. Healthier plants don’t attract problematic bugs that will eat them, [bugs] only go for weaker plants or sickly plants. In that sense, over a period of years, you’re creating a whole environment on the farm where the healthy soil is growing a healthy plant. It’s not being attacked by pests. [Even] if it is being attacked by some pests, there’s beneficial insects already on the property in place and thriving [that] combat any issues we would have.

Crooked Row is a big proponent of sustainable energy, utilizing solar panels for their greenhouses, walk-in coolers, and dehydrators. Their real ace in the hole for sustainability are the high tunnels, or hoophouses (similar to greenhouses, except the crops are planted directly into the ground). Made from protective material stretched over hoops, these structures can be built for a fraction of the cost of greenhouses, which are typically constructed from rigid materials like glass and metal.[4]

The high tunnels are created for season extension. In Pennsylvania, we have four seasons, which makes growing after November and before March very difficult. The outside temperatures fluctuate, there’s a lot of freezing; if you put plants out, they die. Having a structure you can plant in the ground, but that is still covered and similar to a greenhouse, creates this atmosphere where it’s pretty much always above freezing and I’ve been able to grow greens in there for a very long time. They go through a series of frosts which doesn’t kill them but makes the sugars in the leaf come out. Everything is so flavorful in the winter; it’s like eating a totally different vegetable. The things that I’m harvesting right now in March for my stand, we planted in October. It’s really unique to be able to have these structures.

More and more farms around the country are looking at high tunnels as a way forward to extend and enhance their growing season. The fact that they can often be powered by solar energy is a one-two punch in the fight for sustainability.Liz:

The tunnels need a certain degree of airflow in them, but instead of running electrical lines that would be attached to thermostats, roll-up sides, and air vents, we put a solar panel on each one, which is pretty new tech for this kind of structure, and it runs itself. It’s been incredible.

Liz tries to give back to the environment in other ways, such as fostering certain plant species that are struggling.

I’ve been growing some nut trees — hybridized American chestnuts — to try to help bring that back a little, and a lot of understory trees like Paw Paws, which are native to this area and a pretty undersung tree fruit. We’ve even managed to successfully start patches of ramps up there. We’re working with a lot of native plants that are known for being delicious but also need some help with repopulation within the general ecosystem.

Liz works with students in agriculture and is helping them find their footing in the future of sustainable farming.

Slow, manageable growth is so important, but I’ve seen a lot of people my age and younger who have wanted to jump into agriculture wholeheartedly. That’s great, but if you try to do the farm, the commercial kitchen, the wholesale accounts, and the retail space all at the same time? I can’t tell you how many farms I’ve seen burn out after less than two, three, five years because they’ve just tried to do too many things and tried to scale up so fast. I’m still piecing all those things together, and this is going to be my 10th year. I just had a group of interns from the Rodale Institute here last Thursday and Friday, and that’s what I said to them: “Don’t try to do it all at once.”

When asked if she would do anything differently, if she had to do it all over again, Liz reflects on carbon footprints in the agricultural industry.

I think I spent more time than I should have trekking vegetables from where I was growing them down into the city. There’s a lot to be said for that at a certain scale — it’s still a regional footprint, as opposed to a national [one] when it comes to carbon emissions and moving food back and forth. I think I would have stayed a little more local to start, if I was doing things over. Otherwise, I’m really happy with where the farm is right now and where it looks like it’s going to be in another three years. I’m very grateful.

Looking to the future, Liz is optimistic.

I feel like more folks are starting to move this way. The Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture has talked in meetings with all sorts of farmers about how smaller [agriculture] is important. [These are] people who have direct sales connections and direct narratives with their patrons and who are learning how to go back to more organic systems. I think we’re seeing those numbers trending up considerably. To be able to provide food with such a smaller carbon footprint has been really incredible.

With pioneers such as Liz forging the way forward in mindful agricultural practices, farming and living in a responsible way, we can foster hope for what’s ahead. So let’s all walk a crooked row toward a brighter future.

[1] Monica Eng, “Most Produce Loses 30 Percent of Nutrients Three Days After Harvest,” Chicago Tribune, July 09, 2013.

[2] Lloyd Traven, “Fundamentals of IPM: Greenhouses & Hoophouses,” Pasa Sustainable Agriculture,, June 20, 2020.

[3] University of Rhode Island , “What is biological control?”

[4] “Growing all Seasons: High Tunnels, “United States Department of Agriculture,

Conversations with Jo Eike. Written by Jo Eike. Edited by Maya Quarker & Jess Lo.

Page design by Kiana Blakemore.