Pete Flynn, a first-generation farmer, is the owner and operator of Pete’s Produce Farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Since 1992, he’s been growing and selling his own produce to his community while also combating food insecurity.
“I believe in the importance of sustainability of local food — it just makes sense. It doesn’t make sense to ship a tractor trailer of potatoes from California to Pennsylvania when we can grow our own potatoes here,” said Flynn.
For Flynn, farming wasn’t something that ran in the family. When he was 11 years old, his family moved next door to a dairy farm and he took a part time job, learning how to work on the land. Despite his newcomer status, farming came naturally to Flynn.
“I just kind of fell in love with it. I worked there through high school and I just wanted to stay working there but my parents said I had to go to college,” said Flynn.
He attended Michigan State University where he studied dairy science and animal husbandry before returning to the same farm to work as a herdsman. It was then that Flynn fully realized the obstacles that come with dairy farming. Working long hours while barely making ends meet, Flynn decided to supplement his income by planting sweet corn on less than one acre of his property and selling it out of the back of his truck to neighbors.
“People were telling me how good my product was, whereas as a dairy farmer I never heard that,” said Flynn. When his milk was processed and shipped all over the state, he never knew where his milk landed and how customers felt about it. “Nobody ever said, ‘Hey that was great milk!'”
It was then that Flynn decided to make the switch to produce, selling his cows and renting land to grow produce. From April to November, he operates Pete’s Produce, his own market that caters to eager locavores. Flynn estimates that 80 percent of his customers are dedicated patrons who return on a regular basis.
Today, Flynn leases 170 acres on the grounds of Westtown School, a Chester County Pennsylvania day and boarding school for students in kindergarten through high school. With their support and enthusiasm for local agriculture, he’s been able to make an impact on the community.
“Westtown School wanted to see this farm growing vegetables and they wanted to see that connection with the community,” said Flynn. From wheat and cornmeal to fresh and canned produce, the Westtown School cafeteria serves students an assortment of goods from their own backyard. “Whatever we can grow that they can use in their cafeteria, they use it.”
Flynn also provides hayrides and educational tours for the students. His unique relationship with the school has brought children closer to their food and taught them to appreciate their farmer.
“I think it’s probably the only place in the world where a farmer gets treated like a rock star,” said Flynn. (Well, there and at Farm Aid, Pete!)
In addition to providing for the school in his backyard and marketing his produce from April to November, Flynn dedicates five acres of his land to grow food for the Chester County Food Bank, where he has served as a board member since its inception seven years ago.
“Even though we’re one of the wealthiest counties in the country, 1 in 10 people still go hungry,” said Flynn. He’d recognized the issue years earlier and worked with the Chester County Cares organization before helping to establish the food bank. Flynn focuses on the concept of gleaning, the Old Testament tradition of not harvesting the corners of your farmland and leaving any of the crops that were left behind after the harvest for the less fortunate. When the Chester County Food Bank replaced the Chester County Cares organization, Flynn joined the board and has helped the organization to grow dramatically.
This year, during his seventh year on the board of the food bank, Flynn’s five acres yielded 120,000 pounds of produce to feed those in need.
“Our mission isn’t just to get food to those in need, but to do nutritional education. People don’t know how to eat healthy food and there’s a lot of really inexpensive food out there that’s not healthy to eat. We don’t take donations of potato chips and candy,” said Flynn.
Today, Flynn maintains his 170 acres with the help of his wife, two children and a group of employees. Each season, Flynn hires local teenagers to work at his produce stand, providing many youth with their first jobs. He remains a proud member of the local food movement, and was awarded Farmer of the Year in 2013 by the Chester County Agricultural Development Council for his commitment to sustainable agriculture and feeding those in need.
“In a sustainable environment, it’s important to grow your own food next to where you’re using it,” said Flynn. “The land in Chester County is some of the best in the country. It’s ridiculous to build houses on it and then ship produce from California.”