Blog | September 15, 2017

Sometimes a #Road2FarmAid Leads Home

by Farm Aid Guest Blogger

Kira Weinheimer-Borgia, a teacher from Pennsylvania, went to her first Farm Aid concert last year in Bristow, Virginia. Below she writes about that experience and acquaints us with her neck of the woods.


I have taken the wrong road far too often in my life. But last year I set out on the Road to Farm Aid in Bristow, VA. The awakening venture was far from the navigational disaster my family has grown to expect from me. Rather, my trip down I-79 was one of the most grounding, compass-righting paths I’ve ever followed.

I’m sure each traveler’s #road2farmaid is unique. Although I’ll never quite be able to explain my personal metamorphosis, I do know that somewhere in that journey a middle aged woman made peace with her relationship with her hometown, a beautiful agricultural community nestled off the waters of Lake Erie. She told that version of herself who had once known in her core she was headed for bigger and better places to take a hike. It took forty-some years, a #road2farmaid, and lyrics laid out against a harvest moon to resuscitate me to “live and breathe in a small town” with ease.

Today, I will gladly shout from the barn rafters the greatness of my hometown of North East, Pennsylvania, a place located just two hours north of this year’s concert destination in Burgettstown, PA. For starters…

ONE: We grow grapes. I don’t mean just a few grapes, I mean during a record season, our small vicinity of just 43 square miles can produce approximately 90,000 tons of Concord grapes; that doesn’t even include other varieties! North East is part of the Concord Grape Belt, which crosses the state line from Pennsylvania into Chautauqua, New York. According to Lake Erie Wine Country, the Concord Grape Belt “is the largest grape-growing region east of the Rockies in the United States, and it is the largest and oldest Concord grape-growing region in the world.”

TWO: So, we have grapes. We have grape juice, jams, and jellies. Yes–we have WINE! Not only do we grow the 90,000 tons of grapes that produce grape juice, but we grow a slew of other varieties for wine-making purposes—Catawba, Traminette, Fredonia, vidal, you name it. Our tiny 43 square miles hosts at least 11 commercial wineries. Some of these wineries are housed in newer, industrial facilities while some are located within historical landmarks, like South Shore Winery, which resides in a stone wine cavern built in the 1860s. The wineries attract tourists and contribute greatly to the local economy.

THREE: We have the Grapepickers. Here, I don’t literally mean the men or women who pick by hand the luscious fruits. I don’t even mean the mechanical harvesters that sell today for around $350,000. Side-note: The first harvester was designed by local grapegrowers Roy Orton and Max Orton in the 1960s and revolutionized the grape industry. Rather, think Razorbacks, Cornhuskers, Buckeyes, or Aggies. That’s right–we stand proudly amongst other creative mascots as the North East Grapepickers. We are the mighty, mighty Pickers—a name I wore proudly on my cheer-leading sweater despite taunts from less innovative nearby Bisons, Tigers and Wildcats. Like my grandparents and parents, I graduated a Grapepicker, as will both my children. Go, Pickers!

FOUR: We have a rainbow of ripe colors. True, we’re all about the grapes–and MORE. Here, grapes thrive due to the long, cool springs and long, warm summers moderated by the Great Lake, but so, too, do we enjoy a host of other very viable crops, such as strawberries, cherries, blueberries, peaches, and apples–yep, pretty much in that order. According to Deb Phillips, owner and operator at Trolley Line Vineyards, North East once experienced a solid “pick-your-own” business, whereby families once visited local orchards and farms, prepared to leave with bushels of whatever was in season. Sadly, the “pick-your-own” trend has suffered a sharp decline in recent decades. Some of this can be attributed to a dying art of canning and jarring as well as a real-time, instant-gratification cultural shift. Still, many locals as well as traveling traditionalists remain dedicated to the “pick-your-own” pastime.

FIVE: We have growers AND farmers. We are lucky indeed. Ninety-nine-year-old Robert Semelka explained his preference for the term “grower” as opposed to “farmer,” the latter of which to him seems like a general catch-all term to include animals and/or crops. Semelka patiently explained that a fruit grower–particularly a grape grower–in this area has to be schooled–even if self-schooled–in horticulture and viticulture to grow grapes in this temperamental region.

SIX: Regardless of whether one calls himself or herself a grower or a farmer, the men and women who work our land and produce our nourishing food have roots that run for centuries. Semelka, the son of a German immigrant from the Rhine region, studied engineering and only returned to the family farm when his father fell ill. Dutifully, Mr. Semelka made North East his home once again and worked alongside his father–as both Robert’s son (Bob) and his grandson (Cortenay) would later do. Four generations rich, Semelka Farms serves as a sturdy example to family farms and vineyards alike. Besides, according to the 99-year-old widowed grape grower, the farm is a place his great grandchildren visit and describe as “better than Disney World.” That’s something worth hanging onto.

SEVEN: And still we have roots that go on for miles. The stories of sons and daughters who remained on the farm or returned to the farm are abundant. For this reason, names like Moorhead, Sceiford, Orton, Muscarella, and Coletta sound through our community as constantly and reliably as the freshwater waves that lap upon the shore. Deb Phillips of Trolley Line Vineyards was camping her way home to North East from California in order to learn from her father how to operate the family farm. She learned of her father’s untimely passing during that trek home. Unfortunately, it would take some time to heal hurt feelings and family ties damaged as relatives would aim to fairly determine rights to the land in the absence of any formal preparations. Phillips is grateful today for the mended relationships, but she strongly advises others to “have those hard conversations” well in advance.

And such conversations are difficult, for it certainly wasn’t a simple matter when Celeena Rahal was voted among the six daughters to return to Rahal Farms in order to care for her father and help him to operate the family farm. While all of the daughters felt a filial responsibility, it was determined that Celenna was most mobile as a result of a divorce, and so she and her daughters returned to North East from their home in Florida. The Rahal women speak knowledgeably of the hardships local farmers face–such as the devastation caused by a wet season or an unusually late frost. They speak affectionately of their grandfather, or their “jido,” who moved here from Lebanon on a college scholarship. Paying homage to his earlier roots, their jido has taught them to take pride in growing culture-based produce, such as the cusa squash sold at their market. Celeena’s youngest daughter will graduate a North East Grapepicker next year. Roots run deep even when uprooted.

EIGHT: We were trendy before trendy was a trend. In case you missed #7, we’ve challenged the gender bias of females owning and operating the land. While Deb Phillips admits she initially received an outpouring of community help from experienced farmers willing to offer aid, she proudly explains she was driving the grape harvester by age 30, a feat she at first found most intimidating. By 2014, Philips was not only cultivating her own land, but she was offering leadership to the agricultural community, for she would become the first female to serve on the board of directors for the North East Fruit Growers Co-Op, an operative in existence since the early 1930s.

Despite having all daughters, Wajeeh Rahal expected his children to complete farm chores as would any son. Celeena Rahal would return to help lead the farm and serve as a strong example to her daughters. Yes, women belong on farms and vineyards, and not for the purpose of serving lemonade. Celeena spoke also of the organic trend. Despite pressure to spray pesticides and insecticides on schedule, her father opted to spray crops only when he noticed an absolute need. For decades now, our growers have been attempting to avoid an unnecessary use of controversial and expensive sprays. As a result, our crops and orchards have been delivering the most organic product feasible even before doing so was a popular consumer demand.

Although the word “co-op” exists on the lips of the hippest individuals in today’s circles, the North East Fruit Growers Co-Op has existed since the 1930s. Because their mission is committed to the land, its workers, and the community, the local co-op is the work place to which 99-year-old Robert Semelka still reports on weekday mornings. Need further evidence in North East’s commitment to collaborative enterprise? It was the National Grape Cooperative that purchased Welch Foods, Inc. when its owner–Jack Kaplan–made the business deal possible in 1956. Mr. Robert Semelka sat on the board of directors for Welch’s. Co-ops can make great things happen.

NINE: Our farmers and growers are committed, proud, resourceful, creative, and daring. They are committed to all that is local. They sponsor the town’s Little League teams, shop at the local stores, pick up coffee from the mom-owned coffee shop, and host educational field trips to their property. My favorite customers ever were the farmers who came into our family clothing store the day before Christmas–maybe with a bit of dirt on their work boots–but always spreading holiday cheer, picking out a nice outfit for the wife, and confirming that–yes, of course–we would gift wrap it, but they kept it local, and my family was grateful.

They are proud and speak little of the hardships they face. It is difficult to prompt them to speak of price cuts, untimely storms, labor costs, broken equipment, or relationships that fold due to different ways of life. They are as private about their personal gains as they are about their struggles. They are resourceful, often making their livelihood through a compilation of ways–whether it means plowing snow in the winter, completing carpentry jobs in the off-season, canning pickles or beets from a family recipe to sell at market, or bailing hay from an unplanted field. They do what needs done to make ends meet. They are creative and daring, sometimes attempting a new crop in order for the farm to grow and prosper.

During the craft beer craze, I saw growers planting hops–a strange crop that in neat rows reached for the sky–followed by local distillers who planted fields of rye. Our growers have been known to tear out entire rows of Concord grapes in a daring attempt to foster a wine grape that will yield a more profitable sum. They have plowed over traditional apple trees in an attempt to apply a new apple-growing technique. Such changes and attempts require courage, as new crops require a learning curve, a wait time for maturity, a buyer, and often new equipment. Call them growers or farmers, these people have my utmost respect.

True, everyone’s #road2farmaid is unique; mine led me home again to a place where the vineyards meet the shores of a Great Lake. I will be visiting Farm Aid again this year, but I will be doing so a wiser, more rooted traveler at ease with her geography and appreciative of all it offers.

If your #road2farmaid happens to find you on I-90 just within two hours of Burgettstown, consider jumping off at Exit 41 for a visit. Stay a while. Drive past the Welch’s plant. Tip your toes into the waters at Freeport Beach. Have a glass of wine. Oh, stay longer; you shouldn’t miss our world-class sunset.  If time and practicality don’t allow such a detour, promise you’ll roll down the window the second you spot the waters of our great lake from the interstate. Go on; do it. Breathe in deeply. Feel the September sun on your face. Inhale again. Catch it?  It’s our homegrown fragrance. Have you ever smelled anything so grape in all your life?

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