Field Notes by AgChoice

Episode 116: From Chemical Engineer to Beginning Farmer

May 19, 2022 Season 1 Episode 116
Field Notes by AgChoice
Episode 116: From Chemical Engineer to Beginning Farmer
Show Notes Transcript

Jumpstart grant spotlight: This week's podcast highlights Matthew Hansen who is a beginning farmer and began growing  vegetable crops in western Pennsylvania. Matthew markets his products through a CSA and serves his local community through providing fresh produce to those in need. He is also a recent recipient of the AgChoice Farm Credit jumpstart grant which has helped to fund the startup of his operation.

From Chemical Engineer to Beginning Farmer

We recently interviewed Matthew Hansen, a beginning farmer. Starting this year, Matthew will grow a variety of vegetable crops on one and a half acres in Winston, Pennsylvania, and market his products through a CSA and wholesale accounts. Matthew is also a 2021 recipient of the AgChoice Farm Credit Jumpstart grant, which awarded 15 startup farmers with a $10,000 grant this past Fall. For the full podcast, click here: 

Could you tell our listeners about yourself and what led you to becoming a beginning farmer?

I've had quite a winding path leading to farming. I studied chemical engineering and then, during school, worked at a steel processing plant, an adhesive's manufacturer, and in a research lab. However, after those experiences, I couldn't see my myself in a factory or a laboratory. I wanted to be out in the world, and I became interested in living abroad and working in sustainability.

Fortunately, I had the privilege to find a job working for a solar company, Mobisol, in Tanzania, East Africa. So, Mobisol started off selling small solar systems to rural households and businesses. At that time, nearly 70% of Tanzania's economy was agriculture, so that meant having a lot of farmers as customers. I became familiar with the rural and peri-urban areas of Northern Tanzania, and the agricultural lifestyle there. At the same time, I was keeping chickens and planting a garden at home.

These things became the seeds into agriculture for me. Getting to know the practical side of farming became the introduction to learning about food security and how health and quality of life connects to the importance of local economy. So, as I felt pulled back to be closer to family, to move back to where I grew up, these became the why behind farming for me. I began to understand farming, not only as part of creating access to healthy food but also as a way to support local economies. As a place where multiple generations and people of different abilities can work alongside each other and learn from each other. Also, as an important role in sustainability.

Could you share a bit more about your farm business, including what you'll be growing along with how you'll market your products?

I'm growing a diverse set of vegetables, cut greens and root vegetables, squashes, tomatoes, peppers, peas, and green beans. I have a very small CSA this first year made up of friends and neighbors. Just working on nailing down my processes for crop planning, taking orders, packing, and delivering produce. I'm also partnering with a few local food producers to offer add-ons to the CSA members. Allowing the CSA members to have a full diet of local food, and the convenience of home delivery. For excess produce not going to the CSA I have a few wholesale partnerships. There's a group out in Butler County called Community Action Partnership of Butler County, and they're creating a mobile market this year. What they're doing is they're outfitting an old port authority bus into a mobile grocery store that will offer fresh local food to Butler, Newcastle, and Aliquippa.

I think they have a really great mission of addressing food access in the region, and I'm proud to have the opportunity to provide them with some of my produce. There's also Uncommon Grounds Cafe in Aliquippa who also curated Marla Duncan, they have lots of ministries and programs serving their community, and I'll also have the privilege to provide them with produce. So, a lot of these partnerships and relationships have just been formed by word of mouth and getting out into the community and meeting with folks. For me, this feels like such an exciting time to be growing food in Beaver County. There are so many opportunities to join both longstanding markets like the Beaver County Growers Farmers Markets, and new initiatives that are working towards improving food access and food security. After growing this season and having a better idea of my growing capacity and how to scale production and distribution, I'll explore opportunities to increase my reach through joining a farmer's market and also increasing my CSA membership.

What has been the biggest challenge for you in starting your operation and what resources have been helpful to you?

Getting the right infrastructure set into place. From germinating seeds to building a greenhouse, to building a permanent bed system. Figuring out an irrigation system that works for this land and just acquiring the bare minimum tools and equipment. There are so many small steps to starting a vegetable farm, each with their own logistics and coordination. So, just in addition to growing the food, getting everything in place has been a huge challenge, but local farmers have been a huge resource. Shout out Dave Febodnik and Megan Gallagher. Leveraging their experience and expertise to know the best place to pick up greenhouse materials or the essential tools verse ones that can wait has helped me greatly. Having been exposed to well-established farms, it's great to learn practices that have been honed over years, but there are so many small things that I took for granted that I'm only now fully understanding.

As mentioned earlier, you were one of our Jumpstart Grant winners this past Fall. How do you plan to use those funds to improve or enhance your operation?

The funds have had a huge impact on establishing the infrastructure that just set my farm up for success. Specifically, a walk-in cooler that during the season will keep my produce even fresher before delivery, but now it also doubles as a germination chamber, allowing me to offer seedlings for additional revenue and have greater control over my planting schedule. The funds have also gone towards a walk-behind tractor that allows me to create a permanent bed system. And in addition to that, the walk-behind tractor increases my efficiency in incorporating compost and amendments and beds, and allows me to more effectively manage cover crops.

As we wrap up, could you share one piece of advice you have for someone interested in starting a farm business?

Besides visiting farms and getting hands on experience, I would say just try to start small and don't scale too fast. Not only is burnout a huge issue with beginning farmers, but if you over-commit yourself at the beginning, then you'll be scrambling not only to keep up what you have planted, but also the commitments and what you have promised to customers.

Finally, could you tell our listeners where they can find you online to learn more and to connect?

You can find my website at or you can reach me at