Art King was in a steady job at a local lumber company in his hometown of Valencia, Pennsylvania when his father died in 1992.
His parents had built a solid farming business since moving to the North Hills outside of Pittsburgh several decades earlier, but Art didn’t follow them into farming. When his father’s will was read, Art was left with something he hadn’t expected: his father’s tractor.
“I took this as a sign from the grave, and I made the difficult decision to quit my comfortable job and go into business with my brother, Larry, a farmer,” he says. “I also wanted to spend time with my children and work with them on the farm.”
Turns out he was pretty good at farming. Since joining the operation, Art has overseen much of the farm’s improvements and innovations and has been passionate about sharing his knowledge with other vegetable growers.
Art is an equal partner in Harvest Valley Farms with his brother, Larry, who has been on the farm since the 1970s, and his son, David. Art is the administrator of the operation which includes 160 acres and more than 163 varieties of fruits and vegetables.
That has changed a lot since his parents started the operation and ran a poultry operation of 5,000 laying hens, as well as vegetables, pigs and other things – although Art still had a small herd of pigs. in pasture and a few chickens.
In a region where consumers have many options for obtaining their produce, Art focuses on growing the best quality fruits and vegetables to retain customers.
“I think the essence of Harvest Valley Farms has a lot to do with the quality of the products we offer. We know what quality looks like, so we are able to present quality all the time,” he says.
All about greenhouses
The greenhouses and high tunnels are now an integral part of the farm. There were none when Art returned to the farm in 1992.
“The idea of building the first one was that we wanted to grow our own vegetable plants; we wanted to extend the season. And then Penn State started doing research on the big tunnels,” says Art.
The first tall tunnel, a 16ft by 96ft structure, was built in 1995. It was so successful that a second was built in 1996, and then larger ones were built later.
There are now 11 greenhouses and tall tunnels on the farm, helping to extend the season for dozens of vegetable and fruit plants. Some of the tall tunnels are heated by giant outdoor wood-burning stoves with indoor heat exchangers that keep the temperature inside above freezing in February or March, or later in the season.
“The bottom line is that we wanted to have something fresh, green, that we just picked that day from our farmers market in November and December, March and April, and we wouldn’t be able to do that without the elevated tunnels,” Art said.
Innovate to grow
Millions of people live in the Pittsburgh area, which offers a good market to sell. But growing crops in the North Hills isn’t easy.
“It’s not conducive to growing vegetables, or any agriculture for that matter,” says Art. “Almost all the fields are on a slope, and it’s difficult.”
This compelled Art and its partners to come up with innovative solutions to facilitate growth. For example, he uses a bale shredder that takes round bales, chops them up and then spreads the mulch over the fields. This helps reduce soil erosion and rain runoff, retains soil moisture in plants, and provides organic matter.
Potatoes, which need a lot of moisture, can be difficult to grow in his fields, especially if it dries out. One thing he has done is grow potatoes in degradable black plastic in raised beds and drip irrigation.
“When we’ve made them, it’s easy to dig a hollow with the potato scoop. And it worked out well,” says Art. “With the plastic, the potatoes grew faster and bigger because they retained moisture.”
Cucumbers also need lots of water to grow bigger and taste better. Art likes to grow cucumbers in bags that are tied to rows in the greenhouse, allowing the cucumber vines to grow longer throughout the season.
Two fertilizer mixes are added to a 100 gallon tank, along with a little acid to lower the pH of the water. A submersible pump powers the drip irrigation system and allows the cucumbers to receive plenty of water and food.
“We’re always ready to try something new and different,” says Art.
Everything in detail
Growing produce is only part of the key to farm success. All produce is sold within a 25-mile radius of the farm – at two farmers’ markets in Pittsburgh, through the 530 CSA (community supported agriculture) farm members, and at the farm’s own market located in a few miles away.
“It gives us a lot of flexibility,” says Art. “Suppose we have a lot of cucumbers to sell. Well, we can include it in the CSA that week, or move a lot of product elsewhere or donate it to the food bank. But there are lots of different ways to juggle things.
One outlet he is proud of is the farm’s own market located a few miles from the farm. The market started out as a small business run out of her mother’s garage, but in 2009 a new market was built. Later upgrades added a bakery, which he says was suggested to him by experts in on-farm retail space.
“We try to focus on the local,” says Art. “We have about 25 vendors who sell local produce in addition to our fruits and vegetables.”
Support the next generation
Art’s son, David, graduated from Penn State in the mid-2000s and then joined the company. He is an equal partner and will take over the farm once Art and his brother retire.
“We’ve already worked out a succession plan with a lawyer from Ohio,” says Art. ” Everything is in order. We received a vitality grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to help us. It’s basically a book that covers all the basics of the plan.
But educating the next generation of farmers is just as important to Art as knowing that his farm will belong to the family once he leaves.
“Educating myself and sharing my ideas with others is very important to me,” he says. “I think my knowledge should be shared, especially with newbie farmers. That’s why I’m still very involved with the Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association. I’ve been on the board for many years and still help get the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention started.
Art has volunteered on several community boards, through his church and was even a leader of Boy Scouts Webelos.
“It’s important to get involved in the community,” he says. “I gave lectures in schools for free. I do a lot of talks for garden clubs, rotaries and I continue to do so all the time. It’s just a very important thing for the community to do.
Operation: Harvest Valley Farms; 137 acres, 163 varieties of fruits and vegetables
Family: Wife, Kathleen, and three children, David, Jenifer and Stephanie
Agricultural and Community Engagement: Board Member or Active Member of Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association, PASA Sustainable Farming, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, Royal Grange #1972, Holy Sepulcher Church Council, Volunteer with Youth Core Committee, Pennsylvania Simply Sweet Onion Committee, Knights of Columbus , Boy Scouts Webelos leader , 2019 Penn State Extension Honorary County Agent, 2022 PASA Pasabilities Award winner