Sustainable Ag Working Group Hosts Tom Beddard

Posted: April 11, 2011

The man behind Lady Moon Farms is as enthusiastic as they come; and even after 22 years, you can clearly see the joy that farming brings him. His seminar was as much about life as it was organic farming, and that only made his story more compelling.
Tom Beddard, owner of Lady Moon Farms.

Tom Beddard, owner of Lady Moon Farms.

On February 11th, the Sustainable Agriculture Working Group hosted Tom Beddard, founder and president of Lady Moon Farms, as the fourth speaker in the Sustainable Agriculture Seminar Series.

Starting in March 1986, Tom Beddard bought a 22-acre “farmette” in Selinsgrove, PA in Snyder County. Though his father and friends mostly wrote him off, with five acres of tillable ground, he and his recently wed wife, Chris, decided to try and make it work. They were two “city kids” in love with the idea of raising a family on a farm. From the very beginning, Tom and Chris believed that, on a common-sense level, it didn’t make sense to grow food with poisons. With this conviction as their guiding principle, they set out to grow organic produce before organic was “in.”

Purchasing the farm in 1986, they were certified organic in 1988, and sold their first product that year. A whopping $500. Not to be set back, Tom made a point to only sell the “Finest Quality, in the Sharpest Package, Every Time.” The following year, they sold $5,000. The next year, 1990, they sold $15,000. The following year, after renting some land from a neighboring farm, they sold $50,000. Soon after, they were grossing $350,000, and netting over $100,000. By the time they had moved to Chambersburg in 1996, they were grossing $750,000 with more than thirty employees.

Currently, Lady Moon Farms is over 1,500 acres, spread across three states, producing organic produce year-round. With farms in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Georgia, Lady Moon Farms is able to grow the same crops in each state, during different times of the year, ensuring a constant supply of each item. Focusing mainly on vegetable crops, Lady Moon Farms grows: greens (arugula, kale, collards, many lettuces, spinach, cabbage, mustards, chard), radishes, beets, summer squash, winter squash, cucumbers, tomatoes (grape, cherry, plum, red, yellow), peppers, eggplants, and watermelons.

Growing such high-value crops organically year-round on the East Coast, Lady Moon has been able to build a solid reputation and serious clout with purchasers. After many years of dealing with shipping stresses, Tom stated that they now sell mainly to wholesalers and supermarkets. He got out of the trucking business due to the inefficiencies, costs, and frustration, and believes that by having a shipper deal with it, everyone wins. To companies such as Whole Foods (one of his largest customers), purchasing from Lady Moon Farms is a better option than California growers in the winter because the shipping costs for delivery to East Coast stores is lower. Tom uses this advantage to secure customers year-round, telling his customers that they need to commit to buying from him in the summertime, when competition from other growers increases, if they want to buy from him in the winter.

Though it is difficult not to only discuss their impressive growth, according to Tom, becoming a large-scale wholesale-producer was never part of the equation. They were committed to an organic ethos that caught on in the marketplace just as they were growing their operation. Tom stated, rather emphatically, “you can do whatever you want…once you think it and want it, it can be done.” This was his driving message, and that, with a bit of luck, it can work out quite nicely. For example, Tom was having trouble selling his organic produce to grocers in the beginning. But just as he was struggling, the Alar scare become a strong public health issue, a grocer’s nightmare, and exactly what Tom needed to get a leg up. Growing organically, Lady Moon purposefully avoided such chemicals from the beginning, but it took that social catalyst to jumpstart the demand for organic vegetables in the marketplace.

Tom also touched on his involvement in the creation of Pennsylvania Certified Organic. As a founder, he believed that the community needed a bona fide certification agency, and that state recognition was critical to building an image. This theme of building an image or reputation was a resounding one throughout his talk. From the importance of quality control, to the importance of name-brand identification, he made a point to drive home the importance of delivering a quality product to garner respect in the marketplace.

One of the interesting decisions that Tom made with his business model is to grow the same things everywhere, not different things in different places. It is easy to think that having farms in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Florida would increase the variety of crops one could produce. However, his approach has been to maintain supplier continuity by having every crop available 365 days a year. This somewhat counter-intuitive practice has paid off well. For instance, Lady Moon has an advantage with buyers because they know they can count on Lady Moon to provide the same crops all the time, simplifying procurement and account management.

Tom touched on a few issues related to his organic production practices. The major topic of discussion was in regards to plastic mulch, which Tom uses extensively. Tom confessed the guilt that he has when it comes to removing the plastic, being forced to send it to a landfill. If recyclers would accept it that would be his first choice, but they generally do not. Thus, he is left with the decision to burn or landfill it, and in his opinion the lesser of the two evils is the landfill. He mentioned that he is pushing the USDA to encourage and fund the development of a successful biodegradable plastic mulch, but for now there is nothing that is commercially viable and organic. Lady Moon Farms also utilizes cover crops in the off-season, typically rye and hairy vetch in Pennsylvania winters and sorghum-sudan grass in Florida summers.

Perhaps one of the key organic concepts that he touched on was the notion of spreading one’s risk. We often discuss the idea of spreading risk across a field, across seasons, and across plant families, but Tom applied that more broadly. By spreading his risk across three states, if one state has a hurricane or a drought or an otherwise difficult year, having two other climatically distinct locations helps limit losses. With the exception of one year when a hurricane went up through Florida, into Georgia, and eventually dumped tons of rain in Pennsylvania, he said that this strategy has worked out well.

Tom closed with a discussion of some of the ways his business has strived to go beyond the organic standards. Lady Moon Farms is also Verité Certified and finishing Food Alliance Certification.

Hearing about Tom’s farming experience, starting from the early days of a packing line under a tarp on the edge of a field to the current multi-state, year round operation, was a real treat for all who attended the seminar.  On behalf of the entire Penn State Sustainable Ag community- thank you, Tom!

By Brian Bates, Department of Geography

Funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Seminar Series is provided by Penn State's Environment and Natural Resources Institute and Northeast SARE.