Owner and operator of certified organic Tait Farm and specialty foods company Tait Farm Foods.
Kim Tait is probably best known for her part in reviving shrub, a popular colonial drink made with fruit and vinegar. But her dedication to the local, organic food movement and her prescient belief many years ago that healthy food means more than measuring nutrients are the real reasons she is an organic pioneer. Kim is being honored at our Organic Pioneer Awards on September 14th, 2012, but we caught up with her in advance to chat about the challenges and rewards of running a multi-armed farm business and what she sees as the future of our nation’s agricultural community.
Tell me a little bit about your back story. How did you get involved in agriculture?
I’m a California girl. I was born and raised in Southern California at a time when all the agricultural land was being transitioned to suburban housing developments. Seeing that as a young girl got my attention and began to shape my worldview. We had a big garden and fruit trees growing up, and my father was a dentist, so nutrition and eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables was a large part of our lifestyle. I started college in Northern California where I studied nutrition. But in the mid-70s, nutrition was really just preparing me to be a dietitian planning hospital menus, and I knew that was not what I wanted. Having grown up watching the demise of local ag, I knew I wanted to do something that involved growing healthy food. So I dropped out of college and eventually moved east in 1979, landing at the New Alchemy Institute in Cape Cod. The people I met there and the work I was able to do shaped the course of my life for the next 30 years.
I came to State College in 1988 with my then-husband, who got a job at Penn State. We had looked at some other areas but decided on Centre County because of the agricultural possibilities. It turned out the academic and the farmer weren’t so well suited for each other and we divorced. I eventually met, fell in love with and married David Tait, who owned Tait Farm.
We always considered ourselves organic growers—we were using organic methods, we made compost and adhered to organic principles—but we hadn’t taken that final step to get certified. We finally took that final step eight years ago for three reasons.
Our friends ran PCO and we were always saying we used organic methods. They asked why we just didn’t go ahead and do it already. There was a little bit of peer pressure! So, on the one hand, it was kind of a decision of solidarity. My partner, Bob Anderson, is the former owner of Walnut Acres and an international organic ambassador. He thought it was an important thing to do. And, ultimately, it was simply the right thing to do for the movement, for our local and domestic relationships and for the farm. We were already doing the “hard work” of growing organically, so why not be in solidarity with the movement?
How did the products line develop?
It all started in the late-80s with an excess of raspberries. At the time, we sold our raspberries as a pick-your-own crop, but a huge crop, a week of rain and no customers to pick changed our lives. We had to get them off the canes and fast, so we hired pickers and froze the harvest hoping we could find a market in the winter. We weren’t able to find a market in the winter or the spring and an old friend reminded David of this crazy product called “shrub.” The rest is history.
We got some tanks and other equipment second hand from Penn State and converted the barn into a processing facility. The funny thing is when you understand how to make one flavor of shrub, it is easy to make another flavor. And, if you have raspberries, why not make jam? And if you know how to make raspberry jam, you can easily make blueberry, strawberry…
What started as one product in the 80s is now too many (over 55)! But you have to keep offering new items. And while people want you to have what you’ve always had, they also constantly want to know what is new. So our line continues to grow.
And ironically, after all these years of painstakingly explaining what the heck shrub is, the product is finally having its own kind of renaissance. Suddenly you can get shrub cocktails in upscale bars and it is being featured in magazines. I was at Williams-Sonoma sampling last week and another vendor told me they were making shrubs. My mouth almost hit the floor. I thought, ‘Wow, an overnight success after 30 years!’ It is both the good news and bad news for us, I guess. More recognition, but also more competition—we’re going to have to start calling our product “The ORIGINAL Shrub!”
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced and what was the key to overcoming that challenge?
I don’t know that I’ve managed to overcome any of the challenges! But I take them as they come each and every day. We have such a diverse business, so each piece has its own set of complexities. Just trying to run a business that grows AND manufactures AND wholesales AND retails is tough. We’ve had some hardships. I lost my husband 15 years ago, we’ve dealt with internal embezzlement, we’ve have bad agricultural years where the fields are so wet you can’t get in to plant or get out to harvest and then the blight comes and takes all your tomatoes out in one night. There is always some loop you’re thrown.
I think that having the resilience and stubbornness to continue is a key. There is also a steadfast faith that this too shall pass and that things will certainly get better. I think that’s true for other farmers as well. From market changes, to climactic challenges, to financial adversities, this isn’t a sport for the faint of heart. It requires incredible perseverance and commitment to a vision. It is not something you do to make a lot of money. You do it because you’re passionate about it. I often say that I didn’t choose the farm, but rather the farm chose me. And if I had been told back then what was in store for me, I probably would have run screaming down Rt. 322! You can’t imagine you can possibly handle all the challenges, but we do – we have to.
How has the agricultural community changed over the last 10 - 20 years?
I’ve really been reflecting on this a lot. When I moved to this area, there was one farmers’ market in town on Fridays. While there were people farming, the fervor, commitment and community around local food and farming hadn’t really taken hold yet. In Centre County alone, we have experienced incredible growth in consumer awareness and consumer demand for locally grown and produced goods. And it has directly resulted in the growth of the local agricultural community. Over the past 20 years, we have grown to have six farmers’ markets, 10 CSAs and countless restaurants touting local cuisine. I’ve been blessed to be a part of this movement and help with the creation of a local food culture. It has been incredible.
And the most exciting part is there are so many young people actually finding a way to make a living in the organic and sustainable food community—growing the produce, making products, baking, raising animals. And it has happened—is happening—in many other places around the country.
Now the question is: “What’s next?” The local organic food and farming movement is waiting for the next definition or growth spurt. A friend of mine has a third-generation local farm and tells me not as many people are coming to his farm on Saturdays. They are going to the new farmers’ market recently started in the Home Depot parking lot. Times are changing, even for the farm that has been around for 50 years. New questions emerge, like: Who is it we now serve? Who is our customer? The answer continues to evolve and change all the time. The same goes for the local foods movement as a whole.
What is your personal vision? What drives you—gets you out of bed every day?
Knowing that there is still much work to get done and believing that in our own small way, we really can make a difference. I think about our community and the fact that over the last 25 years, we have developed the bones of a regional food system. That is really pretty amazing and there is still so much more we can do.
I feel like we’ve all been tapped on the shoulders to carry this local, organic torch. There were the original Pennsylvania torch bearers, like JI Rodale and Paul Keene of Walnut Acres. Then the second or third generation of torch bearers, like me and my colleagues, came along. It is clear to me that this is a generational sport. We need to have young people coming up and getting interested in carrying it on. And they need to acquire the skills and knowledge to do that and do it well. It is our duty to train that next generation—to be mentors.
Were there any organic pioneers who inspired you when you were starting out?
There are really so many people I respect so much. Of course there are the historic pioneers I mentioned before, but also Jim and Moie Crawford at New Morning Farm, the Brownbacks at Spiral Path, the Brubakers at Village Acres, Don Kretschmann in Pittsburgh and so many more. These are the folks who continue to forge the path and have been inspirations to me.
And the young people coming into ag at 20 and 30 years old. This is not an easy job and as a dear friend used to say to me, “Kim, if it were easy, everyone would do it.” This is clearly the road less traveled, but the one with so much meaning.
You know, when I got the call about this award, I kept thinking, “They’ve got the wrong person.” I could give you the names of seven other people doing such good work. Then I realized I could accept this award on behalf of the community of PA farmers that have been at this a long time. This award is for us who have worked hard to make the world a better place.
You testified before Congress in 2011 in support of changes to this Farm Bill. The idea of understanding much less making an impact on the Farm Bill is overwhelming for a lot of people. What do you think is the most important thing farmers and other citizens can do to support the kind of agriculture they want to see in the Farm Bill?
We vote with our food dollars every day, so it is literally putting your money where your mouth is. We each have enormous power with the choices we make each and every day. We need to stay informed and communicating with the local, regional, and state officials that represent us. It is about getting involved in your local community, whether it means joining a conservation group, a sustainable ag group, a food policy council. That is the way the system works. You can choose to work outside the system, too, but I believe we need people on both ends to make change.
We need to continue to do our own good work, but we all still need to participate and be willing to educate our government officials. For example, our township is rewriting the agricultural zoning. They invited the area farmers in to discuss the issues. They don’t want to write something that puts us out of business; they want to understand the issues facing famers and keep the community prosperous and happy.
Is there anything you wish someone had told you “before” that you would tell a new farmer just starting out?
The things that come to mind are: Ask for help, have a good mentor, have at least a little bit of money (it is just amazing how much you need to spend when you get into the world of equipment) and have a good plan (not necessarily a business plan, but a plan).
Asking for help is probably the biggest one for me. It is a pay it forward kind of profession. I think that over the years we have all asked one another for help. Whether it is help with some project on the farm or solving a tough problem in the fields, there is a huge willingness to share information. In our region, especially, it isn’t a competitive game. When a family farm goes away, we all lose something. When a family member of a farm passes away, we are all impacted. And then sometimes it is us. I would imagine it is true in any other vocation, but I think because we all understand how hard farming is, we feel the camaraderie more deeply for our friends and colleagues.
But I do think at some point farming is going to be an essential vocation. We just don’t have enough skilled people to grow food right now. Something like 1% grows the food for the rest of the 99%. And there really aren’t enough well-trained people who know how to grow food organically in cooperation with nature. If you’re a skilled, organized and successful farmer, there are going to be good-paying jobs going forward.
What is your favorite Tait Farm Foods product?
The one that is probably the sacred cow is the raspberry shrub because it was the first. The one I eat every day is the lemon vinaigrette. They are both favorites.
What tool couldn’t you live without?
The first thing that came to mind was my Felcos. I might also say a good hoe, but I think I use my Felcos more than anything.
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