Mark Lichtenwalner’s relentless ambition keeps tradition of D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms going

Mark Lichtenwalner of D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms

Mark Lichtenwalner of D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms

Last Wednesday, April 20, marked the first day of spring and we officially said goodbye to winter. Still, few patches of snow from a storm two days earlier remained around D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms in Macungie. That’s seemingly been the case over the past few years for farmer and owner of the farm, Mark Lichtenwalner; the colder weather continues to linger past the winter season into spring, delaying the start of the farming season.

In an area that was composed mostly of independent family farms decades ago when the farm began, D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms remains one of just two farmers that live in the township (others live outside of it and rent land for farming). While family farms are dwindling at an alarming rate because of factory farming, as well as the large uncertainty of D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms getting passed onto another generation, it’s unclear what the future holds for the farm. But it’s Mark’s continued determination and hard work, willingness to keep this tradition alive, and love for farming that pushes him every day. He’s not about to let this farm go under like the rest, at least not yet.

“You like to sort of make a living doing this,” noted Lichtenwalner. “And we’ve managed to eek out an existence here. But I think those moments that things are kind of neat, it’s kind of fun. And we don’t think about the days that we have problems.

“Lehigh County is kind of dwindling,” said Lichtenwalner. “If you go up to the upper end of the county it’s a lot different up there. You can go up parts of the upper end of Lehigh County and it’s very rural yet. There’s some areas that have no development up there, and you have farms against farms against farms. We don’t have a lot of animal agriculture here.”

D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms was started back in 1930 by Mark’s grandfather; it was later passed down to his father in the early 1950’s, it’s second generation. The farm is now in its third generation with Mark, along with his wife Kathy, who took over in 1989.

A barn on D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms used for potato and equipment storage, amongst other things.

A barn on D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms used for potato and equipment storage, amongst other things.

The Lehigh County was a popular farming area not too long ago. Now, it’s become the exact opposite, as is much of the independent family agriculture world.

“You have to realize, when my grandfather started farming probably close to 75% of the population were farmers at that time, compared to today where we probably have less than 1% of the population farming,” said Lichtenwalner, as the two of us sat face-to-face in his cozy office, Mark in a a blue Starter sweatshirt over his long-sleeve plaid, his leg crossed.

“When my grandfather started farming this was virtually all farms. My father started farming in 1951; at that time Lower Macungie Township had I think he said 1,800 residents. I’m not sure what the population is now, I want to say it’s about 20,000.”

Today, it’s a lot different compared to a few decades ago. He wanted to keep the farm’s tradition going, but understood the difficult challenges it would entail over the years. One of the biggest challenges the family faced was the uncertainty of health benefits they were entitled to from the farm. Kathy, largely because of the health benefits, got a full-time job to help support the family. She’s an assistant to one of the county’s judges, and together, the two generate a sufficient income to keep the farm going. It wouldn’t be possible though if they both worked solely on the farm. She helps around the farm when needed, but Mark handles the bulk of the workload on a daily basis.

“Does your wife worth with you here?” I asked.

After a slight pause, Lichtenwalner continued. “Um, let’s say she lives here,” he said with a laugh. “She enjoys the farm and there are times when we’re very busy, and I can get her to do things for me…She’s always maintained, ‘This is hard work, I’ll go out and get a job. It’s easier money.’ So that’s what she does. That’s how it kind of evolved. She goes out and works for a large reason to get the health benefits, and then I can continue to farm here.”

“Was there a time where you thought about if you wanted to do this and carry on the tradition or do something else?” I asked.

“Well, I suppose when I was like 18 [or] 19 in college, I could’ve decided to do something else,” said Lichtenwalner. “But at that point I thought I wanted to do this. When you’re young you get new ideas and you want to do this [and] do that. And that time too it was a very good time to come to the farm; my dad had a large operation at the time [and] he needed the help. And even though at that time I knew that the land we were renting was not in the hands of agriculture interests, it was still there for a long time.”

The issue of factory farming was introduced in the late 20th century, and the result of independent family-owned farms like Lichtenwalner Famrs have continued to take a drastic hit. The decline is clear even to the novice. The Census of Agriculture states, “the number of U.S. farms fell sharply until the early 1970s after peaking at 6.8 million in 1935…By 2002, about 2.1 million farms remained.” [1] Growing up in an area that was virtually all farming area back when the farm began, Lichtenwalner has experienced the effect factory farming has had on the family agriculture industry first-hand. Surrounding farms have gone extinct, the market for certain crops isn’t there anymore, and Kathy was forced to pick up another job in order for the farm to essentially survive.

It’s late-March and Lichtenwalner is getting ready to begin yet another agriculute season, despite having to endure cold weather conditions that continue to linger around. But what Mark grows on his farm is a little different than in the past, largely due to a decline in market value for a a number of foods like eggs, wheat, and potatoes. There’s not a market anymore for certain foods that have been successful for the farm in the past.

“In the 1970’s, he [Mark’s father] had reached a point where he was renting a lot of land in the area,” said Lichtenwalner. “At that time, this was still a very agriculture area; he was farming about a thousand acres. We had an acreage of corn, we had soybeans, we were still growing a fair amount of wheat at that time, [and] we were growing barley [and] we were growing oats. From an animal standpoint, my dad had about 3,000 laying hens at that time…A lot of the farms around here that had chickens at that time for egg production would have typically about 10,000.”

He continued with how the farm’s current egg production is a fraction of what other local farms produced just a few decades ago.

“The markets for small-scale animal production have pretty much disappeared,” added Lichtenwalner. “If you’re looking at egg production now, one of the reasons we stopped producing eggs was we really did not have a market for small-scale egg production. We had individual customers that like to buy our eggs, but there was always a surplus. We had no where to go with that surplus.”

It seemed as if all the cards were stacked against Lichtenwalner and his farm. But instead of giving up the farm, he continued to keep the tradition alive.

A machine used in egg production at D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms. Mark has roughly 70 chickens.

A machine used in egg production at D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms. Mark has roughly 70 chickens.

We live in a country where mass production is a necessity. Companies that can buy in bulk packages will go the route of factory-produced foods compared to food produced on family farms. It’s more cheaper to buy from a factory farm instead of the organic food found on family farms. This mass production of food in factory farms is what has ended many family farms in the past; D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms may be heading down that inevitable road as well. But as we all know, as does Lichtenwalner himself, we’re a society that desires the cheapest possibility.

“I think if you’re an outsider looking into this, and not from an animal welfare standpoint but from an efficiency and business standpoint, you look at how efficient this is,” said Lichtenwalner. “I think at how we did things, and we had, I thought, an efficient system. But we were small volume. These big outlets, they can get the best pricing on everything and they can buy they best technology out there. They’re extremely labor-efficient. And what that all boils down to is they can put a product out on the market as low-cost as possible.”

Mark has about 70 chickens on his farm, and while their customers enjoy the quality of the eggs, they are mostly used for their personal use. He provided a simple, yet pinpoint, analogy that envisions the reality we live in today.

“There is some markets out there for some alternatives,” said Lichtenwaler. “When you go to the eggs case and there might be eggs for as cheap as a dollar a dozen from your factory farms. There might be something in between, which is maybe they come from a high density chicken-house, but they may be cage free, and those might be two dollars a dozen. And then you go to the end and these might be free-range organic and they might be like four dollars a dozen. Supermarkets only put stuff in that they can sell. Obviously, there’s a market for all those products, but which one do you think they sell the most of?”

“The cheapest,” I responded without hesitation.

“Yes!,” exclaimed Lichtenwalner.

“That’s the thing,” I added. “The consumers obviously are going to buy the cheaper stuff.”

“America likes it cheap,” Lichtenwalner said.

While the farm has lasted for over 80 years now, Lichtenwalner Farms could be going through its last generation. Mark and Kathy do have two daughters, both of whom are in college at the moment. While it’s not certain, it doesn’t look like either of them will take over and continue the farm.

“I’m thinking I’m the end of the road here,” said Lichtenwalner. “When I was a kid there were so many families I knew here that had farms; now as far as resident farmers here, theres only myself and another farm that live in the township…So I’m kind of the end of the road. My girls, I don’t think, have any interest in coming back to the farm. Although, who knows. And quite honestly, I would probably discourage them from coming back. Maybe if they have a good job and they can do this part-time, [then] maybe okay. The profitability just isn’t there.

“I would like to see the farm continue into the next generation. Although that’s fairly unlikely because what’s happened now with the farms disappearing, everything to support the farms has disappeared too. The markets start disappearing [and] the suppliers start disappearing. I’m very isolated here now, and it’s very difficult to continue farming.”

Sure, Mark could have sold the farm at a number of times since taking over, and the benefits would certainly be worthwhile. But in Mark’s heart, the tradition of D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms is more significant to him. He continues to work long days that begin at dawn (during the spring season) and he’s busy basically all day., which is a testament to Mark’s passion he has for both farming and continuing this historic icon.

“Is this a passion for you then to keep this farm going?” I asked.

“Well sort of,” Lichtenwalner began. “I guess the answer would be yes because certainly I would’ve had opportunities to sell the farm, and I could be in my condominium in some warm place of the world right about now and not worry about working.”

Potatoes and equipment used in potato production at D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms

Potatoes and equipment used in potato production at D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms

It’s a strenuous industry; Lichtenwalner is constantly tied up in the months of the agriculture season. You can find him cleaning the greenhouses, planting the crops, selling out of the store, and constantly picking the vegetables throughout the season. Out of season, he’s repairing equipment, working on new projects for the upcoming year, checking on the animals, and even playing frisbee with his dog. His work ethic is on constant display season after season in keeping this farm operating.

“What takes the time is when I got the vegetables; that’s very time consuming [and] that’s a lot of hand labor,” said Lichtenwalner. “Just everything that I do, it’s a lot to keep up with. So I’m hoping to scale some things back now and try to keep it manageable.”

Still, it’s a number of simple satisfactions that put a smile on Lichtenwalner’s face and makes everything worthwhile.

After a moment of pondering, Lichtenwalner began.

“There are moments that are satisfying,” said Lichtenwalner. “Like I said, we just finished up the lambing season; it’s kind of funny you came over there and you have a newborn lamb that’s up and nursing off mom and everything is going well. Of course we had some issues that didn’t go well. It’s very gratifying to see that.

“We get the corn planted and it’s coming up. You see these long string roads and every kernel comes up, and it’s like ‘Wow’. You sit back and think about it; it’s like wow how amazing that is that this actually works.”

You can find a lot of common agriculture on Lichtenwalner’s 130-acre farm that stretches about 175 acres with renting some land as well. Lichtenwalner grows a wide variety of vegetables (tomatoes, melons, cabbage, and squash) to go along with some of the more high-demand crops such as sweet corn and soybeans.

D.E. Lichtenwalner Farms is located at 4939 Indian Creek Road in Macungie, PA. Stop by during the season to try some of Lichtenwalner’s famous crops. You won’t be disappointed.

– Todd Kress

[1] Toews, Jacob C. “The Disappearing Family Farm.” The Real Truth: A Magazine Restoring Plain Understanding. The Real Truth. Web. 10 June 2010.

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