Pennsylvania’s Regenerative Farmers Cultivate ‘Lifestyles, Not Just Livelihoods’Feb 26, 2021 09:35AM ● By Sheila Julson
As American farmers age out—the average age is 57—removing barriers for the next generation of farmers is crucial. Two regenerative farmers shared with Natural Awakenings how their regenerative agriculture methods brought swaths of Pennsylvania farmland back to life, and how they’re supporting future farmers.
Retired plastic surgeon Pam Ellenberger says that she, along with her husband, Dr. Paul Stelmach, “came backward into farming.” As an avid knitter for more than 50 years, she researched natural fiber and eventually started raising alpacas for fleece. But it was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma through which she learned about Joel Salatin, a Virginia-based farmer who uses regenerative farming techniques. Salatin’s efforts inspired her to start raising chickens.
While Ellenberger says they originally bought their farm to raise alpacas, their focus has shifted over the years toward animal welfare and improving the land. Bent Limb Farm produces pasture-raised meats from chickens, turkeys, pigs, goats and lambs, all with regenerative methods such as rotational grazing.
“Chicken manure is very hot and will kill everything if you leave the chickens in one place all the time,” she explains. “Moving chickens daily gives the ground just the right dose of fertilizer, and it keeps the birds away from parasites in the manure.”
Ellenberger notes that when she and Stelmach had first moved to their property, the ground was so undernourished and hardened that they had to use a masonry drill bit to penetrate the soil to place portable fence spikes. Today, much of the soil is healthy enough to support permaculture gardening.
In addition to rotationally grazing the animals, Ellenberger’s regenerative techniques include giving the animals GMO-free feed, and composting their manure to spread onto the fields. She uses herbs and essential oils whenever possible to keep the animals healthy. Pastures are seeded with multiple species. Her goats provide natural weed control by eating growth such as poison ivy. Everything works together in a harmonious farming ecosystem.
Ellenberger explains that regenerative farming leads to healthier products for consumers because the animals develop their muscles while moving around on the pastures. While small regenerative farms can’t feed the world, they can support lots of families with good, healthy food. Ellenberger emphasizes that to scale up regenerative farming in the United States, we need more young farmers to pursue what she describes as, “a lifestyle, not just a livelihood.”
She hopes to partner with a produce farmer to use part of her land to grow vegetable crops. Interns interested in regenerative farming had worked at Bent Limb Farm prior to COVID-19, and Ellenberger hopes to invite them back once the pandemic is under control.
“You’re not going to make money farming like you would being a hedge fund manager, but it’s very rewarding. Being a farmer isn’t easy, but being a doctor or an accountant isn’t easy, either” she observes.
Ellenberger emphasizes that the public can best foster regenerative farming for the future by purchasing products from local farmers. “Tour their farms. Ask farmers how their animals are raised, if they use hormones and what kind of feed they use. If they can’t look you in the eye and answer your questions, then they’re not the farmer for you.”
Rising Locust Farm Fosters a Regenerative Community
As suburban professionals, Kay Rhodes and her husband, Frank, had achieved what most people would consider the American Dream. They had a long-time interest in growing their own food, so after their kids had grown and moved out, they decided to change course. “A farm had always been in the back of my mind, but our intention was to never farm alone. We would find young people to work with us,” says Kay.
The couple had purchased their property in Manheim nine years ago to cultivate their new venture, Rising Locust Farm. Their son, Harrison, works on the farm full-time as livestock manager and co-visionary. Using regenerative farming methods with an emphasis on permaculture—earth care, people share and fair care—they raise nutrient-dense, grass-fed meat, eggs and shiitake mushrooms grown on oak logs in forests on their property.
Kay explains there are two aspects to their regenerative model. The agricultural arm focuses on the health of the soil. They planted thousands of trees on their property to raise cows and sheep using silvopasture grazing, a method that deliberately integrates trees and grazing livestock operations on the same land.
“The animals graze between the rows of trees. The trees are regenerating the soil, the animals are regenerating the soil, and the tree rows are creating habitat while retaining water,” Kay explains. “We now have more birds, too.”
Regenerative farming includes responsible management of woodlands on farm property. Little Chiques Creek, which flows into the Susquehanna River, runs through their property. Kay says they received trees from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to create a riparian buffer to protect the creek. They’ve also added a small orchard and shrub fruit trees that produce different types of berries with the help of farm community members Donna Volles and Erica Jenkins.
The other aspect of their regenerative model focuses on people and community. They have invited young people to live and work on the farm to collaborate and grow the farm. “One of our long-term goals is to be able to offer land access to start-up farmers who don’t have land. We would give them a portion of pasture for little to no rent to get their business going on our land,” Kay says. “We recognize the injustices of the whole capitalist system that has allowed us to benefit so much. We feel like it’s our obligation to give back to some people who might not benefit from the system.”
Without hesitation, Kay says that land access is the largest hurdle to enter farming. “Land is expensive, and food is artificially cheap because of industrialized agriculture. Growing quality food and selling it at a price that will provide a living for the farmer, yet stay at a price point that people can afford, is next to impossible.”
She believes that heightening awareness of where food comes from and the true cost behind producing quality food would go a long way toward solidifying the future of regenerative farming. “We’re always looking to partner with people. We want to create connections and community with people where we are. Most of us cannot influence global, national or state policy decisions, but the more we develop relationships with people working, eating and growing near us, the more we can accomplish.”
Bent Limb Farm, LLC, is located at 592 Stone Hill Rd., in Shoemakersville. For more information, visit BentLimbFarm.com.
Rising Locust Farm is located at 1339 Creek Rd., in Manheim. For more information, visit
Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines across the country.