Catching Up with Scott Marshall, BSUS ‘16 & Marshall’s Heritage Farm

It’s raining profusely when we turn the bend and see the whipping wild flowers and sturdy greenhouse that signal we’ve reached Marshall’s Heritage Farm. We pull up next to a bright yellow jeep and a tiny hound puppy named Franco; sixty-some miles outside of the city, the Pittsburgh-ness is still palpable. Over the course of the next three hours, the rain pelts the Marshall’s family farm, ceases, and the sky opens into tentative happiness. Scott Marshall, Bachelor of Sustainability '16, owner and proprietor of Marshall’s Heritage Farm, has learned a lot of lessons in the past three years; one of which: “We work with mother nature, this is what we deal with.”

“We” is not a vague collective for Marshall, it refers to his wife, Lynne, his parents, Shirley and Randy, and his younger brother, Eric—the family team actively revitalizing a property that has been in their family since 1925. The team is all in: Scott spends Monday through Wednesday working the farm (Thursday through Sunday, he serves tables at local restaurant The Lot at Edgewater), Lynne works full time, Shirley does emergency mowing, and Randy shows up at the house just as the rain is ending, ready to work. Scott refers to their collaborative effort as a beehive, “Everybody is buzzing around doing something.” His gratitude is apparent, as is his commitment to keeping this farm a family endeavor.

Despite growing up on this very property, Scott never envisioned that he’d wind up owning, managing, and regenerating the land to run his own sustainable, organic farm. But things have been moving quickly since he purchased the farm in 2015 and completed his Bachelor’s of Sustainability at Chatham in 2016 as the first male undergraduate. Since then, Scott’s life has been a whirlwind of trial and error: planting, testing, failing, recalibrating, and trying again. In the first grow season, the Marshall team had what Scott called “an oversized family garden,” trying a variety of vegetables to determine what grew well and what didn’t. In 2017, they planted 250 tomato plants; after a blight wiped out just about everything, around twenty pounds of tomatoes made it to harvest. The setbacks exist, but that’s where the recalibrating comes in. This year, they planted more tomatoes in a different area, along with eggplant, broccoli, peppers, cucumbers, and shiitake mushrooms.

Blight happens, but, luckily, so does mold. After learning to inoculate shiitake mushrooms at Eden Hall Campus, Scott brought the practice to Marshall’s. The logs for inoculation were formerly trees on the property, identified by a forestry expert as the most sustainable and beneficial trees to remove from the forest. Just last week, Marshall’s shiitakes were featured on the menu at the restaurant where he works, marking the first time one of their farm products have made an appearance on a public menu. “That brought a smile to my face,” says Scott, who was serving tables that night. He has already received additional restaurant requests for shiitakes, noting the “distinct, nutty, earthy flavor” as a major draw, reflecting the type of snowball effect he is anticipating for the farm.

Chatham definitely sent me on the right path. I wouldn’t be where I was today without the sustainability program. It helped me write a business plan to get financing and learn more about starting a business. I met some incredible professors and students along the way. I made contacts that I would’ve never made in the sustainable agriculture family.

Sustainability is at the heart of everything Marshall’s Heritage Farm does. The soil is slowly churning itself back to life after nearly thirty years of treatment with chemicals and pesticides. By May of 2019, approximately four acres of the land will be USDA-certified organic. The goal is to have the entire 105-acre farm converted to organic within twenty years. In the meantime, compost is added from a local distributor and the farm’s own small collection, as well as lime to regulate the pH level. They keep pests away through intercropping, a technique that turns plants’ pests against one another. For example, tomatoes are planted next to cucumbers because a pest drawn to tomatoes attacks the pest drawn to cucumbers. Another sustainable technique is the planting of marigolds and nasturtiums in between rows of vegetables to keep away rabbits and other pests.

Eventually, Scott plans to trap rainwater in cisterns so that it can be used to water the greenhouses, a technique he first saw employed by Eden Hall Farm Manager Tony Miga, MSUS '14, at Eden Hall. Presently the team is putting the final touches on a new greenhouse they received through an EQUIP grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, funded by the USDA. Scott is collaborating with local farmer Alexis Shank, Fat Raddish Farm, to develop a crop plan that will allow them to grow through December in a greenhouse-regulated climate. On the menu? Cold-loving crops like spinach and carrots. Scott’s goal is to expand the growing season, using the greenhouse year round in order to provide products to restaurants at the beginning of the summer season and into the winter season. He also plans to spend a weekend at Penn State, learning how to be a forest steward and to start construction on a washing and packing facility.

Given the sudden trendiness of organic farming, you might expect that Marshall’s is eager to get on the next crop fad. Though Scott discusses the potential of hops and then hemp, for soil regeneration, these possibilities are far from top of mind. His biggest aspiration, “To make the farm self-sustaining, to keep it in the family for as long as possible, and to regenerate the soil—all while making a modest income.”