This Grower’s Spotlight focuses on Nick Lubecki, or Farmer Nick as he is referred to around these parts. Farmer Nick manages Grow Pittsburgh’s one-acre urban farm in Braddock. He’s known for his dry humor and visionary ideas on our staff and we want to give him the mic in this Grower’s Spotlight to share what brought him to farming and also give a sneak peek into what’s happening at this year’s Braddock Farms Fall Festival on October 8 from 10am – 2pm.
Grow Pittsburgh: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started growing food?
Farmer Nick: I’ve been gardening since I was a small kid in our backyard. I was inspired by my grandparents’ bountiful garden in their side lot. A big part of my interest in growing has been to grow food for myself and family. I started working on farms to gain this skill. I enjoyed the farming lifestyle: work all day and cook all night. At least that’s how it was in my 20s (I’m a bit too tired nowadays). I still grow a lot of food to feed my family. I have a decent size backyard garden where we grow impractical crops like shelling peas and brussels sprouts as well as some of our favorites like strawberries, broccolini and rutabaga. I grow my own corn, beans, potatoes, onions, garlic, maple syrup, cabbage and so on. I love to cook and I like to make special foods for the holidays from the year’s bounty: I pickle whole cabbage heads for our stuffed cabbage feast and make hominy from my corn for porridge and tamales. Outside of work I like to relax by reading a ridiculous amount of science fiction. I also go camping and thoroughly enjoy canoe camping, backpacking and cross country skiing.
GP: What’s something you wish more people knew about the work you do?
Farmer Nick: Managing a farm involves a little bit of everything! It involves managing people, sales and order fulfillment, soil science, project management, being a biologist and entomologist, plumbing and construction, solving groundhog intrusions–all while working outdoors in the heat of summer. It’s endless problem solving, which is the exciting part! I recently even learned a little bit of computer programming to become a better farmer. I used it to have more efficient farm planning systems as well to build our ordering systems and record keeping systems.
GP: How has farming changed since when you started?
Farmer Nick: My personal approach to farming has become more efficient. I get older every year and want to make my life easier. The interesting part is that as farming has become more efficient and easier, I think our productivity has increased and our ability to train/ teach people who work on the farm to grow food with clear systems has also improved a lot! What is more efficient farming? Some of it is dropping unproductive crops, some of it is things like building an automatic watering system, or building an online ordering system to replace handwritten orders. I’ve noticed the soil on the farm improving over the years, I credit this to many years of cover cropping. Another thing that has changed is definitely the weather, 90 degrees in Pittsburgh used to be very rare. Now it’s the norm, starting in May. This means some of our crops can overheat in mid spring so we have to change how we grow things to keep the crops cooler.
GP: What crops are you most excited about growing this year?
Farmer Nick: There are few things so satisfying in life as growing a decent onion.
GP: How do you plan to celebrate Braddock Farms’ 15-year anniversary?
Farmer Nick: We will be celebrating the farm’s 15th birthday at our annual Fall Festival on Saturday, October 8th from 10am to 2pm. Our farm stand will be open during this free event and we will have lots of food made with farm fresh veggies. Folks can participate in a dessert contest and monster vegetable contest, and the “farm Olympics” games. Activities include lots of seasonal crafts such as the popular straw baby, corn husk dolls and gourd decorating. There will also be demonstrations of seasonal things such as: apple cider pressing, paper making, sorghum milling, and seed saving.
GP: What does being a part of Braddock Farms’ in recent years mean to you and how do you hope to continue the impact?
Farmer Nick: It’s been wonderful getting to know folks in Braddock over the past few years. I’ve learned a number of great recipes from our customers at the farm stand. One of my favorite parts of being here has been putting on the fall festival for the past few years. While I hope folks enjoy the vegetables we sell at the farm stand and learn how to grow food at the farm, it’s also wonderful just to have a fun day at the farm playing goofy games, making silly crafts, eating food with friends and just enjoying yourself. We plan to keep growing nice vegetables for the community and having fun events. We hope to do more cooking demonstrations at the farm stand in the future and have even more opportunities to learn how to grow food.
GP: What are some lessons growing food has taught you?
Farmer Nick: I recall when the pandemic hit, someone said to me, “You seem to be handling this tumultuous time well”. I replied “Well for farmers, it’s always the end of the world.” It’s so true, some crops are always failing, some insects are out of control. You forgot to water some crop for 4 weeks straight and now it looks like garbage, or a whole week’s harvest got left out overnight and is wilted to death. Something is always completely failing. And you move on, and keep going, because you don’t really have another option. Many other things are also doing fine or well. You survive and get through the season.
GP: How do you hope to learn and grow your skills as a farmer in the future?
Farmer Nick: The thing that keeps farming and gardening exciting is planning and scheming for “next year” based on what you did and learned this year. There is always so much to learn and due to the constraint of growing seasons, you sometimes have to wait an entire year to try something differently. I keep a notebook with things I observed this year and want to try next year. I revisit this notebook during the planning season to incorporate it into the next season’s work. It’s also important to keep up with current events in the farm world, through newspapers, conventions and talking to other growers.
GP: From the Grow Pittsburgh’s values, which one resonates with you the most?
Farmer Nick: Food sovereignty and social justice. I think a big part of the whole point of Braddock Farms is to be an asset to the community of Braddock to celebrate the small miracle of vegetables and fruits grown right here for this community. There’s so much food that could be grown in yards and gardens. I hope the folks who work at the farm and come to workshops can feel empowered to feed themselves and their families.
GP: What advice do you have for folks who want to become farmers like yourself?
Farmer Nick: If your goal is to become a farmer who sells vegetables: find the type of farm you want to have one day and work on a farm like it for five years. Ideally work for at least two different farmers to get a broader point of view. Become a manager on someone else’s farm before starting your own and do it for several years. Learn from the mistakes of others and the secrets of successful farmers. You do not need to reinvent the wheel. Many young people start farm businesses with very little experience. Ii know I did. It was hard and I made a lot of mistakes. While I’m glad I know what I know now, it was unnecessarily hard. There’s a secret shortcut in life: work for successful people for several years and learn from them.
Not everyone needs to grow food to sell. The world needs more folks who grow to feed their families. If your goal is to have a great garden to grow great food for your family: I’d also recommend working at a farm, even just part time. Or volunteering at a farm through something like our work-share volunteer program or Pre-apprentice program we have at Braddock. While you really can start literally anyway with gardening, you can skip a bit of the learning curve by getting some hands-on farming experience from area growers. You can learn effective techniques to grow bountiful crops for your family. Many farm scale techniques are amazing in the backyard and can save you lots of time and money in your growing endeavors.
Join us on Saturday, October 8 from 10am – 2pm for this year’s Braddock Farms Fall Festival. This is a free community event but we do ask that you register.
Do you know another local grower you’d like to see in the Grower’s Spotlight? Maybe it’s you! Drop us a line to be featured in our next newsletter or on our blog.