A half-hour drive from Center City, in Springfield Township, sits 450 sprawling acres of farmland. It’s down the hill, a bit beyond the Woodmere Art Museum and Chestnut Hill College, in Chestnut Hill’s backyard, a few turns off Germantown Avenue next to Whitemarsh Valley Country Club.
You might have been driving along Flourtown Road and seen the farm’s shades of green and lighter green fields spotted with sheep or cattle. What few people know is that a vast limestone bed sits beneath the surface and contributes to fertile soil used to cultivate crops and livestock at the Erdenheim Farm, dating as far back as the days of William Penn.
And that Angus beef that makes those burgers you like? Erdenheim Farm’s got the cattle that makes the burgers, about 50 of them. They also have pure-bred lambs and free range chickens. They have asparagus, tomatoes, beets and more, though obviously not at this time of year.
This time of year, though, in the greenhouse were spotted different types of lettuce, mixed and micro-greens, alfalfa and one- or two- inch red sprouts resembling tiny pieces of coral that will soon grow to be beets.
“For a long time this was considered a hobby farm,” said Christina Reeves, 38, the farm’s property manager who joined the team a year and a half ago when new owners Peter and Bonnie McCausland purchased the land in coordination with members of The Whitemarsh Foundation (TWF). “With the new ownership we are trying to connect with the community and bring people in to see where their food comes from. It’s part of the know-thy-farmer movement.”
Early in the 19th century, the land was called “Erdenheim” by German immigrant farmer Johann Georg Hocker, the farm’s first recorded owner, after the German phrase for “earthly home.” After Hocker, in the 1860s, owner Aristides Welsh established a horse-breeding enterprise on the farm that produced Kentucky Derby racers.
This January, farmers at Erdenheim Farm took home the awards for a Cheviot Champion Ram and Cheviot Premier Breeder at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. That makes two more awards to add to the trophies and ribbons already hanging in shelves and on the walls in the front office, located at 5501 Flourtown Rd.
The farm show is like a dog show but with animals like Cheviot sheep, a specific breed of sheep, instead of Great Danes or Jack Russell Terriers. Judges look for mature pure-bred rams or male sheep with a straight back and legs, white coat, dark feet and ears on top of the head, explained Phil McMahon, Erdenheim Farm’s livestock manger.
One of McMahon’s responsibilities is to use his lifelong experience working on farms to select sheep with the best body structure, size and shape to mate. It’s survival of the best genetics. McMahon selects one ram to mate with many ewes, or female mature sheep. This somewhat scientific, somewhat intuitive process leads to better meat and stronger genetics.
Each year, on average the top 50 percent of lambs bred at the farm are sold to other breeders who like the lamb’s genetics and in turn might mature the lambs to breed more lamb. A percentage is also kept to age at the farm itself in order to replace older ewes whose ability to produce strong offspring are waning. A baby sheep is fully grown and self-sufficient within 60 days, according to McMahon.
And for the 23 years he’s been there, the farm’s operation has centered on breeding pure-bred cattle and sheep and raising free range chickens. But as the 21st century unfolds, Erdenheim Farm is strengthening its community ties and opening its doors to the public.
The staff recently opened a farm stand that sells fresh eggs, salad greens and mixed and micro-greens Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 6 p.m., something the farm is doing for the first time. Poultry is available through the farm’s Web site, and they are working on being able to sell individual items like ground beef and ground lamb. Nopw that spring has arrived, more fruits like apples and oranges and other vegetables will soon be available.
“The Erdenheim Farm is the jewel of the Whitemarsh Valley,” said Kim Sheppard, executive director at The Whitemarsh Foundation. “You would think you were in the middle of the English countryside; it’s so beautiful.”
In 2009 members of TWF, dedicated to the preservation, conservation and stewardship of the Whitemarsh Valley, purchased the farm’s 98-acre Angus tract, located next to the Hill at Whitemarsh, along Flourtown and Thomas Roads. They were assisted by the efforts of many parties including Whitemarsh Township, Colonial School District, Montgomery County, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Natural Lands Trust.
While Foundation members were raising funds to acquire the adjacent sheep tract, the conservationist-minded McCauslands expressed an interest in purchasing the entire farm.
In June, 2009, the Foundation purchased 91 acres of the sheep tract, and the McCauslands purchased 240 acres of the farm. At the same time, both parties entered into an agreement under which the McCauslands will continue agricultural operations on the entire farm. McMahon and Reeves are employed by the McCauslands.
“To keep a working farm in the community is a gift,” said Sheppard. “There are so many farms in the area that have been sold to development. The fact that the McCauslands came in and purchased the land and agreed to maintain the land in perpetuity as one tract, as it’s always been, instead of breaking it up, is remarkable.”
This summer, a 14-acre Dixon Meadow Reserve at the farm will open to the public, as part of increasing TWF and farm efforts to engage the community, according to Sheppard.
Before TWF and the McCauslands, and for the majority of the 20th century, Erdenheim Farm was a product of the American railroad boom. In 1912 it was purchased by George D. Widener Jr., a member of the Widener family of Philadelphia that made its money in the streetcar and railroad industries.
At the time of Widener’s death in 1971, a 117-acre portion bordering Stenton Avenue and lying on either side of the Wissahickon Creek was bequeathed to the Natural Lands Trust. The remaining land was bequeathed to Widener’s nephew, Fitz Eugene Dixon, Jr.
Dixon ran a “gentlemen’s farm” and raised prize-winning Black Angus cattle, Cheviot sheep and thoroughbred horses until his death in 2006, when TWF mobilized efforts to acquire the land, according to its Web site.
“When I was eight years old and went to the Middleton Grange Fair, I used to see shepherds from Erdenheim Farm showing their sheep, and I’d say, ‘How do I get there?’” said McMahon, 43, who lives with his wife and son at the farm. McMahon also volunteers at the 4-H agricultural program he participated in as a youth. The program connects youths with agriculture.
“It’s amazing I work here now,” he said. “Every step of my life has been geared towards it.”