It's a scorcher today, and the asphalt lot at the East Liberty Farmers Market isn't making things any better. Under the canopy that shields her produce from the sun, Margaret Schlass bustles around her lettuce and kale, snap peas and Swiss chard. Her long brown hair flowing like an untamed river, she is meeting, greeting, schmoozing.
"Thanks for coming," Schlass says to a customer in a blue-jean skirt and red plaid blouse. "Despite the heat."
The woman smiles, having bought regular beets instead of the conical variety — which, Margaret says, are more dense and a bit sweeter. "For really fresh produce," the woman says, "it's worth it."
It's worth it for Schlass as well, which is why she trucks her farm-fresh produce from her fields in Gibsonia and Valencia every Monday. "I really like all the different people," she says. "They come from all over the city for this market."
Indeed they do, hundreds of them, a crowd as diverse as the city itself. Schlass seems to know them all, or at least the hundred she'll admit to. And they seem drawn to Schlass for her own home-grown good cheer, as much as for whatever comes out of the ground.
"My favorite shopper!" Schlass greets a slender woman in a straw sun hat, coming around her makeshift counter to give the woman a hug.
This one prefers the candy-striped beets, and points to a positively glowing bunch of carrots.
"There's nothing like fresh carrots," Schlass beams, and bags 'em up.
In another life, the Pittsburgh native went south to Delaware, to study art history and anthropology. Traipsing off for her senior year in Peru, she discovered herself — not by dusting off old ruins, but through observing food planning and agriculture. "It was eye-opening," she recalls. "I found I was very good at understanding the process." She pauses. "It made me feel like myself."
Back in America, she started working on farms, first here, then on Long Island. Finally, she returned home, leasing farmland in the North Hills. She's been operating One Woman Farm since '08, producing 100-odd items every year: beets and cabbage, squash and zucchini, cukes and beans.
Despite the operation's name, though, she quickly found the work too much for just one woman to handle. She's retained three full-time hands along with seasonal part-timers, even volunteers like her dad, who pulls counter shifts at the East Liberty market.
If Schlass is not in the fields, she's working elsewhere. Winter means the greenhouse, seeding peppers and onions. Early spring sees seeding broccoli and cabbage, spinach and beets. By May 1, she's selling summer squash. In June, she was seeding winter squash and heirloom beets. This year, she also spent some time praying the rain would stop: Too much rain means the ground will remain too wet for fall planting.
Summer brings harvesting and selling. After that, she'll have to focus on maintenance, including making repairs to her half-dozen tractors, ages 35 to 68. They need a lot of coaxing, Schlass sighs, and more than a little love.
Through it all is the tax of paying taxes, payroll, benefits — all of which she handles herself.
All told, running the One Woman Farms equals 12- to 14-hour workdays.
Despite the schedule, this is a nice business for Schlass, and scores of other farmers who grow and sell in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio. But she's in it for something more.
Her produce is certified organic, meaning she uses only natural substances, including limestone, manure-based fertilizer, and such cover crops as oats, rye, buckwheat and legumes to enrich her fields. And as part of the Community Supported Agriculture network, she drops off weekly pre-paid baskets — each containing of six to 10 items — to 130 customers in Allison Park, Glenshaw, Squirrel Hill and Mount Lebanon.
"By subscribing to CSA farms," she says, "people are saying, ‘Yes, this is something we want in our community.' They're opting for food that is organic, fresh and local." She pauses. "They're saying, ‘Do we really want all our food coming from California?'"
Apparently not, at least not on a steamy Monday in East Liberty.
"I have such great admiration for you," a woman in a gray Reizenstein Rams T-shirt says, holding aloft a bag of redskin potatoes. "You're doing such a great thing."
Schlass smiles. "See you next week!"