PALMYRA, Pa. -- Tom Maurer is no stranger to people in western Lebanon County. And for that matter, he's no stranger to people craving a return to more locally grown food systems around the state.
To him, it's about establishing the infrastructure for communities to get more of their food from local sources rather than get it from California, Florida, or even overseas.
To that end, his latest venture, a "real food emporium," as he likes to call it, will be the first step to his vision of creating a local food system from farmer to consumer in the town he calls home.
Located inside a 600 square-foot abandoned T-shirt factory, Maurer is shooting for a mid- to late-January opening for the emporium, which will include exclusively locally grown foods and products from a 50 mile radius.
Produce, raw milk, baked goods, meats and cheeses are among the items that will be sold at the facility, which is actually is made up of several buildings currently sitting abandoned.
Maurer's idea for the emporium came five years ago after he attended a soils course. It impacted him greatly as he learned about the importance of soil nutrients and how they impact the quality of food being cultivated from the land.
"The nutritional value of our foods has been going down since World War II," Maurer said, attributing it to modern farming methods and a food system that relies on mass production.
Maurer, who used to raise beef cattle just north of Annville, has already been an instrumental force in Lebanon County. He is director of the Lebanon Valley Food and Farming Association and is the co-founder of the successful Palmyra Producers Only Farm Market.
With the emporium, he hopes to not only provide a place where people can shop year-round to get local foods, he wants it to be the most nutrient dense they can find.
Producers selling to the emporium will have to get regular soil tests and grow their items using the Albrecht Method of soil management, which discourages the use of synthetic chemicals for fertilization and weed control and returns to a more natural process of growing crops. Soil fertility and nutrient balance is a major focus of the method.
If the initial launch goes well, Maurer has plans of expanding the facility to include a commercial food kitchen, educational classes, cold food lockers for producers and consumers, and possibly a meat processing facility.
"I think in the long run, the farmer benefits and the consumer benefits," he said.
There are still things to hash out.
Even though he has gotten the necessary town permits to get the business going, he estimates he will need at least $100,000 in start up costs.
Currently, the building, in a residential area of Palmyra on the corner of Forge Road and East Broad Street, sits abandoned, with the main building full of remnants of the old T-shirt factory.
An adjacent garage-style building, which he hopes will one day house an open air produce market, is filled with pieces of office and manufacturing equipment that needs to be cleared out before a market is opened.
The business will be set up as a "hybrid co-op" meaning that anyone selling to or buying products from the business will have to pay an initial one-time fee to join, followed by a yearly "maintenance fee."
He estimates he can get about 500 members within the community.
There are also some people, he said, that are interested in becoming investors in the business.
The challenge, Maurer said, is finding a happy medium where everyone will be able to share in the facility's profits.
But he thinks the concept of allowing people to take a little bit of ownership in the business is key to his vision of bringing food systems back to local communities and giving people a say in what they want they eat.
"We need to get the community involved in understanding and regaining control of our food systems," he said. "We've got probably a third of the food production in the country within a three-hour drive of here. Why do we need to go to China to get our food?
"People take a whole lot more interest if they have a financial interest in it."