Locally grown food takes root in Wayne County

By Louise Ronald

The demand for locally grown food is on the rise – around the nation and in Wayne County, Indiana.

Scott and Tina Johnson of Johnson Family Farms near Fountain City talk to customers at the Richmond Farmers Market. (Photo by Louise Ronald)

Some local entrepreneurs are banking on it.

One year ago, Scott and Tina Johnson planted their dream near Fountain City.

The couple grew up in the area, Tina in town and Scott in the country. He would have loved to stay on his family farm, but it wasn’t large enough to provide a living for both him and his father. So he and Tina moved to Maryland, where Scott managed a corporate potato farm.

He enjoyed the work and learned a lot about the business side of farming. At the same time, he became aware of a consumer demand for locally grown food.

Laying hens at Johnson Family Farms are free to walk between the barn and this fenced-in area. (Photo by Louise Ronald)

When what is now the home of Johnson Family Farms went up for sale, Scott and Tina saw an opportunity to be closer to their families and try a different kind of farming. Locally grown “is really just starting to take off around here,” Scott said. “We could be … on the forefront of that.”

At the end of October 2016, the Johnsons took possession of just over 40 acres of land that hadn’t been actively farmed for more than 30 years. It didn’t even have fence posts.

Now that same land is home to meat chickens, laying chickens, hogs and cattle. Over the summer, there were fields devoted to sweet corn, feed corn (for the cattle) and popcorn (for an area kettle corn maker).

Scott had previous experience with corn and hogs, but other parts of the operation were new. “I had to learn other sides of agriculture to make it work,” he said. That included how to keep chemicals and antibiotics at a minimum, as well as how to raise chickens and beef. And the Johnsons’ future is likely to involve more learning. They hope to breed their own cattle and hogs, and to expand their vegetable production. They picture a full-service website where customers can order food and request home delivery of their purchases.

Sweet corn, a perennial favorite, grows at Johnson Family Farms near Fountain City, along with feed corn and popcorn. (Photo by Louise Ronald)

“From the beginning, this was a primary business,” said Scott, who sees himself as an entrepreneur as much as a farmer. The Johnsons have a regular stand at the Richmond Farmers Market and a shop on the farm open Wednesday through Saturday in the afternoons.

So far, sales have been good, but Scott is keeping a close eye on the bottom line. “The first year of any business, you’re just hoping to stay afloat,” he said.

Fortunately, the Johnsons are getting a big boost from another Wayne County entrepreneur, Kyle Turner.

Turner and a partner are retrofitting an old building in Centerville as the future home of 5 Arch Brewing. The brewery and beer garden isn’t expected to open until August 2018. However, it will only use the basement of the building. The upstairs will be a shop for Johnson Family Farms.

“I don’t think that (locally grown) is a fad,” Turner said. “I think people want to consume food that’s naturally raised and you know the people that grew it. … I think (the Johnsons) are the perfect fit.”

Plans are to open the shop by the beginning of March 2018. Details – store hours, products available, etc. – are still being worked out.

Anyone with doubts about the popularity of locally grown food doesn’t have to look far for proof.

Coordinator Caleb Smith, left, welcomes a visitor to the Richmond Farmers Market. (Photo by Louise Ronald)

“It’s astounding the growth that the Richmond Farmers Market has seen in the last three years,” said Caleb Smith, who coordinates the market for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. In 2015, the market had 41 approved vendors. By 2017, the number exceeded 100. Over the same period, season passes – rental of space for all summer markets – went from three vendors to 38. All Richmond Farmers Market vendors must demonstrate that they grow or make the products they sell.

Smith estimates that 700 to 800 people show up at the average Saturday morning market. The common wisdom, said Smith, is that you know you have a good market when people come even when it’s raining. “We’re starting to see that,” he said.

And those people are spending.

After each market, Smith asks vendors to report their earnings anonymously. Not every vendor reports every week, but the numbers are “off the charts,” he said. During a total of 116 market hours between May and September, vendors sold more than $75,000 worth of goods – including produce, meat, prepared foods, live plants and craft items.

Neil McDivitt of Fountain City has been selling produce at the market for five years. McDivitt Farm is about two acres dedicated to sweet corn, melons, tomatoes and other vegetables that routinely sell out on a Saturday.

Not much is left of the product on the McDivitt Farm table at the end of the Richmond Farmers Market. (Photo by Louise Ronald)

“This is a hobby-type thing,” said McDivitt. He has gardened all his life and loves selling his crops at the market. “It’s a great place to socialize.” One customer in his 90s always comes for yellow tomatoes. McDivitt makes sure to save the best ones for the man, who rarely has much to say. That doesn’t matter to McDivitt. “It’s a relationship,” he said.

Gary Keesling of Pappaw’s Hunny Farm near Hagerstown said a lot of vendors at the market are like McDivitt, basically selling surplus from their home gardens. What they used to give away to friends and family, they now treat as a sideline business, bringing in a little extra cash.

“There’s more market because people are wanting more natural stuff,” Keesling said.

Shoppers at the market have lots of questions about the food they buy, said Jerry Stamper of Stamper Farms near Greens Fork. “I’ve had at least one person per farmers market wanting more information.”

Stamper has a unique operation. After heat-related illnesses prompted him and his wife, Janet, to cut back on conventional gardening, he started taking agriculture classes at Ivy Tech Community College and discovered aquaponics. “It’s been a passion ever since,” he said.

A sample beehive gets attention at the Richmond Farmers Market booth of Pappaw’s Hunny Farm. (Photo by Louise Ronald)

This summer was his third year raising lettuce, green beans, tomatoes and cucumbers in recirculating water. Each Saturday, he brings his crop for the week, and each Saturday, he sells out.

Jerry Stamper explains his process of growing lettuce with aquaponics. (Photo by Louise Ronald)

That’s rewarding, but it isn’t enough to make a living. Stamper admits he’d rather experiment with new crops than concentrate on making more money. He recently bought a breeding colony and is raising tilapia at his farm. Selling the fish is another matter. “We need ways of affordable processing,” he said.

He is optimistic about the market for locally grown, however. “It’s just a matter of time,” said Stamper.

Brian Golliher of Golliher Meats near Cambridge City came to the market from a different direction. A lifelong farmer, Golliher describes himself as “passionate about cattle.”

About five years ago, “I realized I didn’t know much about my cattle after they left the farm,” Golliher said. “I realized that I had a great product … that I could take directly to the consumer.”

At first, other members of the farming community “just kind of laughed a little. … Now they watch what I’m doing,” said Golliher. “To me, the big picture is bringing agriculture back to the farmer.”

Cutting out the middle man has increased his profit per animal, and selling directly to his customers (he also maintains a store at his farm) gives him lots of information about what they want.

Smith uses Golliher’s example to talk about how the farmers market helps keep dollars in the community. When Golliher’s daughter was taking dance lessons, he paid her teacher – a regular shopper at the market – with money he made there.

“That’s exactly why (locally grown) is important from an economic and quality-of-place perspective,” said Scott Zimmerman, executive director of The Innovation Center in Richmond. “If we embrace local foods, that is job potential, that is money available that goes into the local economy.”

A sampling of summer produce available at the Richmond Farmers Market. (Photo by Louise Ronald)

The Indiana Department of Agriculture sees that same potential for the state. The department is working with a commission appointed by the lieutenant governor to develop Indiana Grown, a product designation which helps Hoosiers identify goods grown, made or processed in the state.

“When you buy Indiana Grown products, you are keeping dollars and food close to home and supporting your fellow Hoosiers,” says IndianaGrown.org. “You are also supporting job creation and building sustainable communities, while preserving Indiana’s agricultural heritage.”

Brian Golliher’s wife, Julie, is one of two specialty crop regional representatives for Indiana Grown, providing marketing and wholesale assistance to members.

“I think it’s important to be a part of your local economy,” Julie Golliher said. “Keeping your dollars close to home, you’re not just helping the farmer you’re buying from, you’re helping the community.”

Indiana Grown is nearing a membership of 1,000, she said. And it’s not limited to agriculture. Go to the website and type in any product to see the Hoosier connection. “It’s an easy way to find local stuff.”

Julie Golliher and Caleb Smith were featured speakers at the recent annual meeting of the Wayne County Farm Bureau. Locally grown “really has become quite a big thing,” said Max Smith, president of the county bureau. “It’s an expanding business and an opportunity for people to get into agriculture.”

Shoppers browse the Richmond Farmers Market at Elstro Plaza during the summer. The winter market starts in November. (Photo by Louise Ronald)

Wayne County Purdue Extension Director Jonathan Ferris agrees. “There’s a market for this locally grown stuff,” he said. “Farmers are savvy business people.” In the last 10 years, he has seen more farmers putting in one or two acres – or even one or two rows – of specialty crops.

Purdue now has a small farms team to help with marketing and meeting regulations for direct sales to the public.

Large-scale agriculture isn’t going to go away, Ferris said, but locally grown demonstrates that “there might be opportunities to do all kinds of things we haven’t even dreamed of yet.”

Ed Bell talks to participants in the Wayne County Area Chamber of Commerce Farm Tour about his strawberry-and-asparagus-growing operation near Hagerstown. (Photo by Louise Ronald)

Tell that to Jen Ferrell, owner of Radford’s Meat Markets, whose shops are filled with products from around the county and the nearby region. Or Rod Waltz, executive director of Quaker Hill Conference Center, who uses bi-monthly Fresh from the Garden lunches by Chef Rich Dornberger to spread the word about the center and what it has to offer. Or Ed and Debbie Bell, who grow and sell strawberries at their farm near Hagerstown – and draw as many as 1,000 people on weekdays and 3,000 on weekends during the season.

The Bell farm was the site of the Wayne County Area Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Farm Tour in 2017. “Locally grown did play a role in the decision to go to the Bell farm,” said Katie Alyea, chair of the chamber’s agri-business committee.

Alyea herself is a banker, but her husband farms and she appreciates how the locally grown movement has drawn attention to farmers and the vital work they do. “They don’t get a lot of recognition,” she said.  “Agriculture is such a big part of our economy.”

Reflecting on the crowds at the Richmond Farmers Market, Scott Johnson doesn’t think the popularity of locally grown is going to change.

“I think they’re just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We’re just scratching the surface.”

 

 

 


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