INDIANA ALTERNATIVE FARMERS: Living Change
Indiana farmers have contributed to an important but overlooked area of social-cultural change of the past half century: sustainable food production. Since 1970, Hoosier small farmers have helped grow notions and noshings of what it means to have “natural,” “organic,” “local,” "sustainable," and "just" food and foodways. They are part of a nationwide movement for health, taste, sustainability, and community--with a Hoosier inflection. This project captures the experiences of both early and contemporary alternative farmers in Indiana. It illuminates what did and did not work to support change in the past with the goal of identifying the most important leverage points for change in the future. In understanding how sustainable food systems--inextricably linked as they are to social, ecological, and economic systems; and to history, technology, and agency--Indiana small farmers can usefully inform local, state, and national policies that support a more sustainable tomorrow.
This project was made possible by a grant from the Indiana University’s Arts and Humanities Council and the New Frontiers in the Arts & Humanities Program.
Food production involves trade-offs: social, economic, and ecological; short- and long-term; local to global.[i] While some choices are delimited by national policies, many choices that precipitate such trade-offs are navigated by individuals and their close advisors “on the ground,” or in this case on the land. Indiana’s locally-oriented food producers offer a window onto how such trade-offs operate in a food system. In particular for this project, participants in the “alternative” farming movement have helped to establish, and re-establish, foods and food options that are shifting the way so many Americans today eat, would prefer to eat, or believe they should prefer to eat. So-called natural, organic, heirloom, grass fed, pastured, homegrown, free-range, wild, and artisanal foods pioneered on small farms affect the way even global producers, such as Pepsico with its new “Simply Organic Doritos,” are thinking about food. Engaging revivalist and countercultural movements, these farmers have partnered with consumers across Indiana to create flourishing markets, distribution hubs, subscription services, and other direct-to-consumer methods that help to support small-scale farms, remake foodways, and feed the Hoosier version of a nationwide hunger for health, taste, sustainability, and community. For decades, the agricultural sciences and industrial producers dominated the conversation about what and how to eat with their successful innovations to standardize and maximize. However, today the vision and technical innovations of alternative agriculture are lauded by mainstream social, health, economic, and environmental advocates. As the early farmers of alternative food age out and new ones make their own contributions, new farmers are inventing a contemporary version of alternative agriculture in Indiana.
Pertinent questions include:
Who are the people of sustainable food production in Indiana?
What are the perceived socio-cultural, economic, and ecological trade-offs they navigate in developing innovations that support locally- and sustainably-oriented food production businesses? What tipping points do they experience?
What can we learn about Indiana and, more generally, about trade-offs in sustainable food systems that can improve plans for a healthful, resilient, and just future here and beyond?
An important assumption in this project is that Indiana matters—in food, sustainability, and social change. Indiana poses both a generative context for the study of this intersection and one that bears on national and international conversations about the future of food. The nation’s tenth largest agricultural state, Indiana is in the food big leagues, an important player in what and how the nation and the world eat, producing $11.2 billion in food each year, including $99.1 million in certified organic products, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.[ii] While 5400 farms in Indiana earn more than $500,000 annually, about five times that many, 26,000 farms, earn less than $10,000 on an average of 34 acres each, and an additional 15,300 farms earn $10,000-$99,999 on an average of 121,000 acres each.[iii] Small farms, which tend to sell close to home and use uncertified but organic practices, are often not counted in the state’s organic totals[iv] nor are most covered by crop insurance or many of the policy protections afforded larger outfits. They fly under the economic and analytic radar and are more vulnerable to adverse circumstances yet have had outsized impact on what many Americans now think of as good food and achievable mechanisms for building community. Moreover, far from the homogeneity assumed by flyover pundits, Indiana’s small farms host an interesting mix of traditional, technology-forward, rural, urban, urban diaspora, immigrant, ideologically-, and religiously-motivated people who use diverse theories of value and meaning to make their decisions. In addition to the richness posed by the people and places of Indiana within its context, the state offers a generative location from which to engage larger national and international conversations about the knowledge of social, ecological, and biological trends held in local communities, as noted in the recent assessment by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.[v] Our interviews of alternative food farmers in Indiana--both late- and early-career--target how they understand and steward the food system in which they live and work. Their experience adds to larger discussions about sustainable food production, especially adding the under-scrutinized perspectives from agricultural identities and occupations within an industrialized nation.
This project extends my 2007 and 2017 books on local food movements, which unbundled both premise and practice of “local.”[vi] We use the groundwork of those earlier findings to orient a deeper dig into the lived wisdom that Hoosier small farmers can provide on food in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as a system, an interconnected, interdependent network of social, economic, and ecological elements that feedback and interact on vital process and functions that affect the whole.[vii] That system is instantiated by trade-offs that include social, economic, and ecological dimensions--organic and other unconventional practices vs. input-based agriculture, new and direct markets vs. commodity and wholesale ones, identity and race, family expectations and responsibilities, self-efficacy, aging and life stages, community relations and dynamics, financial opportunities and dilemmas, ecological stewardship decisions, and so on. Humanist perspectives are particularly well-suited to uncover and make sense of such intersecting systems of value and meaning and to share them with new farming populations, the general public, and scholars.
[i] J. M. Robinson, E. Brondizio, J. Farmer, K. Waldman, S. Giroux, “Convergence: RAISE: Multi-Dimensional Trade-offs in Food System Sustainability,” Grant proposal to the National Science Foundation, April 12, 2019.
[ii] National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA, “2018 State Agricultural Overview,” May 20, 2019. Accessed May 20, 2019.
[iii] G. Matli and S. Reynolds, Indiana Agricultural Statistics 2017-2018. Accessed May 20, 2019.
[iv] A. Torres and M. Marshall, Characteristics of Indiana Vegetable Farming Operations, Purdue Extension, Jan 2017. Accessed May 20, 2019.
[v] IPBES, “Indigenous and local knowledge in IPBES." Accessed May 20, 2019.
[vi] J. M. Robinson and J. A. Hartenfeld, The Farmers’ Market Book: Growing Food, Cultivating Community (Indiana 2007) and J. M. Robinson and J. R. Farmer, Selling Local: Why Local Food Movements Matter (Indiana 2017).
[vii] R. Ackoff, Creating the Corporate Future (Wiley 1981).
Thanks to Leila Mzali for interviews and consultation and to Sherri Dugger and Marcia Veldman for sharing their time, advice, and knowledge.
ANALYSIS AND APPLICATIONS
Build belonging and reciprocity. Chester and Janice Lehman tell a classic story about the reciprocity of farmers' market communities. When a hail storm strikes in June, destroying their fruit crop, not only family and neighbors but also customers with whom they may have done little more than bond over the sweetness of a peach contributed time, effort, and money to sustain Olde Lane Orchard for another season. Common critiques of markets say that they are unrealistically idealized or harken to a romanticized past. But for a growing family dependent on the dwindling stability of spring weather, the prospect that they "wouldn't have made it" without help becomes a story of contemporary and future success, and, in actuality, a record of it. Thus it is that the effort they made in relationships, peach by peach, apple by apple, over many years, bore its own fruit.
What may be overlooked is the the fragility of such connections. One might say that they prevail despite the differences among people at markets. Certainly, differences can be invisible to the casually engaged as well as plain. Religion, gender, race, history, class, ability, nationality, and struggles of many kinds are present but not always immediately apparent. When they are made apparent, intentionally or not, they can make uncomfortable market neighbors or even represent mutually exclusive ideologies--Republicans beside Democrats, Marxists in a capitalistic space, Christians beside atheists, First and Second Amendment advocates and their resisters, supremacists and bigots inundated in the vast sea of human diversity.
Markets can fully serve people by intentionally facilitating access, expression, and belonging by diverse groups. The challenge to farmers' markets--which often reflect the demographics of their surrounding communities, for example looking mostly white in a majority White county like Monroe, Indiana--is to create spaces that extend out-loud welcome, respect, and capaciousness for diverse individuals and communities. A salsa day, a breast cancer walk, or a tai chi demonstration offer a public space for recognition, but they don't break down entrenched silos that special days can reify rather than remake.
Markets must move intentionally toward fostering individual relationships and coalition building that can yield the kind of reciprocity and generosity that the Lehmans, members of a religious minority, experienced in the wake of a calamitous hail storm. These are the age-old mutual aid networks that can fill gaps from more formal sources, not displacing specialized organizations or policies but diversifying, complementing, and back filling. The Nobelist Elinor Ostrom found that multiple organizations covering a single area ("polycentric governance") tended not to duplicate but rather enhance efforts.1 So we need not worry too much that there are too many cooks in the aid kitchen, at least not at this level.
Still, it will not come as news to anyone who has worked at farmers' markets that it's easier to call for improvements in human relations than to make them happen. Humanizing people seemingly different and defamiliarizing those seemingly similar can draw us all into proximity that allows for clear regard and informed choices. Moreover, some resource not only are not finite but also expand through broader use: a healthfully grown peach consumed by a hungry person now pays wide physical, social, economic, and environmental benefits.
Support growth: in knowledge, responsibilities, and wages. Kyle and Maeve Smith emphasize that the value of food and the motivating factors for many sustainable small farmers can't be measured in simple dollar signs. They value their role in the food system and embrace their potential to share a foundation of health with others: "That gets me really excited, just knowing that this is one of the best things that you could eat yourself or feed your kids or your family."
The Smiths' comments, along with RJ Poggioli's, point to the knowledge and skill acquisition necessary to run a farm business successfully. Their experiences show how a single individual can be a learner one minute and a mentor the next, an inspiration to one person and a junior colleague to another. This recursive continuum of roles can keep an individual engaged and challenged while both their learning and teaching can serve the wider community.
Likewise, Jim Sigman has experience the cyclical nature of work, assisting his father in farming in the early years, leaving the farm for a career in midlife, then returning to farming later in life, when he also caretakes for his father.
While RJ and Jim managed to find developmental career path (apprentice, owner, manager), many small farmers can find themselves stuck in one position--as an intern or apprentice who can't afford a farm or as an owner who had little training. Reaching a "tipping point," as Kyle pointed out, may mean risking more by hiring help or scaling back to take on more work off-farm.[FN Robinson] Farmers benefit from having room for growth and inhabiting multiple roles, yet there may be few supports available to build the many agricultural and business skills necessary to run a successful small farm. Pathways into and through the profession are still largely discovered individually.[FN Robinson]
In the years of growing children, all three families know keenly the necessity for a living wage. They provide examples of how important the decisions during those years are. To maintain its capacity, society as a whole should foster diverse skills, goals, and dispositions, especially for those willing to take on the risks associated with experimentation and leadership that diverge from the remunerated mainstream. Different times of life afford different needs, and public institutions should support them.
Support new farmers. Veteran grower Pete Johnson, midcareer farm manager RJ Poggioli, and USDA conservationist Martha Miller all concur that on the challenges of beginning farming. Part of the challenge is in understanding the scope of the job and the limits one can put on it. Johnson notes: " The choices and trade-offs made to support a farming lifestyle are well known to those in the field: scale back monetary needs, work more, work off-farm, take on debt. Johnson goes on, "nobody grows at small scale who wants to get rich. And I understand now why the family in Massachusetts [where he learned about farming] was always on the phone and making deliveries because they could pay people to work in their fields that would free them up to the aspects of the job where you can make more money even though it’s not the aspect that appealed to me. So, I guess it was as only as time passed that I came to understand that tradeoff. And I’ve accepted it. But I feel like it’s probably a good thing for anybody to understand up front who’s seriously considering doing this sort of work." He says, "we’re always gonna be living very modestly. And fortunately, we’re both okay with it."
Make experience available. "I feel like I – having done this for a bit over 30 years that if I can make it another 30, then maybe I can qualify as a wise, old farmer," Pete Johnson says. "But I guess, I wish there had been an easier way to get the knowledge and experience. Because I didn’t know of anybody in the Woburn [MA] area in the ‘90s that I could have sort of been an apprentice to that would have been a good arrangement. . . . I remembered Jeff [Hartenfeld]’s flyers for looking for employees for his cut flowers [at Hart Farm in Indiana]. And I wish I had done [work like] that. At the time, I didn’t know who he was and didn’t really know what his operation was about. Having seen it and seen how much knowledge and experience he has, I wish that I had worked for at least one growing season with him."
Build on changes. RJ Poggioli and conservationist Martha Miller both note that the demographics of farming change over time, creating new opportunities and constraints. Poggioli notes that, as the average age of farmers in the US continues to rise, new farmers are needed and new access to farmland should open up, particularly with targeted government support.
Miller emphasizes how women's social roles have changed over time. As women increasingly work outside the home more, they need more and better quality retail food, creating a market for sustainable farmers. She also notes that, although there will be no one solution to providing sustainable food, bringing in more small farmers is not easy: "The future of sustainable and local food varies county by county, with room for variety. Small scale farming requires a great deal of work to be profitable, as well as the ability to purchase land upfront, as renting land can often be prohibitively expensive. Small scale farming is a tough sell."
Miller also notes that the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic spawned "more gardens than before, even in rural areas." This growth in "grow your own" ethic was set up by supply chain shortages. It was probably further facilitated by the fact that women are still most responsible for food provisioning and that they, more than their male partners, were apt to stay home with children--giving women both time and incentive to become small, household food producers. [fn burris]
It remains to be seen, after the pandemic, whether households (and women especially) will continue to produce some of their family's food and if some grow them into retail businesses. [FN Robinson pandemic]. We can be sure that things change and rather than resisting that, we might better spend our energy in staying open to new possibilities that serve the most and most needful in the best ways possible.
Think big. An insightful online post by Beth Applegate (June 23, 2019) encourages those supporting social change to get "clear about what the short, medium and long term goals are" and to coordinate those among strategic coalitions of advocacy groups. She notes, "The most common 101 organizing mistake is to start with tactics without clearly articulating the goals and identifying the decision makers who have the power and authority to give your group what it wants." As local food grows, it's likely to fragment and become competitive across outlets. However, the share of food dollars and food households for local as opposed to industrial food remains puny. Sustainable food competitors need to keep their sights on developing a good customer base and do so collaboratively, with "strategic coalition building across the local advocacy groups," as Applegate advises. "Ask yourselves, are you meeting in coalition? Have clear short, medium and long-yet goals been set within each advocacy group? Of those advocacy group specific goals, have shared goals across advocacy groups been identified? Are our tactics based on our goals, or are we just identifying tactics sans goals and sans being matched to decision maker who have the power and authority to act on your group’s/coalition of groups demand."
IF YOU wish to submit stories about Indiana food producers, or reflect on your own experiences, you can consider the following key questions:
When did you begin and what do you grow? How did you get started?
What makes your work interesting? What do you wish others knew about it?
What has been the greatest factor in your ability to continue farming? Can you give an example?
What has been the greatest challenge for you to in farming? Can you give an example?
How could your farming have been made easier, either in getting the business going or in keeping it going? Can you give an example?
What is one piece of advice you would offer someone just coming in?
Who else should I talk with to understand sustainable food production better?
Preferred contact info
You can submit your interviews, reflections, and photographs of Indiana Sustainable Farms and Farmers here: