Jennifer Meta Robinson
INDIANA ALTERNATIVE FARMERS: Living Change
Images and Voices
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.
Johnson County, IN
"I left the farm in '85. I quit farming at that point in time. I didn't want to [get away from the farm when I was growing up]. It's just economically it wasn't feasible for me to continue to farm. I had family and that. At that point in time interest rates were 15-16% and it just was not economical for me to farm. The economy was so bad I should have quit two or three years earlier. And so, I just told [my dad] that I can't continue on, so we sold off the cattle and that and he rented the farm out for a few years. And then, as he got older when he retired, he started breaking down the ground and selling that – Farmers, they don't have big 401Ks. So, that's what he lived on. And he'll be 97 here before too long, so.
Dad, when he basically retired, he started raising a big garden and had more than he could use. And so, he started going to the market. Down there in front of the library, on the street.
That's really what it was, he started with from there. I mean, he'd sold off property and stuff and he just had some property left. And it went down to 12 acres. We used to have 370 here, but he sold off all the rest of it. And he had planted these trees back in 1974-75, something like that, a bunch of apple trees. And they started cultivating them and add more to them. I've added up to them, we have about 150 of it now, because that's all I can take care of. And I just ordered another 50. Three to five years [until the trees produce fruit]. You may get a little bit in three years. Four or five years they should start going full production. So, I'll be 70 years old, so I'm gambling that I'm going to make it to 74, 75.
I moved to Arizona for two years. Then I moved back here. I spent 37 years as a mortgage banker. So, that's how I spent my time.
When I came back from Arizona and I started helping some. And then, when I got ready to retire, I just took it all over full time.
I grew up farming, milking cows, so farming, that's what we did. And so, it was a learning experience for me to go into vegetables because I knew how to raise corn and beans and make hay.
I've always picked myself. We've only had 70 [trees] that's in production. I've always picked myself, and my wife. . . . She's helping out here now, Patricia is. She's stepped away from her job this year [of the pandemic] because she was going to 12, 15 people's homes every week. And with this stuff going on she said, "I'm not going in though." And I don't blame her. So, she's been helping me, and then getting more into it.
What we did was we bought Dad's place, but gave them a lifetime to stay. I drive out here [to the farm] every day. That's 23 miles and he's here.
That's the way we farm it.
I leaned on a lot of his knowledge over the years that he gathered for 20, 25 years and he's helped me with that. And I've got one son that I think might end up here before too long, might start to get some interest in it. And if he does, then I'll try to bring him into it.
All that growing the vegetables and stuff, fertilization and insecticides. I mean, you got to keep the bugs out of this stuff. With apples, if you don't take care of your apples you've got nothing.
"In the 70s and 80s,
most everyone had a garden, and there wasn't a real need for farmers' markets in rural areas. Those who were farming for production on a smaller scale with an eye to environmentalism or sustainability remained very fringe and rare.
The entrance of women into the workforce expanded the market for sustainable or home-grown food when women no longer had the time to effectively homestead. People began to miss those tastes.
During [the pandemic year], there are more gardens than before, even in rural areas.
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.
Soil and Water Conservation District
Monroe County, IN
Chester and Janice Lehman
Olde Lane Orchard
Daviess County, IN
"Chester: We didn’t used to bother with tomatoes a whole lot, but we’ve learned. I do it as a safety net. I go ahead and plant them just in case I need them.
One year, it was 2011, it was the end of May, and we had just almost finished thinning peaches. It was looking to be a good year. And we got a severe storm that dumped, just dumped hail, large hail.
Janice: It was wind-driven hail, came with the wind. . . .
Chester: It didn’t last but a few minutes, but it just stripped the trees. I mean, all over the ground was just leaves and fruit.
Well, that was tough. Yeah, we immediately within days started planting vegetables, but it was a little late then. I mean, it was about this time of year.
Janice: We had a lot of good help, though, that year.
Chester: Oh, yes.
Janice: That’s how we dealt with it.
Chester: Yeah, we wouldn’t have made it.
Janice: Financially people gifted us.
Chester: Great customers at market that found out about it, sent us checks.
Family members pitched in. So –
Janice: Some people helped us plant, remember that?
Chester: Yeah, people came and helped us plant tomatoes.
A conversation with Leila Mzali
Image source: https://bloomington.in.gov/farmers-market/vendors/olde-lane-orchard
link or contact info
"Kyle: I’ll tell you what motivates me to do stuff out here for that day when I could do it full time. I don’t know. Several things. 1.) Just being a part of a product that is super-healthy for folks is great. Like, I know this project is good for you, whoever you are, assuming you’re not intolerant to something, a certain – food group or whatever. 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. Bein’ around my family one day, and again, to what Maeve was saying, not having to go 10 hours a day somewhere else and then getting the leftover energy of me.
It’s a really fun community. I feel like every farmer we’ve met are just great people. They just – they care about one another. They care about good food. Same thing. They wanna feed their customers the healthiest thing, so really supportive community. I’m just wired where I like to see the end result. I like to see something grow, and then – I don’t know. It’s just really rewarding.
Maeve: Yeah, it’s kinda making me sad just seeing the beginning and then the very end of going to market and being with customers and how that – I don’t know, it’s just the whole process of going from beginning and end. I definitely like doing markets and interacting with the customers.
Kyle: Yeah. That’s rewarding.
Maeve: Yeah. It’s really rewarding, and I think just – yeah. Working out here, I think, kind of having somewhat control over our day – I mean, we have – things have to be done. We’re the only ones that will do it, but it’s nice to not be tied down to a job. I
I still feel weird telling people, like, “I’m a farmer.” Because I feel like a lot of people theorize it as the bigger corn whatever. I don’t think a lot of people picture what you can grow on even ¼ of an acre. So, I do think it’s definitely still a new thing that’s popping up around.
Interviewer: Do you think that there’s a reason that a lot of young people aren’t farming even though farmers are kind of aging out?
Kyle: Probably one is, They don’t see many young folks doing it.
Maeve: I think probably – I don’t know. I think it is a hard thing to start up too. A big reason of just Kyle not leaving his job is to not have a financial burden. Like not just relying on just the farm for everything. And I think that helps us not be stressed out if we lose a whole bed of something. I mean, it sucks, the time and everything that went into it, but it’s not like [falling short on] a mortgage.
A conversation with Leila Mzali
Kyle & Maeve Smith
Monroe County, IN
Lost Pond Farm
Washington County, IN
"My wife and I both work part time. And we’ve never tried to do fulltime farming. I was struck by – when I worked at the farm in Massachusetts, the family that owned the farm – the members that were involved in the farm – always seemed to be either on the phone or in a truck making a delivery. And very seldom would I see them out in the field, which again that was what I wanted to do.
And so, I just made the decision earlier on that rather than trying to get a full year’s income during the growing season, I would only come to one market a week. And that would allow me to spend more time in the field the rest of the week and feel like I was really farming rather than just being a delivery driver, or making deals on the phone, or whatever else.
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. 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 was saying to Jen just now that I remembered Jeff [Hartenfeld]’s flyers for looking for employees for his cut flowers [at Hart Farm]. 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. And that kinda combined with the financial realities because nobody does – nobody grows at small scale who wants to get rich. And I understand now why the family in Massachusetts 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.
I mean, we’ve been pretty fortunate – that we have relatives that were able to help us scrap up the down payment to get to buy the land where we are now. We’ve been able to afford a nice chunk of land. We’ve got 57 acres. And it’s got the layout we’ve always wanted, which was about five acres of clearing surrounded by woods. So, we’ve got the woods above for privacy to keep agricultural spray drifting into our property. And so, we like where we’re at. But we’re always gonna be living very modestly. And fortunately, we’re both okay with it.
Image source: http://www.lostpondfarm.com/peteandleslie
Locations of the Indiana farmers we talked with. Map Courtesy of https://maps.indiana.edu/.
Living Roots Farm
Orange County, IN
"Leila: What do you think is the biggest hindrance towards people who wanna farm at a smaller scale?
RJ: Well, experience is definitely – like, you have to have experience and knowledge. And I think that would be the No. 1 limiting factor. But as far as continuing to grow the farm and going, it’s managing sales. It’s making your farm profitable. And I think that’s where a lot of people that are – like myself eight years ago – willing, and have the energy, and understand that there’s something good about – good to be found in local food systems, and growing quality food, and basically to make a living – to just – to see that you can support yourself and your family. That’s why I don’t own my own farm anymore. And my brother still runs it in New Jersey. But yeah.
I think that – I think there’s pretty good access to land because a lot of people are – a lot of elder generations are dying, passing on. And there’s not anyone to take over. So, there’s land access grant programs that the government sets up, which is good to find land.
And generally, you could probably find people’s land pretty easily to farm on. But just yeah. Doing the logistics of the marketing, the sales – that was the biggest challenge for me personally. I didn’t have a background in that. But aside from – yeah. Aside from the how to’s of how to grow – plant a seed to harvest, I think that just knowing that people have the ability to make a living makes the hard work a lot easier.
Okay. At least all this hard work that I’m gonna be able to provide for my family. Maybe it’s vegetables. Maybe it comes back in money. But yeah. I think that’s a really – I think that’s a big thing. We wanna – people need fair exchange for the work that they’re doing. And it’s a lot more than just that. But yeah.
Layla: Right. Do you have any off-land income?
RJ: Not at the moment. No.
Layla: Okay. So, you’re farming fulltime.
Layla: And you support your family?
RJ: I could. But we get by. My wife works. So, we’re doing – yeah. We’re doing better because of that. But yeah. I could. And I have an almost one and a half year old and one on the way too.
Layla: Oh, congrats.
RJ: Thank you. Yeah.
Layla: That’s awesome.
RJ: So, yeah. I mean, that’s come up more recently in my life. That’s the thing. 'Okay. How are we gonna support my family?'
It wasn’t a thing when it was just me. Yeah. I could get by.
But we’re talking about having people doing this long-term and sustainably. That’s a real issue. The value of the work and the amount of work is not getting met by them. And I think that’s just gonna change over time as we learn more about produce, and quality of production, and how to do things in a more sustainable way – healthier way.
A conversation with Leila Mzali
Image Source: livingroots.org