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So You Think You Can Farm?

An interactive roadmap to starting your own farm.

 

Fresh air. Flexible hours. Good grub. Sure, farming sounds nice. But it’s no picnic. The number of Hoosiers in the field has declined steadily for decades, and with good reason: Farming can be prohibitively expensive, labor-intensive, high-risk, and usually all three. Survival often requires going against the grain—sometimes literally. Here, a beginner’s roadmap based on three recently sprouted farmsteads.

FIRST STEP: PICK YOUR PRODUCE

OPTION A: Take a Fresh Approach
Vegetable production is on the rise, particularly in Central Indiana—the number of veggie farms in Marion County alone nearly doubled from 2002 to 2012. Pros: Farm-to-fork cultural cachet. Cons: Competition from California and Mexico.

CASE STUDY 1: Keep It Small
Matthew Jose started Big City Farms by approaching near-eastside property-owners about planting rent-free on their vacant lots. After a few years, he moved to a couple of one-acre plots—paid for in produce—behind Midland Arts & Antiques downtown and at a northwestside residence. He sells the likes of carrots and cucumbers through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions and farmers-market and farmstand sales. Yield: About $45,000 a year. Before expenses.

METHOD USED: Sustainable
Loosely describes any number of growing methods that follow a similar standard and ethos as organic, but without USDA imprimatur and label. Pro: No red tape. Con: “Take our word for it.”

BONUS ROUND: Menu, Please
Like many urban farmers, Jose also supplies restaurants (Bluebeard, Recess, Milktooth). This summer he began an exclusive partnership with the Love Handle restaurant on the near-east side.

WANT TO BUY/LEASE YOUR OWN?
4 near-eastside lots at 2020–2038 Langley Ave. Terms: Available through the Indy Urban Garden Program. Price: From $2,000 per lot, or free to lease.

CASE STUDY 2: Tip the Scales
Matt Ewer and Beth Blessing’s fast-growing Green BEAN Delivery provides local organic
veggies to subscribers. But at first, they couldn’t find enough to fill the bins. So they began Feel Good Farm. A friend’s father leased them 60 acres in rural Hamilton County, where they raise a range from eggplant to peppers on a “production” scale. Now, close to $500,000 in, Ewer says they’re still perfecting a workable organic model.

METHOD USED: Certified-Organic
USDA guidelines prohibit the use of chemicals and other practices in order to carry an official organic seal of approval. Pros: Premium pricing, “feels good.” Cons: Requires three years before qualifying; Ewer says inspections cost up to $2,000 per year.

BONUS ROUND: Supermarketing
Ewer is confident that plans to expand their Tiny Footprint Distribution, a third company that sells to grocery stores, will put their veggies on even more tables. 

WANT TO BUY YOUR OWN?
42 acres in Bargersville at 601 N. 400 W. Includes: Historic 3-bedroom farmhouse, 5 outbuildings, pastureland. Price: $450,000.

OPTION B: Grains Supreme
Corn and soybeans cover about 75 percent of Indiana’s roughly 15 million farm acres. Pros: Proven business model and financing, worldwide food/energy demand. Cons: Expense (an acre of farmland can cost about $8,000, and the average Indiana farm invests nearly $150,000 in equipment); commodity-market volatility.

CASE STUDY 3: Just outside of Fort Wayne, Chris and Marah Steele took over a 180-acre, fourth-generation corn-and-soybean farm from Chris’s grandfather in 2006 to create Steele Farms. “Everyone told me a small farm can’t sustain itself,” says Chris. They diversified by raising cattle, pigs, and chickens; selling meat onsite; and starting a seed dealership.

METHOD USED: Conventional
Incorporates mechanization, GMOs, chemical pesticides and herbicides, and petroleum-based fertilizers. Pros: High yields, feeding the world. Cons: Expense of materials and seed, bad press.

BONUS ROUND: Think Outside the Bin
The Steeles play to the agritourism trend with a corn maze, a pumpkin patch, hayrides, a retail shop, and events like barn dances. The features account for nearly a third of the farm’s revenue—a larger share than the row crops.

WANT TO BUY YOUR OWN?
108 acres in Westfield at 3634 W. 193rd St. Includes: 2-bedroom farmhouse, 2 barns, silo. Price: $2.7 million.

This article appeared in the August 2015 issue.

Since first joining Indianapolis Monthly in 2000, West has written about a wide range of subjects including crime, history, arts and entertainment, pop culture, politics, and food. His feature stories have twice been noted in the Best American Sports Writing anthology and have received top honors from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “The Collapse,” West’s account of the 2011 Indiana State Fair tragedy, was a 2013 National City and Regional Magazine Awards finalist in the category of Best Reporting. He lives on the near-east side.
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