BATESVILLE — Keynote speakers Nate and Liz Brownlee explored “Where we all fit in a Diverse and Thriving Food System” at the Food and Growers Association Winter Conference Feb. 1 at Batesville Middle School.
While Nate’s first farm experience made him decide he didn’t want to be a farmer, the pair worked on Maine and Vermont farms for five years. He recalled, “We had a blast supported by great mentors” and an ag network. One mentor taught them “how to raise animals in a respectful way” when they were still vegetarians.
Six years ago the couple moved back to Indiana to her family’s land in Crothersville, calling it Nightfall Farm after their favorite time of day. The flat acres are “right around where the glacier stopped.”
“When we moved back to start the farm, we had a blank slate.” Her parents had rented out the land for conventional row crops for 40 years. “We came back to stubble pasture to support the livestock we were hoping to raise.”
The first year the Brownlees planted cover crops to provide “a lot of growth to help the soil rebound. That was great for our animals.” Now more established grasses keep the soil healthy.
He reflected, “Sheep fit our land the best. Sheep like to eat grass. We don’t like to mow.”
They have decided to raise more laying hens “because eggs are so popular. Everybody’s always running out of eggs.
“We also do turkeys.” On the screen flashed a photo of his wife surrounded by the birds. “It gets lonely sometimes in the field. She’s doing chores.” While the photo shows just Liz Brownlee with 100 turkeys, Nate pointed out, “USDA recommends a pound” per person of turkey at Thanksgiving. “That’s about a thousand people I can see in that picture.”
“Chickens are great for the pasture” as they fertilize the land and help keep trees from growing in. The farmers move a temporary pen called a “chicken tractor” every day so the birds can feed at a new area.
“Then we raise pigs. We run a meat CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) with about 55 share members in Madison, Columbus and Seymour. We also sell to a couple chefs and retail at the (area farmers’) markets. We keep ourselves busy,” announced Nate Brownlee, who had just arrived for the afternoon speech after selling at a Saturday winter market in Madison. More details about their farm are available at www.nightfallfarm.com.
Liz mulled over the phrase “a diverse and thriving food system.” She said candidly, “We noticed right off the bat when we moved home to Indiana from the Northeast there was a stark difference in the maturity of the food system here.
She contended Indiana is 10 or 20 years behind the coasts in agricultural practices and trends. “We can take their lessons and their examples and implement them here.”
A slide showed a wheel shape with different sections denoting all facets of a food system: production, processing, distribution, access, consumption, waste recovery. “We need all of them if we’re going to have a diverse and thriving food system.”
Of production, she noted with over 50,000 farms in Indiana, only 1,500 (3%) produce “people food — anything that’s not corn, beans, cotton or wheat. We could be producing a whole lot more” than vegetables. “We could have year-round production in Indiana. We could also have a whole lot more dairy in our food system,” plus bread, meat, eggs, honey, barbecue sauce, wine, salsa, tortillas, coffee and tea, “things we all wish we could buy every Saturday at the farmers’ market.”
Brownlee reported, “We need more farmers. The average American farmer is 58 years old, male and white. In the next five years, 100 million acres of farmland will change hands. Where’s it going to go ... subdivisions ... big corporate farms?”
Both are involved with the National Young Farmers Coalition Indiana chapter “to be better allies to people in our community.” They are working on equality, “treating everyone the same; and equity, insuring everyone has everything they need to succeed.”
“We’re doing our best to lift up young farmers in Indiana. ... Young farmers are more likely to be females with college degrees, people of color, growing a diversity of food and selling it in their communities.”
Then she considered processing needs. “The reality is we’ve lost most of the infrastructure and knowledge needed for processing the food we produce.” Butcher shops are closing. “88% of meat producers said access to processors is challenging.
“The Venture Out Center, Madison, is the coolest thing since sliced bread! It’s not just a commercial kitchen. ... They have industrial grade everything. You can rent the space by the hour or week and produce the product you’re looking for, not just for the farmers’ market, but (places like) Kroger.” One hour from here, it’s a USDA inspected space.
Farmers on the coasts are handling distribution by getting trucks to deliver crops to consumers and restaurants. “Transportation was a big hurdle” for Vermont producers until 24 banded together to form Deep Root Organic Truck Farmers. The trucks move items totalling $3 million annually (an average of $125,000 per farm). “That’s a game changer for those farms. They never have to drive the truck.” A food hub handles the ordering and delivery.
The farmer believed, “A strong and thriving food system isn’t just about distribution, but aggregation,” putting various crops together to make a product, such as a sauce. “Not everybody wants to sell their foods at the farmers’ market.”
Tackling access, Liz said, “You have to be able to get the food we’re producing.” Local foods can be purchased at farmers’ markets, CSAs and farmstands. To increase the bottom line: “You can start thinking about institutions: groceries, chefs, schools, hospitals.” It really helps to educate the community about where local foods can be eaten.
“We produce food from somewhere for those who can afford it and food from nowhere for everyone else,” was a saying Nate Brownlee heard at a recent conference.
To provide access to fresh fruits and vegetables to all, novel programs have started. One farmers’ market offers double bucks of SNAP, formerly called food stamps, “so they get twice as much food as they would have.”
The Milwaukee farmers’ market has a fruits and vegetables prescription program. “They have gone around to the doctors’ offices and asked the doctors to kick in” money. Then physicians will write their patients prescriptions for farmers’ market items, suggesting, “’Why don’t you start eating preventatively and help your health?’” A patient might get 20 $1 coupons. “The farmer still gets paid, the market master gives him or her the equivalent money.”
That market also has been innovative in a different way. Hmong Americans, the largest Asian ethnic group in Wisconsin, moved in, but didn’t have land or capital to grow crops. The market group purchased farmland for them. “Many of those farmers are selling at the market and many are just feeding their own families.” New immigrants were helped while unusual crops began being sold.
In Greenfield, the hospital is writing fruit and vegetable prescriptions. Participating farms donate products.
About consumption, she observed, “Hoosiers spend $18 billion on food. We’re the 10th most agriculturally productive state in the country, but we import 90% of our food.” What a difference it would make if Hoosiers financially supported farmers more. “We can all vote with our forks three times a day.”
The speaker detailed how Americans are eating. “We’re not seeing as much cooking as we could.” Annually this is the breakdown per household: eating out, $2,642; snacks and other food, $1,511; meats, poultry, fish and eggs, $973; fruits and vegetables, $819; bakery and cereal products, $597; and dairy, $467.
Waste recovery was the last part of the food system wheel. “Americans waste 40% of the food we purchase, which is abysmal. That’s terrible and we all feel bad about it. That’s $1,800 annually for a family of four.” After Vermont voted on a universal recycling bill, starting this July it will be illegal to take any organic matter to the landfill.
She questioned, “How can you help make this system work? Maybe you don’t need to buy as much food. Eat ugly fruit. Donate food. Use food you’re not going to eat as feed for animals. Compost food,” then spread the material around the garden or yard to make plants healthier.
The couple are partnering with the Madison food bank. Extra produce not distributed to clients or past its prime is given to the Brownlees, who feed it to their pigs.
Does the state have a diverse and thriving food system? Liz Brownlee admitted, “We’re not there yet. There are pieces missing in Indiana. There is still more work to be done.”
It seems ironic that the average Indiana farmer makes $34,000 each year, while input suppliers, such as seed and fertilizer salespersons, average an income double that.
She reported, “We are often the price leaders.” Nate explained their prices can help elevate those of other farmers “to get closer to that livable wage.”
He emphasized, “Food has a cost.”
One attendee had a final question. Janna Kreider, Shelbyville, asked, “Where do you see the future (of local foods) in Indiana?” Liz Brownlee responded, “I think what we’re seeing on the coasts is a lot more local foods in restaurants ... (and) grocery stores.” A shorter food chain organized by a food hub that puts farmers in control “seems to be working really well.”