LM Sugarbush Maple Syrup Farm

My first memory of real maple syrup is while growing up in Michigan. As I remember it, we were driving through some of the beautiful forest that covers much of the state when we saw a maple syrup farm set up on a hill. We stopped, talked with the owner and begged Mom to buy us some syrup and maple candy. She knew we didn't know what we were asking... 

What we knew as maple syrup until that point was of the Aunt Jemima's persuasion with corn syrup, sugar, and a little maple flavoring. We quickly discovered that this syrup wasn't what we knew as our normal pancake topping. And Mom was right- we didn't like it at all.

Twenty or so years later, I regularly purchase real maple syrup from places with real names. I've been enjoying LM Sugarbush's syrup for a while and was delighted when they welcomed me down this harvest season. The drive from Indianapolis to Salem slowly transforms from cornfields to forests, from flat to hilly, and it reminds me of my home state. I arrived on a quite and cold Saturday morning and Leane invited me inside her cosy log home to learn about the farm's history. 

Truly a family operation, Leane, her two daughters Jenny and Emily, and their husbands Nic and Robert run LM Sugarbush. They manage 40 acres of trees with about 5000 tap holes in 2400 trees and 14 miles of tubing. More than 30 years since its beginning, they are now the largest producers in the area. "A lot of people are surprised to find out that there are places that make maple syrup this far south. You usually think of Vermont or Canada but [maple syrup in Indiana] is an experience that you can have without traveling far." In Vermont they make their syrup as light in color as possible, which removes some of the maple flavor. Indiana syrup, on the other hand, is darker with a richer maple flavor. "I've had countless people say that they prefer ours," Leane said about the comparison. 

During early motherhood, a time when she had to be inside with the children rather than out in the woods helping her ex-husband, Leane conjured up the idea of a Maple Syrup Festival. Extra income wasn't her only objective in starting the festival. "Maple syrup lends itself to having people come and watch the process. It seemed like something that needed to be shared and adds a lot of pleasure for us to see people enjoy it so much."

After hearing the family story, Jenny, Leane's oldest daughter, took me out to see the property. Because of the unusually cold weather, sap wasn't flowing very much and there wasn't much action. Nevertheless, I saw the acres of tapped maple trees that, in providing food for themselves, create a way of life for this hard working family. 

This year's festival is February 22 and 23, and March 1 and 2.

In the Indy area, LM Sugarbush Maple Syrup is sold at Good Earth Natural Foods, Pogues Run Grocer, and Traders Point Creamery.

Lakeland Valley Goats

Precisely a year ago, I was amidst a two week stay on egg farms with sizable operations - something that was challenging my black and white view of farming and food.  Imagine my delight when I spent an afternoon at Lakeland Valley with Kate Little, a woman who I would quickly discover "spoke my language".

Basing her farm practices on environmental, economic, and social sustainability, the word care hardly describes how delicately and respectfully she treated her animals and spoke of farm life. Through much research and traveling the world to study goat meat enterprises with the Nuffield Farming Scholarship, she thoughtfully chose to raise this breed for their high quality meat and cashmere. 

Though I was staying on a much larger farm whose products were being sold in large stores like Asda (UK's Walmart), I was encouraged to learn that Kate and the Geldards knew each other and were friends. From what I know of farmer relationships in Indiana, there's more animosity than friendship between that small and large, conventional and organic, old and new farmers. I wonder how much that will prevent growth and empowerment as we move into a new age of farming.

 

Groundswell Community Farm

I pulled into Groundswell Community Farm in a hurry, anxious to catch the morning light on the fog. July in southwest Michigan is typically pleasantly hot and this day would be no exception. Nestled in low ground near Zeeland, Groundswell grows numerous varieties of almost any vegetable you could name. During my visit kale, lettuce, carrots, radishes, beets, parsnips, fennel, and kohlrabi were among the harvest. 

Katie and Tom, the wife-husband team who own Groundswell, are joined by seven full time farm workers. Influenced by parents who proclaimed them to be poison to their backyard garden, Katie told me that pesticides are never an option for their farm. Instead, they are thoughtful about how they plant and rotate crops. They use a variety of homebuilt tools and traditional tractors, often inheriting machines from retiring neighbors, and are fortunate to be situated in an area with very fertile soil. Called muck, this deep black soil is broken down organic matter found in a drained swampland. The rich plant matter gives them a healthy topsoil ranging from 2 to 28 feet deep, which a few of the farmers stressed was a unique element to their farm.

After touring the farm, I sat with Katie in the shade of the garlic tent, helping to bundle some of the 500 pounds of garlic that will be sold to the Seed Savers Exchange. The biggest challenge that Groundswell faces is the saturated market of small farms producing food for West Michigan. It's not uncommon to have extra CSAs at beginning of a season, which is forcing Katie and Tom to get involved in a side of business that hasn't been necessary yet- marketing. There seems to be ample interest and places to sell produce (Groundswell grows for 160 CSA members, 2 farmers’ markets and 4 health food stores) but "it's connecting to them and reaching a new group of folks."

 

WE Farm

“There was a lot of unconditioning that needed to happen,” says 32-year-old Josh Egenolf of WE Farm: The Wayne-Egenolf Farm, stirring locally-sourced cream into his coffee at Trader’s Point Creamery in Zionsville, IN. A much needed caffeine fix-- he’ll round out an especially long week of farming with a few hours of shilling his sustainably-raised meat at the Creamery’s bustling Friday evening farmers market.  

“The way dad or grandpa farmed is different. But the way I farm is not unlike the way my great-grandfather farmed. We’re trying to go back and harness that knowledge,” says Egenolf.

Located in eastern Owen County, about a half hour from Bloomington, IN, WE Farm inhabits 150-acres of pasture and forest, raising grass-fed beef, free-range poultry, and woodlot and pasture-raised hogs.

“There’s an information gap,” said Egenolf, “We were looking in books from the ‘50s to figure out how to raise pigs this way. We didn't invent this farm system. It’s proven.”

In addition to Traders Point Creamery’s market, WE Farm sells beef, pork, eggs, and chicken at the Bloomington Farmers Market. Their pastured meat is distributed to Bloomington restaurants including Restaurant Tallent, Upland Brew Pub, Feast, The Rail, and Finch’s Brasserie.

“These days, it’s all about relationship farming,” said Egenolf. “We cultivate these relationships with local chefs, our CSA members, other farmers-- even our butcher.”

Words by Kate Franzman. Find her online here.

 

This Old Farm, Inc

When This Old Farm first took root in Colfax, less than an hour’s drive from downtown Indianapolis, it was ten years before the nutrient-starved soil was restored and ready for grass. Erick and Jessica Smith had originally envisioned using the land for a vegetable garden, but when the soil is sickly, it turns out that what a vegetable garden really needs is a few animals.

Today, This Old Farm is a leader in sustainable, pasture-raised meats. They work with forty farms within fifty miles, enabling other local producers to process meats in a way that makes sense economically and environmentally. 

“We try to help farmers figure out what’s best,” says Conner, Erick and Jessica’s teenage son, and one of the farm’s most valuable players. 

For the Smith family, helping farmers figure out what’s best means researching and experimenting with new methods. One of the farm’s refrigerated compartments, for example, draws on Erick’s thesis in solar energy, and a fleet of reclaimed livestock trailers is the farm’s simple but brilliant solution to maintaining clean, nontoxic chicken coops.

“Farmers are smart,” says Conner, who, at 16, will be headed to Purdue this year. “We’re combating those old stereotypes about farmers and showing everyone what farmers can do.”

Words by Sarah Suksiri. Find her online here. 

Full Hand Farm

 On a hot, June day on the east side of Indianapolis, Genesis and Eli pull garlic scapes from the ground. The long, sweetly pungent ropes will be washed and trimmed by hand before they're sent off to a local chef that afternoon. Soon, their boxes are full.

Genesis and Eli are the husband-and-wife team behind Full Hand Farms, a veggie farm in its first year in Greenfield. The two high school sweethearts grew up in Indiana before dirtying their hands together in the soils of Iowa, Oregon, and their home state. Now, the couple is preparing for their next and biggest farming adventure: their very own 25-acre farm in Perkinsville, Indiana.

The momentum that’s followed them has been terrific. Already, downtown Indianapolis restaurants like Patachou are lining up for whatever kinds of fresh produce Full Hand has to offer. “The demand definitely outweighs the supply right now,” says Genesis. But she and Eli are hopeful the supply -- Indiana's population of small farms -- will find a way to catch up soon.

Everyone has their own theories about why Indiana has been slow to respond to the nationwide movement towards local food and better production systems. To Genesis and Eli, it's the state's lack of farmer-centric policy and communities that has many start-up farms feeling a little bit out to sea.

But no one knows it better than a farmer: some things just take time to mature. In the meanwhile, says Genesis, "it's a really exciting time to be in Indiana. The good thing about being behind is that you get to learn from others."

Words by Sarah Suksiri. Find her online here

 

FoodCon IV

The third Farm Stories show is fast approaching! This time, the pieces are a part of FoodCon IV, an "unconventional convention celebrating the art and culture of food in Indiana." My images from England and France to Indiana will be hanging next to other talented artists. Check out Harrison Center's website for more info. 

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Summer Update

I had the opportunity to speak about Farm Stories with the Indianapolis AIGA chapter this week. Not only was it great to share my stories and lessons from Europe, but it was great to dive into my archives of images. I experienced SO much in my three months abroad!

I visited a cattle auction in Cumbria, England.

I visited a cattle auction in Cumbria, England.

This blogspace may be quiet but a lot is going on behind the scenes. I'm working with some Indy-based writers to cover some fabulous local farms while I'm grounded for wedding season. They are stories that I cannot wait to share! 

Genesis washing lettuce for market at Full Hand Farm in Greenfield, Indiana.

Genesis washing lettuce for market at Full Hand Farm in Greenfield, Indiana.

Another update: I showed work at Foundry Provisions Coffee Shop last month and then was asked by the Harrison Center for the Arts to show more Farm Stories pieces for their FoodCon even in July. If you are an Indy resident, please come say hi! I'll be sure to share more details as they evolve.

If you're interested in following the day-to-day of Farm Stories, make sure to follow us on Facebook. We'll keep you in the know not only about this project, but issues and events surrounding worldwide farming and food issues.

 

Woodentop Farm

If I write a book about my life, I dare say Woodentop Farm deserves an entire chapter. I spent two weeks there and it was quite an experience. It'd probably be the most interesting story, full of colorful characters and strange occurrences. Alas, I am not purely in search of another chapter, more interesting than the last, for my autobiography. I'm out to learn about farmers who are thoughtful in their practices and are contributing to the betterment of our food system. While Woodentop wasn't that, there were some beautiful moments and gorgeous animals, so I figured I'd share anyways.

Daily Life

In February I finally returned to life of the small farmer. I spent two weeks at Northdown Orchard, a vegetable farm in Basingstoke, England. I’ll introduce you to Northdown through a picture of “home life” to begin.

“I love that I spent an entire day outside under the open sky. I harvested and cleaned leeks, making them “look sexy” as Andy put it, and weighed veg for the boxes that will be distributed tomorrow. Now I’m sitting in the living room near the wood burning stove. This is right. I love the worn, unfinished wood floors of this farm house; the bookshelves that are crammed with books about everything related to farming you can imagine; the open kitchen cupboards exposing a mismatched collection of glassware, plates, and an assortment of canned goods; the clothes that hang over the fire to dry; and the simple fabric curtains draped loosely and easily by the windows. I love seeing the light shifting through the day, casting shadows across the kitchen and then smelling an easy fire, hints of pine and a whiff of yeast from the rising bread dough. This life is deeply satisfying. It’s not exactly clean but  it’s not dirty either. It’s neither tidy, nor disorganized. The air is hot while sitting next to the stove, warm when gathered around the table for a meal, and cool in my room before I snuggle into bed. You take off your shoes before coming into the house, but it’s not for fear of dirt. The house exudes a worn comfort. Cats are ignored when, but not exactly welcomed to sit on the counter or table. And to top it all, I was welcomed to Northdown with a feast of roasted lamb shoulder with squash, parsnips, sprouts, rutabaga, beets, potatoes and wine. Goodness, what could be better?”

Northdown Orchard

Here’s a peek into harvest day at Northdown Orchard. It was still winter when I was in Basingstoke, so the harvest wasn’t as abundant as it is during the warmer seasons, but look at what all can be grown when it’s cold!

Free Range

If you’re like me, you read food labels. You reach for items with words like “organic”, “free range”, “cage free”, and “all natural” but do you know what these words mean? Over the last month I’ve visited a number of various farms (poultry, beef, pork, veal, etc.) and I’m learning that when stamped on our food, these words do not line up with the images in our minds or even basic dictionary definitions.

So let’s think about “free range”. I picture chickens in a pasture or amongst trees while scratching the dirt, eating bugs and bits of green growth. Now that I think of it, that’s not just my imagination. The egg carton is actually printed with this idyllic picture. Do you know what “free range” actually means in the American food industry? According to the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms website, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”

This does not mean that the birds have actually spent any time out of doors, ranging as they’d say, or that they have adequate space when they are inside. Here’s one image from an English free range barn. I have a feeling that it looks extremely different (worse?) in the United States.

So what do you do? As far as I can tell, the biggest way to find honesty in our food system is to buy from farmers and food producers that you’ve met. It may be today’s catchphrase, but “buying local” really is something. Because of the size of their production, small farmers may not have certified labels on their food, but chances are they’ll answer your questions honestly and maybe even let you come see the farm.

South Circle Farm

Not just anyone can take an abandoned city lot and turn it into a thriving farm.  I was about to say that Amy Matthews has a magical touch, but I know better.  She is an incredibly hard working and dedicated farmer, intent on making good food accessible to our city.  That’s what it takes.  The more I learn about farming, the more I see that doing it well is more about determination and sweat than dreamily walking through fields while waiting for rain.

South Circle Farm is new, just completing it’s second season.  I was introduced to them at the market- they always have a beautiful display of produce, and I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with them this fall.  It was enlightening to hearing Amy’s story about farming in Indianapolis.  Despite the persistant work of people like her, the city still does not support ventures like South Circle Farm very well.  In fact, last time we spoke, she was afraid of losing the land (and years of manual labor) due to politics.  Indy NEEDS people like Amy- people investing their lives to improve our city.  Truth be told, there are better places to live- better climates, more supportive city governments and more progressive cultures.  I know it’s fun to shop at the market from time to time, but it takes more than that to truly support our local farmers.

Next time you’re at the market, ask the farmers what you can do to support them.