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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2023 812 Magazine

Home grown

Experience the Steckler's way of life as they put a new spin on the old-fashioned values of a traditional farming family.

Stan Stecker, 42, Blake Stecker, 14, Martha Steckler, 46, Jeremiah Stecker, 3, Danielle Steckler, 10, Eli Stecker, 7, Joel Stecker, 12, and Samantha Steckler, 16, sit down for a home-grown lunch at the family table. The main dish: rabbit gravy. /Photo by Brittany McNeelan.

Martha Steckler stands at the island in the middle of her kitchen putting the finishing touches on the mashed potatoes, while her youngest son, 3-year old Jeremiah, stands on a chair to her right so he can lick the masher she used for the deviled eggs. She asks 7-year-old Eli to set the long brown table with an extra place for me.

"If you don't like it, we won't hold it against you," Martha tells me, "and if you do, you're welcome to more." Six boys and girls take their seats around the table, leaving two chairs unfilled. One is reserved for 18-year-old Garth, who's had a little car trouble, and the other is for 19-year-old Gavin, who's training to be a priest. The family bows their heads and recites the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary and the traditional prayer before meals. Once they finish, Stan asks Martha, "Is that what I think it is?" nodding his head toward the main dish. Martha shakes her head yes and replies nonchalantly, "Rabbit."

Stan looks at me and tries not to laugh as he explains that the meat perched on top of my mashed potatoes is a rabbit that had been raised by their 14-year-old son Blake. Like most of the family's meals, all the food we're eating was grown here on the farm, including the cabbage in the homemade sauerkraut and the beets used to flavor it. The deviled eggs came from their hens and the green beans and onions from their garden. The green beans haven't made it to my end of the table, though, and when I ask Danielle to pass them, Martha jokingly tells me I'll have to scoop them off someone else's plate. "With as many hands and mouths as we have here, you have to get in there and grab what you want," Stan says.

Stan and Martha Steckler and their eight children run Grass Corp organic farm in Leopold. The farm operates with no harmful chemicals and has no employees outside the immediate family. Their specialties include grassfed meats - such as Normande cows, lambs and goats, chickens and turkeys -- free-range eggs and homemade soap. For Stan, the best part of farm life is maintaining an independent lifestyle

The Stecklers are one of a growing number of farm families in Indiana who are converting from traditional to organic practices. Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann believes the switch to sustainable agriculture is important to Indiana's future. "Stan and Martha are true entrepreneurs, stewards of the environment, and a great Hoosier family," says Ellspermann, who worked alongside the Stecklers and others to draft legislation allowing the sale of poultry at farmers' markets.

The number of organic farms in Indiana has jumped in the past 10 years to 180 operations that cover more than 18,000 square miles of land. Indiana is still catching up to Ohio, with 50,000 acres, and Illinois with 30,000 acres. The southern third of the state is home to 26 organic farms priding themselves on operating without using any harmful chemicals, antibiotics or growth hormones.

The family of 10 works together to be as self-sufficient as possible by providing their own milk, eggs, produce and meat. They use their diversified, 100-acre farm to make a living and feed the family. Though Stan is a second-generation farmer, his organic operation is a lot different from the traditional farm his father ran. His father wasn't always comfortable with the transition, but he's come around as he's seen his son's family flourish.

Stan steps out of bed at 5 a.m. every day, pulls on a pair of work pants, slips on his heavy, weathered-green Carhartt coat and heads out the front door towards the milking barn. He started milking cows when he was 7, and he hasn't missed too many days since then. In his family, everyone was expected to help out on the farm as soon as they were

big enough to be productive, and they did. His early work on the farm prepared him to run his own operation.

On the Steckler farm, everyone has chores, and Martha and the kids roll out of bed about an hour after Stan. Samantha and Danielle make breakfast and get food set up for the rest of the day by baking fresh bread and brewing Kombucha, a fermented Russian tea said to be a health tonic. The boys grudgingly head outside to begin feeding and watering the cows, pigs, chickens, lambs and goats. They also have to feed their two dogs, Pup, a giant Anatolian shepherd with the mane of a lion and a roar to match, and a little brown mutt named Mikey. "Chores usually aren't that bad," says 14-year-old Blake. "It just has to be done," agrees Joel, 12.

All the kids admit that while sometimes they'd rather be doing other stuff, their chores come first. And when it comes to feeding and watering the animals, it's a life-or-death situation. They shoot to finish with morning chores by 8 a.m. Then they head into the house and wash up for breakfast. The kids work together to wash and put away the dishes and sweep the floor. Then it's off to their bedrooms for school, which for 7-year-old Eli includes a mid-morning break to gather the day's first round of fresh eggs.

In 1996, after adding their third child, Samantha, to the family, Martha decided to leave her job and stay at home with the kids full-time. She'd been itching to try homeschooling because she knew several people who were doing it. With Stan farming full-time and the kids at school all day, they hardly got to see each other. "Stan and I would visit families who were homeschooling, and we realized that's how we wanted our kids to act," Martha says.

Her main focus is teaching the kids to read and write well and giving them a good foundation in math. The other part is teaching a strong foundation in their Catholic religion and their ability to choose between right and wrong. The older children help out the younger ones with problems when Martha's hands are full.

That teamwork is a must for the Stecklers. As the kids finish eating lunch, Samantha clears the dishes while Blake begins to wash. Danielle pours the remaining rabbit gravy into a Tupperware container, scraping the bowl so she doesn't waste a drop. When she finishes, she grabs the broom and sweeps the floor. By the time their parents have finished eating, the kitchen is spotless. Sixteen-year-old Samantha says she doesn't mind the work, and they'd get bored without so much to do.

Each child has special talents. Samantha, the only child with curly hair, crochets masterfully, gives her brothers haircuts and sewed the family out of a disaster this afternoon when Jeremiah woke up from his nap to find a tear in his penguin blanket. Her little brother Eli calls Danielle the "noodle- maker" because she makes them from scratch. It's a skill she could live without.

"You do your schoolwork, then you do eggs, then you do noodles, and it's just not that fun," Danielle says.

"It's usually only once a week," Martha reminds her.

"Yeah, but still, it's noodles," Danielle persists.

Martha raises an eyebrow. "You have gotten out of cleaning eggs before to package noodles," she says softly but sternly. Danielle doesn't bother with a rebuttal, knowing they all have to pull their weight around here.

Stan and Martha both grew up on small, family-operated dairy farms, and it wasn't until 2005 when they moved to their current farm and switched to organic practices. Today, not only is business booming for Grass Corp, but also for organic products in general, which are responsible for more than 3 percent of the country's total food sales. Organic products have become a staple in three out of four grocery stores in the United States, not to mention the mainstay of specialty food stores, including Sunnyside Natural Foods Market in New Albany and Bloomingfoods in Bloomington.

Stan says he felt pulled to a more natural way of doing things. "I thought that mankind needed to take a step back and do things the way they were meant to be done for our benefit and the benefit of society," he says. However, making the switch was a time-consuming process that took years to get right. Back in 2005, organic farming had yet to gain a mainstream following. Instead of finding a guidebook filled with tips on how to keep baby chicks warm or build a mobile coop for the pasture, Stan has had to search for the answers himself. It's been a slow and steady transition, involving a lot trial-and-error. The greatest expense in the conversion, Stan says, may be the lost opportunities during the experimental stages.

The Stecklers' latest experiment, a bright green plant called barley fodder, is sprouting in the milking barn. "Green, growing feed in the off-season is the goal," Stan says as he walks me into the barn. Before I could look around, I'm smacked in the face by a thick wall of humidity. My glasses fog up, so I stick them on the top of my head and hope they won't fall off while I climb the ladder leading to the top level of the barn.

This room is kept warm to accommodate the fodder. One side is lined with rows of silver-colored trays planted with barley and connected to a drip irrigation system. The plants will sprout and grow about six to eight inches tall. Stan explains that eating the fodder is similar to eating fresh grass. It's a way to combat drought and even out the food supply for the year. "It allows us to have green growing grass 365 days a year," Stan says. He hopes that cutting back on the hay the cows eat will lead to an even healthier and tastier meat.

"As a farmer, you can't expect to eat fast food and have enough horsepower to run your body on a daily basis," Stan says. His son Gavin agrees. Since leaving home to attend Marion University, he says he's hungry all the time because the food isn't as good or as nutritious. The upside is that it warms Martha's heart when he scarfs down a home-cooked meal.

Grass-fed meat is higher in healthy fats like Omega-3 fatty acids and is packed full of other natural vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, beta-carotene and vitamin E. Grass-fed meat has less fat and cholesterol and fewer calories than grain-fed meat. The quality is important, says Susan Kaempfer, manager of the New Albany Farmers Market where the Stecklers have been selling goods almost every weekend for over three years. "There's a large following for their product, and it draws a bigger crowd to our market. A lot of people just come for their product and leave," she says. Plus, she says, it's nice to see how they work together as a team.

Around 2 p.m., after finishing their schoolwork, Eli and Danielle head to the market barn to wash and package eggs. It's tedious and takes almost two hours to complete. The market barn is where all the products are stored, and it has five deep freezers containing cuts of beef, whole chickens, legs of lamb, lamb chops and goat stew meat, among other things. The kids use damp cloths to wash the dirt off the eggs, then place them in foam cartons. Packaging the eggs every day helps to keep them cleaner. As they near the bottom of the bucket, Danielle and Eli start counting down. When they finish, Eli is thrilled to have 38 minutes left to play before starting his afternoon chores. He grabs a Nerf gun and runs around the house shooting foam darts at Joel and Jeremiah.

Martha calls family vacations "kind of impossible" but says she and Stan or some of the kids can take turns getting away and trust that things will be taken care of at home. "We just can't all go together," she says. For fun, the family plays board games like Scrabble, Candyland and checkers or a game they invented called Trampoline Dodgeball. They never watch TV on school nights, but they occasionally turn on the tube during the weekends, favoring sports, nature shows and family-oriented movies.

When the clock strikes 4, the kids put on their boots and overalls and begin afternoon chores. Eli and Danielle each grab an empty five-gallon bucket on their way to the barn, and we all duck as Garth runs up in a bright orange pair of coveralls and throws a late-season snowball in our direction. It explodes on the side of the barn as he heads off to help Joel herd up the cows.

In the chicken coop, all I can see is chickens - white, brown, red - everywhere. The clucking is deafening, and the smell of fresh cow manure lingering in the air is less than pleasant. Joel feeds and waters the chickens, leading them to flock toward their troughs. Meanwhile, the kids make their way through the nests and gently pick out the brown eggs, adding them to their buckets one by one. When they finish, every bucket is filled to the brim.

Blake milks the cows, and Joel waters the fodder, then feeds and waters the pigs and calves. The milking machine makes a loud suction noise as it attaches to each teat, followed by a chugging sound as the milk is drained into the tubes. By 6 p.m., the evening chores are finished, and we all head inside for dinner, stopping at the front door to kick off our dirty boots.

The USDA expects demand for organic foods will continue to grow in the future. Organizations like the Midwest Organic Farmers Cooperative and the Hoosier Organic Marketing and Education group now offer assistance to organic farmers. So it's likely there's a future in organic farming, but do the Steckler children plan to be a part of it?

While Samantha loves life on the farm, she wants to go to college and study accounting. Her little brother Joel wants his own farm because he loves working with animals. Middle-child Blake expects to build his own operation from scratch as well. One thing they are sure of is that they will continue their father's legacy of doing things the natural and organic way. While it's a little too soon for 3-year-old Jeremiah to plan a career path, he knows one thing's for sure:

"I just love this family staying at this farm."

The kids and their chores

Everyone pulls their own weight in the Steckler family.

Gavin has traded in his working boots for pens and paper and is a full-time college student whose main chore is homework.

Garth, 18, is the oldest child who still lives at home and helps with whatever needs to be done, like scraping the barnyard of manure, running errands, making deliveries and herding cows into the milking barn.

Samantha, 16, prepares the day's meals and helps make deliveries.

Blake, 14, is in charge of milking the cows.

Joel, 12, feeds and waters the animals, including taking barley fodder to the cows and hay to the sheep.

Danielle, 10, is the "noodle maker" and helps wash and package eggs.

Eli, 6, is responsible for gathering, washing and packaging eggs.

Jeremiah Steckler, 3, goes out with Eli in the mornings to gather eggs. Otherwise, he shadows his older brothers and sisters.