A new growing season
A generation of new farmers crops up in Southern Indiana.
On an unseasonably warm day in late October, 25-year-old farm manager Rachel Beyer squats in a field plucking radishes from the ground. Alongside her sits her 19-year-old brother Vinnie and 27-year-old Danny Weddle, Rachel's colleague and boyfriend she met after starting her job as farm manager last year.
Wearing his hand-dyed magenta straw hat and a red striped shirt bleached pink by long hours spent in the sun, Danny crouches over and balances on his tip-toes, moving along the row of plants with the liberation of each new bulb.
Vinnie and Rachel have a similar technique, each binding clusters of the vegetable together with rubber bands according to variety. Three separate piles lie on the ground, distinguished by size, shape and differing shades of red.
They are three of seven farmers who plant, cultivate, hoe and harvest the produce grown at Stranger's Hill Organics farm, located just outside downtown Bloomington.
The farm is the oldest continually certified organic farm in Indiana and has the largest Community Supported Agriculture membership in Monroe County.
Responsible for feeding members from across Bloomington and Ellettsville, the Stranger's Hill crew must always work quickly to keep food production on schedule. The Community Supported Agriculture project provides boxes of produce to its members weekly, containing an assortment of fruits, vegetables and herbs collected from the week's harvest.
But making sure the food is available each week requires much more than the digging up and picking of plants that dominates the young farmers' time throughout late summer and autumn. Prepping the ground, watering and weeding are a vital part of winter and springtime work on the farm, necessary for seeds to successfully grow into quality produce come warm weather.
The men talk freely while they work, discussing topics ranging from school and plans for winter work to proper lifting techniques farmers use to avoid back problems that can occur from bending over for long periods of time.
Rachel joins in the conversation from time to time, but she seems more focused on the day's tasks than the other two. She has to be. As the farm manager, it's her responsibility to make sure that they complete the laundry list of chores necessary to prepare the week's produce for consumption. People are depending on them.
According to the USDA's 2007 Census of Agriculture, the average age of the American farmer is 57. As this generation of farmers prepares to retire, young people like Rachel are needed to take their place, increasing the availability of food both locally and nationally and weakening the power of corporate food systems.
Rachel grew up in the house where her parents still live on May Creek Farm, a farming community that stretches across 300 acres outside Bloomington. Community members live on privately owned land parcels and remain financially independent of one another but focus on cooperative living. They are devoted to sharing resources and choosing a lifestyle that benefits the environment.
Growing up, Rachel's parents worked outside of the farming industry, but they gardened in their spare time as a contribution to the community. While she never showed any interest in growing food as a child, Rachel's life at May Creek fostered a connection to nature within her that would later become important to her career choice.
"Living in the middle of the woods, I became really aware of the environment and the problems created by urban sprawl," she says. "Nature has been such an important force in my life."
It wasn't until after Rachel graduated from Indiana University in 2008 that she considered taking a job as a farmer. An international studies major at IU, she had studied a lot about food systems and hunger. As a result, she developed a strong interest in social justice issues but had become discouraged by the growing inequality of food distribution.
"Hunger is a really big, potentially unsolvable problem," she said. "I think it felt too big for me, at least at the moment."
With this realization also came the awareness that she lacked the practical skills needed to contribute to her community. While college had taught her the theory and reasoning behind food policy, Rachel felt she lacked the tools to make a tangible difference in what she considered a flawed system. By deciding to learn how to farm, she hoped she would become more self-sufficient and fill a need for local food security, she says.
Shortly after finishing her degree at IU, Rachel left Bloomington to participate in a farmer-training program at Michigan State University that would teach her how to grow food with intensive hands-on experience and instructors to offer guidance. She spent her first year learning how to grow produce year-round, doing everything from planting and weeding to learning when to harvest different plants to maximize their flavors. Though she killed a lot of plants at first, the program offered her the equipment, the land and the direction she needed to develop the practical skills she had been seeking. After completing her training, Rachel spent nine months acting as an instructor for the program, helping others find their passion as growers like herself once had.
Soon after, she returned to her Southern Indiana home to live with her parents and brother while searching for work. It wasn't long before she was hired as the farm manager at Stranger's Hill and became the coordinator for Monroe County's Indiana New Farm School project. Similar to the training program at Michigan State, the project is intended to encourage people to learn growing skills by giving them access to inexpensive tools and land.
It's around noon and they've been out in the field since 8 a.m. They are dirty, tired and hungry for lunch, but they keep working to take advantage of the nice weather before the nighttime brings rain and makes harvesting much more difficult work.
"I'm sorry guys, I'm hungry, too," Rachel says, encouraging them to keep their hands busy and their minds off their stomachs.
This kind of support is necessary to keep all of them, herself included, on task. She often feels overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done at Stranger's Hill and the problems facing farmers today.
Rachel works between 12 and 15 hours a day, six to seven days during the winter, spring and summer and only slightly less in the fall. She earns $1,000 dollars a month and even though she doesn't pay rent because she chooses to live at home, she's only mostly financially independent due to her minimalistic salary.
While she wanted to move back to Southern Indiana to stay close to her family, farming here is more difficult than she'd guessed. The high summer temperatures and humidity makes growing certain plants next to impossible. The small market for local produce in Bloomington also minimizes profits, Rachel says.
Rachel's relationships with her family and fellow employees have allowed her to overcome many of the obstacles she's faced during her employment with Stranger's Hill. Between the long hours and physically demanding labor, she doesn't get much time to herself outside of working on the farm. As a result, her fellow employees have become her close friends, and they take care of each other like family.
The three farmers gather the bundles of radishes and drop them into plastic crates. They each grab a container and carry it to the white truck parked on the edge of the field. It's finally time to eat, and they are scurrying to finish the morning's labor.
Rachel gets in the driver's seat and Danny and Vinnie hop in the truck bed. She starts the engine and drives silently, making one of her last trips ever from the fields to the farmhouse where they eat lunch every afternoon.
Rachel is leaving her job at Stranger's Hill in just a couple of weeks, but she will continue to farm. The farm is just too big for her to take care of alone, and its owners are unable to give her the help and financial support she needs, she says.
Although she hasn't decided for certain where she will go next, it's likely Rachel will start her own farm in Bloomington if she can find the land and the funds to do so. Long hours at Stranger's Hill have kept her from looking for her own place yet, but she is considering returning to May Creek where she still feels the strongest connection to the nature and the land. Wherever her life as a farmer leads her in the future, she hopes to stay close to Danny, her family and the place she still calls home.