Young & Farming
Over the next several years, America’s farmland will evolve into something quite different than it is today. In fact, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, over the next five years—the lifespan of the next farm bill—nearly 100 million acres of U.S. farmland are expected to change ownership and will need new farmers. This is because the majority of individuals who are farming today are close to retiring, with nearly two-thirds of farmland currently managed by someone over the age of 55. In order to keep food production from falling off, that gap will need to be filled with a new generation of farmers. This is especially true in Indiana. Luckily, there are many people who want to farm, and make a commitment to growing whole and local food. That’s where the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition (HYFC) is making its mark.
HYFC, which is part of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), was founded in 2016 by a group of sustainable and organic beginning farmers looking for more connection and camaraderie.
Liz and Nate Brownlee of Nightfall Farm co-lead the HYFC along with Andrew Raridon, a professor at Valparaiso University; Leah Sandler, a Ph.D. student at Purdue; and Genesis McKiernan-Allen and Eli Robb, who run Full Hand Farm.
They believe that building the young and beginning farmer network in Indiana will help eliminate feelings of isolation by creating community, which is one of the most significant ways to ensure a next generation of farming.
“Many people think of farmers as being at the markets talking to people all day,” says Liz Brownlee. “But farming can be very lonely, especially if you’re by yourself on three acres.”
When the Brownlees started the Hoosier chapter, they decided their goal was to reach young farmers in Indiana and connect them through social events, and provide scholarships to attend national farming conferences. They received funding from Purdue University to launch the HYFC, as well as a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.
The Hoosier chapter hosted several inaugural events, including a young farmers pizza party at which 50 farmers attended and socialized. They arranged a traveling film festival at seven Indiana farm locations, and hosted a social event at the Indiana Small Farms Conference in Danville last March.
In August, the Hoosier coalition hosted a panel of five young farmers to discuss issues that would be presented to Senator Joe Donnelly, who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee. This event drew approximately 30 attendees, many of whom had not attended a previous event. In just one year of being an organization, the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition is reaching nearly 500 people through its events and marketing.
As part of their commitment to the Hoosier chapter, the Brownlees are active with the NYFC. They attended a three-day convergence where young farmers learned about fundraising, leadership development, outreach, national policy and social justice in the food system. The Brownlees believe the national coalition is crucial not only for the future of Indiana farming, but also for the nation as a whole.
“There’s no one else representing young farmers’ needs nationally,” says Nate Brownlee. “Most of us are young, first-generation farmers; we’re not represented by the Farm Bureau. And in a state like Indiana, there is no statewide sustainable farmers organization. We need a structure for community and collaboration.”
The Brownlees see the HYFC as a way for farmers to tell their stories. “People want to show how awesome farming is, and highlight what we do for the land and growing our own food,” says Nate. “We want people to know that farming is fun and it really makes a difference in the world.”
How to Get Involved in Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition
When Liz and Nate Brownlee are not overseeing the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition, they are running their fulltime livestock farm, Nightfall Farm, in Crothersville. Nightfall Farm started in 2013 when the Brownlees took 13 acres of corn and soybean fields and converted them to raise pigs, sheep, turkeys and chickens. Both former vegetarians, they wanted to farm something that has long-term benefits to the land.
As the Brownlees worked on livestock farms in Pennsylvania and Vermont, they realized how much they enjoyed working with animals, and how they could be treated well and be a part of the ecosystem. “I could really see the rightness and correctness of an animal in their natural behaviors,” said Nate. That experience became the inspiration for their Indiana farm to focus on livestock.
Nightfall Farm practices rotational grazing, which is regularly moving the livestock to fresh forage (usually grass) and then allowing that area to rest so the land can heal and regenerate, which ultimately makes it a more long-term livable solution.
“We’ve seen the land really come back to life since engaging in rotational grazing,” says Nate. “We can see things like birds, spiders, praying mantises that were not there before. Changing from industrial agriculture to something that cares for the land has made that possible.”
The cornerstone of Nightfall Farm’s business the community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription model. They have approximately 55 shares/members with an 85% retention rate. “The CSA model helps sustain us year-round because there isn’t really a bad year for livestock, compared to vegetables,” says Nate.
Nightfall Farm also sells to restaurant chefs, and at the Columbus, Seymour and Madison Farmers Markets. They also sell their turkeys for Thanksgiving.
How to Find Nightfall Farm Online: NightfallFarm.com Facebook: @nightfallfarm
How to Purchase: CSA and Columbus, Seymour and Madison Farmers Markets
Full Hand Farm is a four-season vegetable farm located outside of Noblesville. The farmers, Eli Robb and Genesis McKiernan-Allen, are proud members of the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition. The farmers engage in organic practices to grow 45 different crops and hundreds of varieties, with tomatoes making up 25 of the varieties.
Robb and McKiernan-Allen sell their produce to the public through the Broad Ripple Farmers Market and Indy Winter Farmers Market, as well several local chefs. Their vegetables are regularly part of dishes at Bluebeard, Taxman Brewing Company, Milktooth, Late Harvest Kitchen and the Patachou restaurants.
Neither Robb nor McKiernan-Allen grew up in a family of farmers. Both Hoosier natives, they were high school sweethearts in Indianapolis and moved to Portland, Oregon, after graduation. Living in Portland for 10 years, they were inspired by the local food-farming community. But instead of starting a farm in Oregon, the two returned to the Midwest to start their new adventure. In 2010, they participated in a CSA farm internship on a small-scale vegetable garden in north central Iowa. In 2012, they moved back to Central Indiana to access a few acres of family land, which became Full Hand Farm later that year.
McKiernan-Allen met Liz Brownlee at the Indiana Small Farms Conference, where the two began talking about how to bridge together all the young farmers in Indiana. When the HYFC became a reality, Robb and McKiernan-Allen were eager to be involved.
“Farming can be very isolating and hard, especially if you live in a very rural part of the state,” says McKiernan-Allen. “For many young farmers, agriculture is a second career. The Coalition is a great way to get to know other farmers, and to create a community around our professional peers. We want to grow the network and increase camaraderie for farmers who are young and beginning this journey.”
She believes this type of organization is especially important to farmers in Indiana, where access to infrastructure and funding information makes it difficult to farm on a small scale.
“Access to land is hard because even though there’s a lot of it in Indiana, it’s hard to access the infrastructure,” says McKiernan-Allen. She also sees a challenge with people knowing how to farm crops other than corn and soybeans.
McKiernan-Allen hopes the Coalition will help individuals who want to get started farming in Indiana, and give them the tools they need for success.
“Farming is a wonderful and gratifying profession,” she says. “It can be challenging to get going, but the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition can provide community, a network and conversations with people who get it. We want more young farmers doing this work and succeeding at it.”
How to Find Full Hand Farm Facebook: @fullhandfarm
How to Purchase: Broad Ripple and Indy Winter Farmers Market