Rolling acres of sweet corn. Row upon row of ripe tomatoes. Big, white dairy barns and mighty tractors working land far off in the country. When we envision farmers, this is what we picture.
More young farmers are tilling small plots between the steel and concrete of America’s cities, including Indianapolis. Around 100 urban farms and community gardens are here. Worldwide, some 800 million people engage in urban farming, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And urban agriculture accounted for 15 to 20 percent of the world’s food supply, the Worldwatch Institute reported in 2011.
Additionally, urban farms reclaim polluted land, revitalize neighborhoods and provide entrepreneurial opportunities.
If you’re among the some 4,000 people attending Dig IN: A Taste of Indiana today at White River State Park, look around on your way Downtown. You might spot an urban farm and one of these folks working fields in unlikely places.
Amy Matthews: Spreading the word
Walking from Downtown Indy’s Chase tower, you could be at South Circle farm in 30 minutes. The Southside farm’s cheerful buzz is just 2 miles away. There, you’ll see humming bee hives flanked by blooming lavender, bulging rows of rainbow chard, seedlings jamming a greenhouse and Matthews’ beaming face under a wide-brimmed, straw hat.
Trying to find something that doesn’t grow here seems impossible. Raspberries, kales, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, green beans. Matthews sets two or three crops per bed per season on 1½ acres that she had to re-soil due to lead contamination on the site. The process took three years, but Matthews is tenacious.
The Indy native, who had planned a career in social work, traveled Chicago, Cleveland, Montana mountains and the Alaska tundra to learn about farming and food production. She doesn’t just grow and harvest. Matthews also handles marketing, staffs her farmers market stands, helps develop new farmers markets, runs a Saturday 10 a.m.-to-noon stand at her farm and educates the public about the importance of urban farms.
As South Circle and other Indy urban farms settle into consistent cycles, Matthews said she hopes she and other farmers will be able to spend more time helping others get into farming.
“When I was a kid, even when I was in college, I never met a farmer. It (farming) never entered my realm of possibility. I wish it had,” Matthews said. “I like the challenge of it. I like the creativity of it. You can really make most things happen if you can think of the right systems to put in place.”
Matthews also appreciates where America is in regard to farming, with movements toward unconventional, innovative and sustainable farming. Challenges rise, of course. Eking out a living wage is never easy, and city incentives to enter farming and develop the business are few. A land trust for farmland would help create more urban farms, which in turn would supply more people with quality produce and teach them why choosing that food is important to personal and economic health.
“I’m one farm, and, yeah, I do some good things. … If we had a big network of urban, suburban and close-to-urban farms, that’s where we could really make an impact,” Matthews said. “It should be thought of as any other amenity a city has.”
South Circle Farm, 2048 S. Meridian St., www.southcirclefarm.com
Tyler Henderson: Family affair
Who says farming is a full-time job? Henderson is director of North American Operations for the Bocconi University School of Management in Milan, Italy. That means emails, telephones and ticking away on computer keyboards to find candidates for a global MBA Program.
Still, Henderson gets his hands dirty many days. When I call, he’s picking apples with his baby daughter in tow.
Henderson is farm manager for Growing Places Indy, which operates five micro-farms in the city, including one at White River State Park. His journey from backyard gardening to urban farming grew from his opposition to sitting at a desk all day. He was just as worried that full-time farming would cause burnout. Hence the career compromise.
Henderson and his wife, Laura, Growing Places Indy founder, started with a small backyard garden so prolific they shared the bounty. “I think I realized that I just got a total kick out of feeding people,” Henderson said.
He went on to establish restaurant gardens, including one at R. Bistro. His plan? To get people thinking beyond the supermarket and to show them what they can grow in their own backyards. “Incredibly few people have an interaction with agriculture whatsoever because we’re such urban dwelling people.”
Henderson doesn’t think of himself as a multi-career superman. Urban gardening is not as difficult to jump into as novices may think. Spend a lot of time at different farms, learn all you can, consider the many urban farm models and then leap with true passion and a willingness to work hard, Henderson advised.
“My dream is that Indy is a place that is completely identified with urban agriculture,” he said, predicting that upcoming urban farmers will become more profit-driven. “I just think we haven’t even scratched the surface.”
Growing Places Indy, various locations, www.growingplacesindy.org
Matthew Jose: Urban farming advocate
Traffic from I-65 and I-70 bangs by Big City Farms day and night. Downtown Indy’s skyline looms large between sunflowers flanking the plot. From the highways, the 1 1/3-acre farm behind Midland Arts & Antiques Market resembles an abandoned city lot overtaken by brush. Up close and nearly hidden between flourishing rows, Jose crops cherry tomatoes, hundreds of them, orange tangy ones and sweet red ones.
The Indy native has no relatives in farming. He left Broad Ripple after high school to study American culture at a college in Connecticut. He ended up traveling, baking in Oregon, tending livestock and growing vegetables in Massachusetts and working community farms in New York. Back home in Indianapolis, Jose helped develop community gardens via the Marion County Extension Service before starting Big City Farms.
He grows a little bit of everything, runs a summer/fall community supported agriculture program, operates a 10 a.m.-to-noon Saturday produce market at the farm and wholesales to big-name restaurants such as Bluebeard, Recess, Milktooth and R. Bistro. He’s also an urban farming advocate. City permitting and zoning regulations are discouraging.
“There’s too much nonsense that distracts from trying to grow the vegetables,” Jose said. “Urban farms like this are considered a public good, but they’re not treated as a public good. That’s a disconnect that’s very frustrating.”
Low permit fees for farmers would help, Jose said. Some cities supply landowners with incentives such as tax breaks if they lease their property to farmers. The public can make a difference simply by buying more produce from urban farms in and around their neighborhoods, Jose said.
Despite the hardships of urban farming, Jose remains excited about the work. He likes to grow uncommon vegetables, things like odd daikon varieties or tiny, yellow, husk-covered ground cherries that taste like buttery pineapple pound cake.
“I end up trying to grow things that few people will buy, but I get a kick out of it,” Jose said, laughing. “They make me smile.”
Big City Farms, 907 E. Michigan St., www.bigcityfarmsindy.com
Dig IN: A Taste of Indiana
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: White River State Park in Downtown Indianapolis.
Cost: $45. Get your tickets in advance or take a chance at the door. Tickets sales are limited to 4,000 to keep lines under control.
Information:www.digindiana.org or call (317) 454-8516.
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