Small Farms and Community Markets Create Space for Revitalization

December 4, 2019

Pat Hall raised an arm in his powder blue sweatshirt and hurled the pumpkins over the fence. The animals came running—black heritage-breed pigs and piglets and wooly sheep and lambs loping toward the orange orbs, now split from the impact.

“Everybody likes pumpkins,” said Hall, a heritage animal farmer in Orleans, nodding to his livestock.

“At least I gave them something to do. They'll push that pumpkin around all day.”

Hall took the 6.5-acre farm over from his parents when he returned to Orleans after retiring from his career as a schoolteacher. Now, he raises cows, pigs and turkey for meat, sheep for wool, and hens for eggs that he sells at Orleans’ weekly farmers market.

But for Hall, 60, who lives in a newly built Amish-style house with shaker chairs, wood-burning stove and an antique spindle in the corner, his farm and collective market are bigger than a retirement project. They are an attempt to revitalize his community, and to look to the past for answers to an uncertain future.

Orleans farmer Pat Hall
Orleans farmer Pat Hall raises cows, pigs and turkey for meat, sheep for wool, and hens for eggs that he sells at Orleans’ weekly farmers market.

The community revitalization project started with a group of restless retirees and a town square dream.

The retirees knew that they needed both healthy, local food and a way to distribute it efficiently and conveniently, both for farmers and for those buying the food.

“We couldn’t get good food here,” said Debbie Turner, management team leader at the Lost River Market & Deli, a food coop in Paoli, Indiana.

Their solution was to create Orange County HomeGrown, a volunteer-led farmers market project started more than a decade ago by several older couples hoping to bring vibrancy back into their rural towns.

“They all kind of converged and started the little movement, you know, and it's gone really well,” said Hall, whose sweatshirt bore the project’s name.

Orleans farmer Pat hall.
Hall is part of Orange County HomeGrown, a volunteer-led farmers market project.

Now, every week from May through October, Hall and a band of other retirees and Amish farming families head to the Orleans town square to sell their goods at the Saturday market.

Their project grew to include Lost River, where Hall is a board member. Started in 2007 with 344 member-owners, the coop has grown to include 1,167 members and hosts local artisan sales, a food drive and catering services. This year the coop launched a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, aggregating farm yields and distributing to customers.

The farmers market has grown steadily from nine vendors in its first year to 170, and draws Hoosiers from as far away as the town of Bloomington, which is about an hour away.

Lost River community coop.
The Lost River Market & Deli is part of the Orange County HomeGrown project, which now includes about 1,167 member-owners.

The welcoming space of the market also creates its own benefits to the community. The little town square that draws everyone out on Saturday mornings is its own reward, James Farmer, a sustainable behavior and decision-making researcher and professor at Indiana University, said.

Farmer, in his 2016 article “Local Foods and Low-Income Communities: Location, Transportation, and Values,” said such markets create a space where shoppers can enjoy themselves, get the healthy food they need, and be active in their local communities at the same time.

Farmer and his coauthors call this feeling “agrileisure,” or “a term that encompasses the overlap of agriculture, leisure, and social change.”

But it may not be enough.

“We're always in a competitive situation, always,” Turner said. “We can't meet prices of big box stores.”

A view of cows from inside Hall's home.
A view of grazing cows from Halls home.

In a county where farmland accounts for more than a quarter of total land area according to the 2017 census, Turner and Hall counted few farms that can provide the kinds of diverse produce that the market needs.

This is due in part to what is considered a commodity, and whom the government sees fit to give a leg up. According to the agriculture and product research and advocacy nonprofit Environmental Working Group, the federal government pays out a majority of farm subsidies to those growing corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice.

“Most of the farms in Indiana do corn, soybeans and wheat,” said Hall. “So, you know, maybe a big farming state, but it's not food.”

Lost River does get management help from Indiana University’s Center for Rural Engagement, an organization dedicated to revitalizing communities outside of the main campus and helping them to be more economically and environmentally resilient.

Hall's sheep in their pen.
Farmers like Hall receive management help from Indiana University's Center for Rural Engagement, an organization dedicated to revitalizing communities outside of the main campus and helping them to be more economically and environmentally resilient.

Turner said that the center helped the coop with their big questions, starting with goals: “Where do you want to go? How big do you want to be? How big does this venture have to be, what do you need to have that done?”

“The point of the CRE's work with the region is to connect existing growers with existing buyers like IU itself, so that the local food system is supported and invested in,” said Jacob Simpson, who works as a liaison between community members and Indiana University students, faculty and staff at CRE. His focus is the center’s Resilient Hoosier Communities initiative, which seeks to find ways to ready communities for coming changes in climate and economy.

Simpson said the center now aims to develop and encourage food systems that move local farmers produce to major consumers, from local grade schools to its home institution, Indiana University.

“We spend millions and millions of dollars a year on food,” Simpson said. “But in some instances it's easier to purchase produce from across the world rather than in our backyard, which is mind-boggling.”

Chicken eggs.
Fresh eggs on Hall's farm.

For Hall, small farms are also about resilience. “I like endangered livestock,” he said. “Like my cows, I’m milking Short Horn,” he added. “There’s not too many of those left.”

Hall thinks of this as a protective move, encouraging genetic variation to discourage disease that could wipe out a breed.

“If every pig's the same, genetically the same, if something attacks that genetics then there's no way to save it, right?”

Through these farmers market and heritage revival projects, Hoosiers like Turner and Hall are finding ways to manage the spaces they share, and to use those resources to improve their community by growing healthy food, and distributing that food to the people around them in the welcoming space of the market.

This small feat is a big challenge, one large enough to earn the economist Elinor Ostrom a Nobel Prize. In her 1990 book “Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action,” Ostrom said that local groups are working together to manage the things they share, like land, water, and food.

When these groups are successful, according to Ostrom, they do not have to rely on the government or the free market to regulate the resources they need; they can do it themselves.

Hall believes the markets may continue beyond his retiree generation. He sees young adults work in the deli and get hooked on the project. “There’s a lot of younger people involved,” he said.

“Cause a lot of these guys didn’t have kids, or their kids are gone. And so this younger generation’s kind of coming in and learning from them, and expanding.”

Lost River sees a future as well, though it may be tough going.

“We're very small and we have yet to make a profit,” said Turner about the coop. “But we're very stubborn.”

Small Farms and Community Markets Create Space for Revitalization