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These aren't grandpa's farms: Meet the new faces of ag

If the phrase "Elkhart County farmer" conjures up a mental image, it probably doesn't look like Ben Hartman. You won't find Hartman on a tractor or combine or walking through a large dairy barn. Instead, you could find him on your doorstep with fresh vegetables every week.
Justin Leighty
Posted on May. 11, 2009 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on May. 11, 2009 at 2:58 a.m.

GOSHEN -- If the phrase "Elkhart County farmer" conjures up a mental image, it probably doesn't look like Ben Hartman.

You won't find Hartman on a tractor or combine or walking through a large dairy barn.

Instead, you could find him on your doorstep with fresh vegetables every week.

"Someone who eats food should choose their farmer as carefully as they choose their doctor or dentist," Hartman said.

He and his wife, Rachel, run Clay Bottom Farm. It's a 5-acre farm east of the city, and they cultivate about 2 acres. They're making a living out of it, though.

"I had a real passion for local food. It tastes better than food that's shipped, it's fun to grow, and it feels good to support the local economy," he said.

Hartman is part of a growing trend in local agriculture, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The number of farms in Elkhart County grew by 21 percent between 1997 and 2007, but the average size of farms in the county dropped by 26 percent over that same period, according to the USDA agriculture census results, released in February.

"We're seeing more transition to people hobby farming and small-business farming," said Ericka Soumare, agriculture educator for the Purdue Extension Service office in Elkhart County.

Couple that with an increase in agricultural tourism and recreation, plus a growing movement of people wanting locally grown goods, and "it's looking a lot better for farms," Soumare said.

Ann Schmelzer with the Indiana Department of Agriculture said there's a growing statewide interest in buying local produce. "People want to support the economy in their own communities, and locally grown stuff just tastes better," she said.

To be sure, the census numbers show about the same number of farms larger than 180 acres in the county. Elkhart County is still a significant producer of corn, soybeans, poultry, hogs and milk.

But our agriculture is branching out.

Soumare said farmers are more and more looking for other activities: "Farm visits, things like agritourism, where you advertise, 'Come see the animals,' hayrides, events that draw attention." All of those are growing in popularity here. "With farms they're finding more ways to add values," Soumare said.

You have businesses like Kercher's Sunrise Orchard in Goshen, roadside stands like Sweet Corn Charlie, and farmers markets bringing growers and consumers together.

The Goshen Farmers Market is where Hartman started out -- and still sells his food -- but he's branching out to connect more directly with people wanting organic, locally grown food. He's offering a concept called Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. CSAs are growing across the state, according to Schmelzer.

In Hartman's case, customers pay $400 for enough in-season vegetables and fruits weekly to feed a family of up to six. They get weekly deliveries at three drop-off points in Goshen from the first week of June through the first week of October, and at-your-door service adds $3 a week.

"The consumer gets that direct connection with their farmer, and for us it's nice to know where your product's going. We like to connect with our customers," Hartman said.

"There's a lot of money spent each day on food," he said. "A lot more of it needs to be spent on local food."

FRESH NUMBERS

Here's a glance at Elkhart County agriculture as reported in the USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture (released this year), compared with 1997.

205,755,000: In dollars, the county's market value of production, up 66 percent.

163,295: Acres in farms, down 11 percent.

127,245: In dollars, the average market value per farm, up 37 percent.

1,617: Farms, up 21 percent.

523: Farms between 1 and 9 acres, up more than 21/2 times the 196 here in 1997.

101: In acres, the average size of a farm, down 26 percent.



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