Those searching for organic vegetables or even organic meat can find places in the Wabash Valley.
The Pickery and the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice in Vigo County are prime locations for vegetables, while Providence Farms in Sullivan County offers certified organic eggs, vegetables, maple syrup and uses organic methods to raise beef and chicken.
Providence Farms LLC (pasturesofprovidence.com) started near Fairbanks in 2011.
The family-owned farm covers just over 500 acres, all certified organic. The farm has 500 pasture-raised certified organic laying hens for eggs and raises between 2,500 to 10,000 meat chickens per year.
“Unfortunately, there is only one certified organic butcher in the state and can only handle about 25 percent of the organic chickens that we grow, and they can’t take our order. We grow the chickens under certified organic conditions, but it cannot be labeled organic certified because it goes through a conventional processing facility,” said Scott Foster, who along with his wife, Julie, and family members operate the farm.
“We are trying to rectify that by getting certified ourselves as an organic slaughter facility,” Foster said.
Foster said “the state is starting to facilitate that process because of the demand. The state is allowing small producers that do less than 25,000 birds a year to butcher their own birds on site. And since we are certified organic, that is our approach this coming year to not only get state approval to butcher our own chickens, but to also work with our certifier to carry that certified organic symbol.
“That symbol is the basic stepping stone that people are looking for when they look for healthy food,” Foster said.
The farm also has 1,100 maple trees, producing certified organic maple syrup, and the vegetable produce is also certified organic.
The farm also has 350 fruit trees. However, an overabundance of deer twice ate the tree seedlings at the farm; the second time before a fence could be placed around the trees. The farm is now installing an 8-foot fence and replanting the trees. Foster hopes to have apples available after three years. The farm also plans to start strawberry production this year, Foster said.
On beef, the farm typically raises 135 beef cattle, but can raise as many as 150.
That is part of a plan to transform the farm into what Foster calls the next step up from organic — making the farm work in a regenerative way. That is, returning the farm to its native ecosystem.
“Regenerative agriculture is the progression above and beyond organic. Organic means you are not using synthetic chemicals,” he said, while regenerative agriculture treats the farm as a living organism, Foster said. One example is to allow grass to grow without chemical exposure, and improving the soil by only using cattle waste as a natural fertilizer.
“If you grow grass the way grass was intended to grow, it always would have interaction with grazing wildlife of some kind, whether buffalo, antelope, deer, elk, a herd of wild pigs or sheep or rams and that interaction not only builds soil … that interaction regenerates” soils, Foster said.
Regenerative agriculture maintains a continuous vegetation cover on the soil as much as possible, reducing soil disturbance which stabilizes organic matter and increases the diversity of organic residues returned to the soil. It also cleans water and restores microbial life to the soil, Foster said.
In 2015, Laurie Elliott started the Pickery (www.thepickery.net), a certified organic vegetable farm at 3279 E Margaret Ave, Terre Haute.
“I have probably tripled sales since 2015, but you would expect that,” Elliott said, as more people become aware of the business.
The increase, Elliott said, is from more efficient growing methods, such as using plastic to surround plants and reduce time needed to weed, as well as adding more planting rows. Sales in the first year were in the $20,000-plus range and now are in the $60,000 range,” she said.
Additionally, about 600 blueberry bushes will be planted this year on the 15-acre property, and the farm has 50 fruit trees that have yet to mature, but will allow the Pickery to offer fruit for sale in the future.
However, buying organic is more of a commitment from the buyer as prices are often higher than commercially grown foods, Elliott said.
“It is a little bit of a hard sell in Terre Haute because the way we grow it here — we grow and harvest everything by hand and it is a little more expensive than you can get in the store and sometimes that is a little tough sale for people,” she said.
“But it is important to me that I make a contribution in the world, and I want to provide healthy vegetables for a town that really needs it,” Elliott said.
About half of the Pickery’s sales come from the farm’s fresh vegetable stand, with other sales coming from sales at the Terre Haute Farmer’s Market as well as the farm’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, which guarantees a bag of harvested vegetables directly to someone in the program.
The Pickery has a very wide variety of vegetables ranging from tomatoes, squash, kale, chard, carrots, peppers, okra, garlic, green onions and green beans to potatoes, brussels sprouts, snow peas, snap peas to herbs such as sage, rosemary, thyme, lemon balm and parsley.
Holly Hudson, a retired earth science teacher at Terre Haute South Vigo High School, said she buys vegetables from the Pickery at the Farmer’s Market and is in the CSA program.
“I do this to support local farmers who have met the challenges of doing organic farming. There are quite a few hoops to jump through to make that happen,” Hudson said. “I want to reduce the herbicides and pesticides that are non-organic…so if I can reduce that in my food, that is important to me.
“I know that Laurie takes care of her soil as well to make sure there are not contaminates and it is just healthier in my opinion,” Hudson said.
White Violet Center
John-Michael Elmore is the garden manager at White Violet Center for Eco-Justice (https://spsmw.org/about/justice/white-violet-center-for-eco-justice), a ministry of the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
The center has a 5-acre USDA certified organic garden. That garden has been around for about 25 years, first certified for about a decade in the 1990s, “then the cost of certification became prohibitively high, so we continued to grow using organic practices but we stepped out of certification. Then the government realized that this certification is an important piece for small farms, so a cost-sharing became available” for certification, Elmore said.
“That reduced the cost of certification so we were able to re-certify and we have been re-certified since 2015,” Elmore said. “We have been growing organically for the entire 25 years but our current certification is seven years old.”
The program allows small farmers to apply to the USDA, which will refund some of the cost of the certification.
“For an operation of our size, where we mainly do vegetable production, depending on the year and amount of time the inspector is out here, the cost to certify will run us probably $1,500 to $1,800, but usually then through the USDA program, 50 percent of that cost will be refunded to us,” Elmore said.
Organic certification is a designation often sought by buyers, he said.
“There are farms that grow organically and it may not be worth their assets to get certification, even though they are growing that way,” he said. “But for folks like us, which are specialty crop producers … it is worth our while to get certification because the consumer sees that green dot, USDA certified, and uses that to inform themselves that, yes, there is a nationwide standard set of practices and this farm meets those standards.”
White Violet grows 50 different crops, including well-known vegetables such as tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, onions, peppers, spinach and eggplant, but also more uncommon items such as cucamelons, “which is related to the cucumber but is only the size of a grape and it looks like a watermelon, with a delicious lemony cucumber flavor,” he said.
“This year we are bringing back a ground cherry, it is endemic to South America,” Elmore said. “It related to the tomatillo, but it is sweet. You can make pies out of it, empanadas out of it, or eat it straight up raw or put it on salads, so that is another crop that we grow that you really can’t find in grocery stores,” Elmore said.
And within crops, such as tomatoes, the center grows more than 20 varieties.
“We really believe in diversity, not just of crops, but within those crops the cultivars that we grow,” Elmore said. “We grow over 170 cultivars, so that if weather conditions are bad one year for a certain kind of tomato, they may be ideal for a different one we are growing so that is kind of how we hedge our bets so we can still have good production despite weather or disease or pest pressure,” Elmore said.
Elmore said the COVID-19 pandemic caused an influx of customers to the center, which also sells plants.
“COVID made the customer base grow,” he said. “When there was scarcity in the grocery stores, two things happened. One, people got really inspired to start their own backyard gardens again, which created pressure for small growers as it made seed prices skyrocket. But we support backyard gardens, which are an important part of healing our food system.
“The other thing is we saw a spike in traffic at the (Terre Haute) farmers market and at our local store on the campus” of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Elmore said. “We actually saw in the last two years quite an uptick” in produce and plants sales. “We saw an uptick in plant sales of over 100 percent, more than double last year compared to any year before then,” Elmore said.
“We do not expect that to trend down, if anything maybe stay stable, but I think we will continue to see an uptick,” he said.
The center also has also experienced an increase in questions about gardening.
“We are educational ministry. We have a robust internship program and like to offer different workshops and we have schools come for field trips. We are kind of a starting point for future farmers,” Elmore said.
Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached 812-231-4204 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter@TribStarHoward.