Purdue University Agricultures Magazine
Indiana producers cater to changing consumer tastes
By Julie Douglas
For most of the 20th century, the Birky farm in Porter County, Ind., supported the family. But by the 1990s, it was evident that the farm might no longer support future generations.
"I started noticing some trends," says 40-year-old Chris Birky, whose grandparents Jake and Emma started the farm in 1919. "The facilities were getting older, my brother and I were getting older, and our once-rural community was becoming a suburb of Chicago." Birky could not see a successful future in expanding his family's operation-1,500 acres of traditional row crops and a farrow-to-finish hog operation. But he wasn't ready to forfeit the family's way of life. "Farming has been a Birky family calling for generations," he says.
Birky realized that making a successful transition into the 21st century would require a change in the farm's business structure. He and his wife Melissa made the first of many adjustments in 1995, when they opened Birky Country Market, a quaint country store, and marketed their products to the local community. "We sell high-quality pork products and a range of grains and vegetables," Birky says. "Our pigs are not fed antibiotics, steroids, hormones or growth promotants. We don't sell anything that we wouldn't feed our family."
Birky credits Dave Yeager, Purdue Extension educator in Porter County (now retired), with helping make the country market a success. "Dave was very knowledgeable about produce and marketing, and he introduced us to key people like Liz Maynard (Purdue Extension vegetable specialist) who helped us get through the challenges of growing a variety of vegetables," he says.
Another change came through their involvement in the pork industry. "We did a lot of grilling out with the Pork Producers Association at local events. Over time, the organization dissolved," Birky says, "but we continued, and it became a business for us." On Fridays during the summer, Birky serves a lunch of grilled porkburgers and watermelon at the country market. He also grills at fundraisers for FFA, 4-H and youth groups, among other functions. A novel part of the catering service is the Birky Pork Patty Wagon, a camper transformed into a mobile concession wagon. A Birky porkburger is a staple for many Porter County fair goers. "If we stopped catering at the fair, we would hear complaints," Birky says. "People expect us to be there."
These adjustments have helped keep the family enterprise profitable. "I'm more flexible now so that we can adapt to change," he says. "Land is a valuable commodity here, and I don't know how long production agriculture will be in Northwest Indiana. It's important for us to be aware of the urban sprawl and be open-minded as new opportunities come along."
Birky is just one of the many producers who have turned to Purdue Extension to find ways to cope with the changing farm landscape, whether it's from metropolitan encroachment or consumer tastes.
"Porter County has demand for local foods, and local foods can really do a lot to strengthen the community," says Kris Parker, Purdue Extension educator in Porter County, who helps transitioning farmers, small producers and budding entrepreneurs hone their business and marketing skills.
One new strategy, Parker says, is community supported agriculture (CSA), through which consumers purchase produce in advance directly from the local farmer. This helps secure the market and brings community members and farmers together. The yearly pre-season purchase is a reservation that allows the farmer to have funds for supplies, labor and fuel to plan for harvest based on community needs.
A pioneer feeds families
Producers Linda Ebert, in Wheatfield, Ind., and Liz Aquino, in neighboring Lowell, joined forces to start Indiana's first CSA. In 1998, they launched Garden Lane CSA, growing produce for 10 families for 10 weeks. Now, they provide produce for 80 families for 20 weeks.
"I have to give credit; Liz Maynard was instrumental in helping us get started," says Ebert, who farms six acres. "She is always willing to find information for us and suggest changes that we should research or consider." Through Maynard, Ebert made some key industry contacts. "If it hadn't been for Liz and attending the Horticulture Congress, I wouldn't have developed nearly as many relationships as I have."
In addition to CSA, Ebert sells her produce at local farmers' markets. "One reason I like the farmers' markets is that I like to know the people who buy my products," she says. "Some of us even keep in touch during the winter months. Many of our CSA members and regulars at the farmers' markets refer to me as 'their farmer,' and that always makes me feel good."
A growing network Crème de la Crop, a small farm in Valparaiso, Ind., produces more than 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables on 10 acres. Crème de la Crop offers standard produce, such as watermelons, cucumbers and carrots, as well as specialty items, such as purple hull peas, okra, edamame, tomatillo and edible flowers.
Founder Leann Landgrebe Stephens takes pride in selecting the variety of seeds to be planted. "We search internationally for unique organic and heirloom seeds," she says. "I search for produce that is going to provide lots of flavor."
Stephens followed the guidelines to grow organic produce for five years but was not certified. She attended a Purdue Extension videoconference last fall about organic certification and plans to be certified this year. "At the videoconference, I met other farmers in the region who were interested in similar farm practices and heard what they were doing to diversify their farms," she says. "Not only did I meet others with a passion for organic agriculture, but it gave me the confidence and confirmation that I was headed in the right direction."
Stephens also turns to Parker for information pertaining to her business. "Kris helped clarify a misconception that I had about organic labeling. I know that I'm going to get answers when I pick up the phone or email her, and that is extremely helpful. I think she will be a huge asset in helping me provide local food to the community."
Both Birky Country Market and Crème de la Crop were stops on Purdue Extension's 2007 Indiana Farm Sustainability Tour, which showcased farming operations and markets in different areas of the state. One focus of the tour was the unique marketing partnerships the businesses use. For example, Birky Country Market sells pies from a local bakery, and, in return, the bakery sells Birky's pork products. Crème de la Crop's Stephens trades produce for services like Web site design, graphic design and legal advice. "These relationships benefit all parties involved," she says.
More flavor in food economy
All counties in the state may soon have new strategies for growing their local food economies, thanks to Indiana Flavor, a Purdue Extension pilot program underway in Jackson County.
Indiana Flavor is similar to a United Kingdom program called "Foodcheck," says Scott Hutcheson, Purdue Extension economic and community development expert and project manager. Hutcheson consulted with program participants in the UK to learn about Foodcheck before Indiana Flavor was launched.
Purdue Extension brought together stakeholders in Jackson County to determine their goals for local foods. "Goals can range from wanting more local foods consumed in the community to wanting to be known for a certain type of food," Hutcheson says.
When the program is implemented statewide, each county will set goals, and one county's goals may be very different from its neighbors. "Indiana Flavor takes a holistic approach," says Hutcheson about the program funded by a grant from the Indiana State Department of Agriculture. "We gather information from producers, consumers and chefs in the process and consider environmental interests, health interests and the ability to make a living."
Building local markets
Through individual consulting, workshops and programs like Indiana Flavor, Purdue Extension continues to help producers refine business strategies and adapt to evolving markets.
"We want to help Indiana businesses succeed in any way that we can," says Maria Marshall, Purdue Extension small business development specialist. "This brings and keeps dollars in the local community while improving the rural economy."
SIDEBAR TO BUYER'S MARKET
Web site links producers to consumers and new market opportunities
By Julie Douglas
The Internet has become an important marketing tool for business, and Purdue Extension is helping producers use it to their advantage. Indiana MarketMaker is a free, online interactive mapping system that locates businesses and markets for agricultural products.
Producers can research consumer demographics by income, ethnicity, household characteristics and education. They also can search for specific business records, find area market contacts, and network with restaurants, on-farm retailers and specialty processors. In addition, census data is available on MarketMaker, which is sponsored by Purdue's New Ventures Team, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture and the Indiana Cooperative Development Center. And consumers can use the site to locate agricultural producers and their products.
"MarketMaker links producers to consumers and consumers to producers on a state and regional basis," says Maria Marshall, Purdue Extension small business development specialist and project coordinator. "It's important for businesses to develop a relationship with their customers, so they can understand what consumer needs truly are."
Marshall explains that people might say they want organic food, but maybe what they really want is a more natural product or to know the farmers and the farm where it came from. "Maybe what they want is to know that they're supporting a local farmer. Establishing a relationship helps uncover the real benefits people look for."
Relationships are crucial to the success of small businesses, whether it's with suppliers, customers or other businesses. "When a business develops a relationship with its customers, the customers become more integrated in the business and develop a loyalty to it," Marshall says. "When that happens, it's no longer about the money."