From The May 2006 Issue of Lake Magazine
Hope Is A Seedling
By Martha Connelly
Winters have traditionally been the farmer's planning time, quiet days spent preparing for the spring crops, taking stock of last year's experiences, readying the farm equipment for the next season. The winter that has just passed was no different for Leann Landgrebe Stephens, although her wide-eyed enthusiasm for agricultural adventure has been tamed by Mother Nature herself. Last summer, she counted herself among drought-stricken Indiana farmers who got a stern firsthand lesson while facing their own Midwestern version of the Dust Bowl.
Stephens spent long, late-winter afternoons taking stock of her bitter education and coming to terms with the realities of farming in the 21st century. "I had to lay off my whole crew," she says. "There was no choice; we were losing our crops." Hers are searing memories of the summer of 2005, not the kind of carefree beach snapshots that 29-year-old women usually collect. There was heartbreak: But she's not part of the mainstream. She's a farmer.
The Landgrebe family has farmed this land west of Valparaiso, Ind., for four generations, even before U.S. 30 cut a four-lane swath through their farmland. Stephens recalls her childhood fascination with plants and fondly recalls picking beans on the family farm. She studied interior design in college, but found her love of the garden beginning to bloom. Settling into a home of her own, she started planting herbs in her backyard. Before long she had 14 raised gardens built to accommodate her flourishing herb collection. Friends flocked to her for fresh varieties that couldn't be bought at the supermarket. She had returned to her family roots.
The next step was a natural one for her: an organic farm. Revitalized by her gardens, Stephens adopted a holistic approach to vegetables and nutrition based on the principles of organic farming. Her resulting inspiration seemed logical: Convert the family farm to grow pure vegetables, and a new generation of consumers will come. (Husband Michael Stephens became involved as co-manager.) She christened her new farming venture Crème de la Crop, reflecting her fascination with French and Italian cuisines.
"Customers came from everywhere in droves," Stephens recalls. "We were totally amazed that so many people wanted our organically-grown vegetables. It was hard to keep up with the demand. We started out with three acres in 2004, and the next year we were planting 21." Epicureans were delighted with the array of fresh produce offered, from dozens of varieties of herbs to patty-pan squash and rattlesnake beans. This new farmer had tapped into a consumer niche that was hers for the taking. Her biodynamic produce was sold throughout the Chicago area, at Chesterton's European Market, and at farmer's markets in Valparaiso and at the Schoolhouse Shop in nearby Chesterton. Savvy chefs from trendy local restaurants were interested in getting supplied by Crème de la Crop.
The widening interest prodded Stephens to organize her venture as a Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. A CSA has a group of shareholders who underwrite a farmer's entire growing season, and in return, they receive weekly boxes of fresh produce grown at their own farm. The focus is on producing safe food and maintaining a stable market through an economic partnership between consumers and farmers. Discriminating customers pay more to reap the benefit of knowing where their food comes from, as well as the satisfaction that their produce is chemical and pesticide-free. Besides that, they even get to know their own farmer.
With the financial stream secure, CSA farmers are able to devote themselves more to improving the soil and creating a healthy climate for growing fruits and vegetables. Their financial side is shared with a community of CSA members - shared for better or worse, that is.
Even after the setback last year's drought forced on her, Stephens says her goal remains the same: a CSA farm where she can experiment with crop variety, grow biodynamic vegetables and promote the healthy-lifestyle cause. She will rebuild her soil, install a drip-irrigation system and make improvements essential to her farm's infrastructure.
This year's plan is for a three-acre community garden, a test-garden that would give her free reign to experiment with vegetable-varieties, composting and cover-crops. These days she is experimenting with "compost tea," whose beneficial qualities were extolled at an alternative farmer's convention. "It helps with the soil compaction problem," she says, "and then it assists with soil micro-organisms too, all to make the fields more productive." Stephens looks forward, not back. "I want to put in greenhouses," she continues with warming conviction. In the winter, she was growing seedlings in the sunroom of her house. Organic seeds, the so-called heirloom varieties, fascinate her. She will test 70 tomato varieties in all, then gather community reaction this summer to determine taste favorites. She will test varieties of peas in a similar fashion.
Hope rises from Leann Landgrebe Stephens' dusty fields. During this rebuilding season at Crème de la Crop, she is setting down deeper roots and consciously reinventing the family farm.