Sunday, July 5, 2009 Northwest Indiana Times

A Growing Niche 
Times of North West Indiana 
July 5, 2009 
By: Melanie Csepiga

 

When LeAnn Landgrebe Stephens found her chosen field of interior design unproductive, she returned to her roots and the family farm -- planting the seeds for what would become Creme de la Crop in 2003.

Today, Stephens' farming operation in Valparaiso off U.S. 30 organically grows heirloom and unique vegetables on about half the 30 acres she rents from her family. The crops support the Creme de la Crop CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) and, most recently, wholesale ventures as a supplier to Whole Foods in Chicago.

Stephens' evolution is like that of countless other farmers in Indiana whose ventures make up the 79-percent increase in small farms across the state, reported in the most recent census. Small farms are deemed those with up to 49 acres of land.

"The small-farm numbers are way up," Greg Preston, Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Ag Statistics Service in Indiana, said.

Preston, who analyzes data from the 2007 Census of Agriculture covering 2002-07, said many could be "niche farmers," that is, those specializing in organics, sod, shrubs and the like. "Two censuses in a row, we've seen a small increase in the number of farms -- but not an increase in acreage. It's hard to explain," Preston said.

He ventured it could indicate folks are returning to the earth and simpler lifestyles. "It's starting, and it could build toward a trend," he said. "It's not just the aging Baby Boomers. It's the kids returning home to the farm."

Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist with Purdue University, West Lafayette, said data from the census released five years ago indicated Indiana was moving toward a two-class system consisting of large (more than 1,000 acres) and small farms.

That trend continues in the current ag census, which shows that although mid-sized farms, those 50 to 999 acres, remain the majority of the state's farm parcels, they are in steady, slow decline.

Preston said many of the small farms showing up in the census are not farms in the traditional sense of row crops and livestock.

"Some could be lifestyle and retirement farms, people with a couple of acres. Maybe they've lived in the city and are retiring to the country," he said.

That may explain, in part, why the average size of a farm in Porter County in 2007 decreased by 19 acres, to 223 acres from 242. Likewise, in Newton County, average farm size decreased to 430 acres from 528.

In West Creek Township near the Illinois border, Robert Bailey lives on the farm that has been in his family for 150 years, but he's reluctant to call himself a farmer, even though the ag census likely does.

"I have 20 acres to run the cattle on," Bailey said of the small cattle business he's recently begun. While the rest of the farm's acreage is rented out, some space is devoted to Bailey's Bees, the six-year avocation-turned-vocation that produces pure honey and all-natural beeswax products.

"That market is continuing to grow. It's very positive," he said. "Things have changed for every generation. My grandfather saw changes he didn't want to see. ...You're not going to stop progress." Progress meant a loss of 700,000 acres of Indiana farmland from 2002 to 2007, Preston said.

Interestingly, a paper on urban growth and rural depopulation by Purdue University agricultural economist, Brigitte Waldorf, reports a surge in growth in Porter County from 2000 to 2008. Its 10.48-percent population growth exceeded the national average. Elkhart and Jasper counties also were above the national average, with 8.94 percent and 8.32 percent growth, respectively.

What does that mean? According to Waldorf, "if these population-growth trends continue, the result may be an even deeper divide of the Indiana landscape between the fast-growing urban places and the depopulating rural areas." Those driving across the rural areas of Northwest Indiana in the past few years likely would be surprised to learn the ag census shows no loss of farmland in Lake County between 2002 and 2007.

In fact, land in farms grew slightly, to 128,439 acres from 127,782.

While neighboring Porter County did have a loss of 21 percent farmland, LaPorte County next door increased its farmland by 5 percent.

Part of all that may be explained by the interest in multiacre residential properties that may fall into the farmland category as lifestyle, not livelihood, farms. Preston said more data needs to be collected.

The ripple effect

Jody Melton, director of the Kankakee River Basin Commission, which oversees Northwest Indiana's seven-county watershed, said rural development has had its cost.

"As subdivisions continue to sprout up throughout the Kankakee River Basin, the land that was once vacant and ready to absorb water is being covered by houses, roofs, yards and roads," Melton said. "Most of the plan commissions in the Basin have regulations requiring detention and retention ponds to hold stormwater, but, still, we are losing storage space."

In the early 1900s, the marsh around the river was drained to create farm and housing space. The water was pushed toward agricultural ditches, other drainage systems and the river. "After a while, the system just couldn't handle the run-off anymore, and we began the floods of the 1970s and 1980s," Melton said.

"The KRBC was created to try to help with flood protection, but even then, levees can only be built so high."

The KRBC has encouraged property owners to restore former wetland areas to current wetlands so as to provide additional storage for water and decrease the run-off to the river, Melton said, adding the Grand Kankakee Marsh Restoration Project has played a large role. Their efforts have successfully reduced the scope of flooding.

"As the Kankakee River Basin continues to develop into suburban Chicagoland, we need to remain diligent with planning and foresight to what happens in the workings of the watershed," Melton cautions.

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