A farmer’s experience of the farm-to-fork movement

August 15th, 2018

By Laura G. Burger | Input Fort Wayne

There is a 16-acre plot of land off of highway 24 between Fort Wayne and Roanoke that has been in the Flotow family for more than four decades.

It was a conventional family farm in the early years. Then it fell dormant for a few years before resuming production in 1992.

About 20 years ago in 1999, “Farmer Dan” Flotow and his wife, Wendy, decided to convert the farm to total organic practices.

They received organic certification in 2003, joining hundreds of farmers across the nation, largely driven by what has become known as the farm-to-fork movement.

Also known as farm-to-table, this movement has been gaining popularity in recent years, focusing on locally sourced food that is often grown naturally or organically and consumed while it is still fresh.

But while the term is new, the concept is age-old.

Prior to the advent of processing and packaged goods, the food consumers ate was primarily farm grown and consumed fresh. Then the popularity of canned food peaked in the U.S. during the 1950s.

Now, the resurgent desire of many to eat healthier and know where their food is coming from has fueled a movement that has manifested itself in bustling local farmers markets, organic grocery stores, and a new breed of restaurants that champion farmer relationships.

But how does the farm-to-fork movement play out for local farmers in northeast Indiana? Ask different farmers, and you’ll get different responses.

“Farm-to-fork has really taken off for us in the last four years or so,” Dan Flotow says.

He explains that the movement has improved his family's business, as they have steadily increased food sales to several local restaurants and food co-ops.

The biggest challenge they face at Country Garden and Farm Market is controlling weeds, since they use no herbicides, Dan says.

They currently combat the problem by using plastic mulch as growing beds to suppress weeds and conserve water. But he says they are working towards permaculture, or creating an agricultural ecosystem that works seamlessly with nature as a sustainable and self-sufficient way to revitalize the land.

This is important to Dan for his long-term goal of “leaving my property in better shape than when I started,” he says.

He can already see that happening on his farm as the percentage of organic soil gradually but steadily increases.

Even so, while the farm-to-fork movement has given some farmers new hope, it also requires a lot of work for those working to change the tides of consumer habits.

Half an hour away in Markle, Indiana, at Fishburn’s Farm Market, Dwight and Debbie Fishburn are preparing for a hectic day ahead at the Saturday farmers markets in Fort Wayne.

The Fishburns sells their fresh produce, eggs, and meat only at farmers markets and from their own produce stand because they have found that restaurants and groceries do not pay them enough to cover the added costs of their products.

Their 10-acres of farmland are what Dwight calls a “good practices” farm, which means they use many organic methods. Their free-range turkeys, chickens, and pigs provide a ready supply of manure to fertilize their crops. They also spread grass and leaves in the fall as fertilizer, so they rarely need to use any synthetic products.

“To me, it’s really sad what the commercial food industry is putting into food,” Dwight says, acknowledging that it is challenging for consumers to avoid processed products.

The food produced at Fishburn’s Farm has no antibiotics, hormones, or preservatives, and they use non-GMO feed.

On the other hand, studies show that food at a grocery store has often traveled 1,500 miles or morefrom where it was harvested to where it is sold, requiring emissions, resources, and preservatives to get there.

One of the best things a consumer can do to support local farmers is to “buy products from an actual grower, not a peddler,” Dwight says.

But while many consumers like the idea of fresh food, they often do not want to pay the higher price for it.

This reality has forced the Fishburns to radically downscale their operations, which is disappointing to Dwight.

“We are doing what we love in working the land,” he says. “Our tomatoes are vine-ripened, but consumers look at the price. They should come to the farm and put their feet in the mud.”

One place many consumers in northeast Indiana are making connections with local farmers and buying directly from them is at the growing number of farmers markets across the region.

On Friday afternoons in the summer, market preparations are in full swing at both the Flotows and the Fishburns, who each have booths at the combined Fort Wayne’s Farmers Market and YLNI Farmers Market in downtown Fort Wayne on Saturday mornings.

At Country Garden, Dan spends Friday afternoon picking figs from a large tree in one of his greenhouses while two volunteers in the flower shed assemble vibrant, fresh-cut bouquets, just in time for a first-time customer who stops by for sunflowers.

At Fishburn’s Farm around 3 p.m., Dwight explains that he easily has six more hours of work ahead of him to prepare for the next day’s market. There is still a hog to be butchered and fresh produce to be loaded for transport.

Bright and early on Saturday morning, both farmers are ready in place alongside other vendors in downtown Fort Wayne when the market opens at 9 a.m. Colorful bouquets, produce, and spices sell briskly for Country Garden, while customers line up for natural meats and other fresh products at the Fishburn’s stand, too.

The Fishburns also sell fresh wares on Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the South Side Farmers Market in Fort Wayne, which dates back to the 1920s. This market is open through Mid-December, so Dwight will soon begin taking orders for Thanksgiving turkeys, which are butchered that week and never frozen.

Along with farmers markets, the Flotows say Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs have played an integral part in supporting their work.

CSAs allow consumers to buy a “share” of a farmer’s goods throughout the farming season, so they receive a regular variety of their products.

“It’s kind of like a vegetable subscription program,” Dan explains. “A person buys a share and then, in return, they get produce every week.”

Dan says the CSA program benefits his business in two main ways.

“It’s like our produce is pre-sold, so we don’t have to worry about it going bad, and people pay up front, so it helps us with start-up costs in the spring,” he says.

Even so, each farmer’s experience is unique. The CSA program did not take off for the Fishburns like it did for the Flotows, Debbie says.

“We tried a CSA about four years ago, but had no response,” she says. “I had flyers made up of what we offer and also promoted it on Facebook and on our website.”

She says that some customers were not willing to try the variety of 35 vegetables that the Fishburns grow and wanted the same product every week instead.

For these and other reasons, the Fishburns did not pursue a CSA program any further.

The government does not track CSAs to provide an official count of how many are available in the Fort Wayne region. But LocalHarvest, an online tool that connects farmers to consumers, has the most comprehensive grassroots database of 4,000 CSAs nationwide. A search near Fort Wayne yields 35 listings.

For farmers like Dan, it’s a sign of ongoing support for the farm-to-fork movement across the region—and in turn, a sign of support for his long-standing family farm.

“We probably have the oldest CSA in Indiana,” he says.

Interested in Fort Wayne's farm-to-fork movement?

LocalHarvest helps consumers connect with local healthy and organic food and the farmers who produce it. Their website offers a wealth of information on local farms, farmers markets, farm stands, food co-ops, and restaurants that serve locally grown food. It also provides information about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.

The Northeast Indiana Local Food Network has undertaken a mission to “enhance the quality of place of Northeast Indiana by promoting local food culture in the region and supporting local food entrepreneurship” by helping producers increase visibility and expand sales.”

Their definition of “local food” is that which is “grown, raised, produced, sold and eaten within the local food system in the 11 counties of Northeast Indiana.”