Taylor Family Farms: Back to the Garden

By Daphne Bishop

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Much has been said about the collapse of General Motors and its attendant, cataclysmic effect on the cities, towns and people of our country.

There is little optimism, and a dearth of concrete proposals or solutions. But in Anderson, Indiana, once a thriving GM city, five young entrepreneurs see the growing of organic produce as a crucial way to invigorate both landscape and livelihoods.

Taylor Family Farms is a three month old organic farm started by students from Anderson University, a Christian college located about 40 minutes northeast of Indianapolis. In a city that the students call” post-industrial,” where “buildings are falling apart and people are out of work,” the farm has a larger purpose. 

The farm sits on what was a two and a half acre field, now planted with herbs, vegetables and fruits. It is presided over by AJ Taylor, who graduated from Anderson last May with a degree in finance, and a business plan developed in one of his courses. The land is rented from Taylor’s parents, who are not farmers, with the goal of eventually expanding onto an additional seven acres. 

I recently spoke with the four undergraduate students who are spending their summer vacations working for this for-profit CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). AJ had just gotten married and was on his honeymoon.

Nearing the end of another long day of hand-tilling and watering their gardens, they were energetic, optimistic and clear that what they were doing was both pragmatic and deeply spiritual. Joseph Monroe, a senior who graduates in December, had been quoted in an Anderson University web article as saying that the farm “is a microcosm of what everybody could be doing.” I asked him to elaborate.

“Farming is one of those ancient practices that everyone had to do at one time, what you did to survive. Things changed, people had other jobs. We are providing good, fresh food for people who are too busy, but also getting people to have the confidence, to see that farming does not have to be big scale.”

“We are trying to be a model for other post-industrial areas,” says Joseph, who is studying to be a pastor. He likens the area to Detroit, only with a population of 60,000. “It used to be in Anderson and other GM towns that you didn’t have to go to college. You could get a $20 an hour job. We are trying to bring something new in.” Part of that ethos is to encourage others so that “everyone could have a backyard garden,” no matter the size or simplicity. 

Monroe and his co-workers, Ben Orcutt, Levi Douglass and Kirsten Milliron, found each other through the university’s Orange, Black and Green environmental club. They have collaborated to get support and funding for taylor3other projects such as a “green roof” of wildflowers and bushes for the university student center.

Ben is a senior majoring in studio fine arts with a minor in peace and conflict resolution, and is the club’s president. One tenet of the philosophy that inspires the students, he said, stems from a belief that “we humans have separated ourselves from the rest of nature. Anything that we can do to put ourselves in a closer relationship with nature, I think, brings us closer to what we have lost.”

Joseph agreed, saying “I’ve resolved more problems in the gardens than anywhere else.”  

One surprise for the young farmers was the way initial publicity about Taylor Family Farms led to a flood of requests for shares.”We had to turn people away,” said Kirsten, a sophomore majoring in philosophy and creative writing.

Taylor Family Farms has thus far been able to sell 32 shares. The plan now is to offer another ten week share of produce for the fall. The farm sold about a thousand dollars worth of produce to Anderson University’s dining services, but is not yet in a position to compete with the big food services companies that typically win institutional contracts. “We are trying to do more competitive pricing for next year,” said Joseph.  

The students have found that the movement to buy local and support products made in America is deeply felt in their part of the country. There are five CISA’s in the area and a weekly farmers market in nearby Muncie, “an even bigger college town,” as well as market opportunities in Pendleton and Noblesville.   

The Taylor Family Farms store which will offer honey and eggs as well as artisan wares and jewelry. The students are enthusiastic about collaborating with other artists, and they are investigating other farmers markets and co-ops in places like Bloomington. The group puts out a monthly newsletter, according to Kirsten, with articles and recipes for their in-season bounty. Publicity is handled by AJ, who, in addition to being president of the farm, starts a full-time job when he returns from his honeymoon.

You might think that these young entrepreneurs are continuing a long tradition of family farming, yet only Joseph comes from a farming family, and a commercial corn and soybean farm at that. This has led others to puzzle over the students’ decision to spend the summer laboring without farm equipment, or even a watering system in place.

“I don’t find the work the biggest challenge, says Kirsten. “The hard part is explaining to family and friends why I stayed for the summer to farm.” While she is passionate about the health of the environment, she also says she has fun with the work.

Levi agrees the biggest personal challenge is not the field work, “but explaining to people back home,” why he is involved in the start-up enterprise.  A commitment to deliver to the people who bought shares and “to go the extra mile for the people who gave us their money,” moves Joseph to keep at it and to “get the food ready.”

For Ben, who grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, starting from scratch has been difficult.  ”It’s not my personality to be disorganized, and the psychological aspect of doing everything for the first time has been tough.”

While the tangible rewards may be few at this point, there are other dimensions to the work. The farmers have experienced pretty good weather; their professors have been especially supportive, and they have moved up from being an all volunteer labor force to being paid an hourly wage.

The process of working the land has further shaped and deepened the taylorstudents’ individual faiths. Joseph finds a “childlike wonder” in the blossoming of their work “that keeps me going.”  There is a sense that “we are doing the best with the land, taking care of the land and helping it to do what it is supposed to do.”

Levi concurs, “I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we may have an environmental or political view. But it is all connected to our faith; it is not just about taking care of a farm, but about finding our connection to something greater than ourselves.”

They know it will be a challenge to continue farming in the fall when classes begin again, but they hope to get other students inspired and involved so that the farm thrives even after they graduate. “We want to keep it going so that over the years students will stay and work here in the summers,” Ben adds.

This kind of imaginative response to a fractured economy and a degraded industrial food system is also taking place in Worcester, Massachusetts.

An organic community garden has been started by students at the College of the Holy Cross with the enthusiastic support of their professors. They plan to offer fresh, nutritious produce for both the school’s dining services and a local battered women’s shelter. Inspired by an assistant professor of biology who taught a course exploring the relationship “between philosophy and food,” the garden joins a network of about forty community gardens in the Worcester area.

We may be seeing the end of modernism in the relentless decline of traditional American manufacturing and industry. But if we stop to consider other ways of living and working, as the students at Anderson University have suggested, and as our forbears experienced, we may find that American ingenuity, faith and a bit of luck will pull us through the darkest of times.

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