Just this morning, I was flipping through Instagram and saw a photo of some seeds on the shelf at Pogue's Run grocery. They weren't just any regular garden seeds, either, but non-GMO, carefully collected heirloom seeds from a local farmer. In the grocery store. Next to necessities like milk and bread and toilet paper. Lots of people would walk past and shrug, "Welcome to Indiana." But to me, non-GMO seeds on the grocery store shelves is another sign of the progress being made by those crazy-motivated urban farmers, and I couldn't be more proud.
They were also representative of the seeds of change (yeah, like I wasn't going to make that pun) that sprouted here decades ago, and grew from it a culture of eating and farming that aligns with the seasons and seeks to make the most of our urban space.
Urban and small farming isn't just about food providence or security, or about the environment. It is partially to stop wasting water and green space in places that could produce a sizeable amount of food. Amy Matthews at South Circle, for example, can get several tons (yes, like actual tons) of produce out of her small plot of farmland just down the street from Shapiro's — so much that the farm supplies several restaurants as well as selling produce at the farmers market.
One of the most prominent leaders of this movement was Growing Places Indy, which nestled gardens into city lots wherever they became available and communities needed better food access. Tyler and Laura Henderson started raising money for Growing Places more than five years ago, with the simple goal in mind of turning a few grassy lots into productive gardens.
These days, they have huge gardens all over the city, from the Chase Eastside Legacy Center's massive gardens, to the gardens at White River State Park. When the new Eskenazi Hospital opened, Grown Places was tapped to turn their 5,000 square foot green roof into a productive, organic urban farm. The food grown on the hospital's roof is served to patients and used in cooking classes about nutrition. That's a transit time of a few minutes, and it only goes a few hundred feet from where it was grown, better known as the dream of urban farmers everywhere.
The secondary value of small farming is most of these labor-intensive operations where human hands do most of the work don't use fuel or chemicals— two conventional farming methods adapted to grow huge amounts of food on huge pieces of land. Unfortunately, because of the dilution of the word "organic" and the lengthy, expensive process of becoming organically certified (a process requiring an inspection process for which the farmer is billed for "inspection fees"), many of these small farms grow organically but cannot afford certification.
In fact, many self-identify as "beyond-organic," which often reflects a more permaculture-minded ecology with bees, chickens, and old-world methods of pest control and soil amending used in place of pesticides and fertilizer. And if you want to know more about how your food was raised, you can now go to the market and just ask them yourself.
Meanwhile, back in 2009, the first rumblings — er, clucks — of Nap Town Chickens were coming together. Thanks to Marion County's lax urban farming laws (you can pretty much do what you want in your yard as long as you don't bother your neighbors with anything stinky, ugly or invasive), almost anyone can have chickens if they have the space. That was the idea behind Nap Town Chickens' Project Poultry, the goal of which is to teach chicken farming and animal husbandry to anyone who wanted to learn. Andrew Brake, a self-taught chicken farmer who bought his hens to eat table scraps (instead of buying his wife wanted a garbage disposal), found from personal experience that it's easy to learn how to raise chickens, so he's out to put a chicken coop in every school and backyard that wants one.
Each year, Nap Town Chickens puts on their Tour de Coops, where the chicken-curious can visit all manner and style of coop around Indy and envision themselves living that cluckin' lifestyle. Brake thinks that anyone who tries chickens will love them, and will love the taste of home-raised eggs even more.
Of course, we'd all be pretty screwed, blued and tattooed, as they say, without the Central Indiana Beekeepers Association. Yes, we did give them a Cultural Vision Award, and for good reason: no bees means no farms, which means no food for anyone. The CIBA holds education workshops, demonstrations, and other classes to try to fill this part of Indiana with more beekeepers, further helping to stabilize our food supply. And anyone who has ever kept bees will tell you they're not the "set it and forget it" kind of project like chickens are. Thanks to the CIBA, Indy is constantly growing a community of informed beekeepers, and our farmers are ensuring that our honey-making friends always have a flower to pollinate.
The urban farming movement, to remain sustainable, has become a full-circle symbiosis between committed farmers, beekeepers, animal husbandry experts, and the regular folks who line up to get their sustainably-farmed food at the market every week. While farming is not new to Indiana, it's breaking away from the supposed necessity of huge swaths of land. Turns out, all you need to turn out gorgeous, organic produce is a few square yards of full sun and a strong back. Here's to 25 more years of growing our own food and growing our own farmers.