Giving New Life to Rural Indiana

This series provides insight about the economic and social issues affecting rural Indiana and highlights the public-private partnerships that are helping turn the tide. Check in each Tuesday for a new segment.

Rural Preservation

Two Families Support Farming Heritage
and Local Communities

Many Purdue Agriculture graduates return to their home communities to work, raise a family and volunteer in the community. Two families who chose this path have joined many generations of their ancestors to preserve rural Indiana as a viable place to work and live.

By Olivia Maddox

Royers Turn Family Livestock Farm into a New
Business Venture

Nikki Royer and her husband Scott Royer walk in a snow-covered field of sheep. Nikki Royer (left) is a fifth generation livestock producer on the farm that has been in her family since the 1870s. After taking over the farm in 2000, Nikki and her husband Scott have transitioned it from a production cattle operation to a new business model that direct markets meat and poultry to consumers. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

For five generations, the Overpeck family has raised livestock on ground that now runs parallel to U.S. 63 in southern Vermillion County, a narrow sliver of land less than 10 miles wide, bordered by Illinois on the west and the Wabash River on the east.

Perry and Susan Overpeck purchased the farm in 1874 and began a modest operation that would rise to a renowned cattle-breeding enterprise under the guidance of their great-grandson Knic (pronounced Nick) Overpeck.

Knic developed the family farm as a purebred cattle-breeding business, importing exotic breeds such as Simmental. He introduced embryo transfer technology and became a successful breeder, showman and judge throughout North America. Daughters Nikki and Shelley followed in the family footsteps, showing cattle and learning the family business.

Nikki and her future husband Scott Royer both chose majors in Purdue University's College of Agriculture: Nikki in biochemistry and Scott in animal sciences. After graduating from Purdue in '92, Nikki completed a master's degree in muscle biology at the University of Illinois and then took a job as a pharmaceutical company sales rep. Scott, also a '92 graduate, worked as a research scientist for Pfizer.

Even before getting married in 1994, the two were assembling seedstock for a sheep herd and occasionally selling freezer beef to family and friends. But thoughts of returning to the farm in a greater capacity were relegated to "sometime in the future," Nikki says.

An Unexpected Return

By necessity, that changed in 2000, when Knic died unexpectedly at age 60. Scott and Nikki stepped in to help manage the day-to-day operation of the farm. The first 18 months they concentrated on maintaining the status quo as a production cattle operation. "We were just treading water," says Scott, who took leave from Pfizer.

They found it hard to make a profit on their small sheep flock, yet nearly impossible to find lamb in local grocery stores. The couple discovered a niche market at the same time farmers markets were just gaining a foothold in Indiana. Relying on their experience raising stock and selling freezer beef, Nikki and Scott began direct marketing lamb and beef to consumers.

It was the start of a journey that would eventually transition the farm from advanced reproductive techniques back to the basics­—pasture-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free livestock. They mix time-tested and modern strategies to maximize efficiencies and lower costs. Within a few years, both were able to walk away from financially secure jobs in industry and return to the farm full time.

Rural specialists say enterprise and innovation like the Royers showed are among the keys to reviving rural economies. Encouraging homegrown entrepreneurship, providing rich educational opportunities and enhancing quality of life are also essential to help draw people back to rural communities and retain those who might otherwise leave.

Mixing It Up

The Royers set up shop in the Overpeck family homestead, which serves as business hub and store for Royer Farm Fresh. The front porch of the old, green farmhouse welcomes customers with a photo collage chronicling the family legacy—a grainy black-and-white of Nikki's great-grandfather Grant with a flock of sheep; her grandparents, Donald and Agnes, with beef carcasses at the Indiana State Fair; Nikki and Shelley with parents Knic and Diane at a cattle show; and finally Nikki and Scott with 10-year-old twin sons Knic and Cale, showing sheep at the Vermillion County 4-H fair.

A well-used, vintage oak table still dominates the farmhouse's former dining room, but instead of place settings, there's a trio of laptops where Nikki, Scott and Amber Mosher, a 2013 Purdue animal production graduate, handle business, sales and marketing.

"We couldn't do this without the Internet and smart phones," says Nikki, gesturing to the laptops. "People use the Internet to find out about us, and we like to meet them face to face."

Their move to take their product direct to customers coincided with the "buy local" food movement. "We started out selling beef and lamb at farmers markets in the Indianapolis area and Terre Haute," Nikki relates. "Then people told us they also wanted bacon. Then, they wanted eggs with their bacon. Next, it was boneless, skinless chicken breasts. We were getting direct consumer feedback," she says. "We thought, ‘Do they have to hit us over the head?'"

Scott said the feedback forced them out of their comfort zone, and they expanded to include swine and chickens. "Our customers knew us, trusted us and wanted to buy from us," he says. "If we were going to make the trip to Indianapolis (to farmers markets), we might as well make it worth our while."

They breed their own sheep and cattle but buy feeder pigs from a local breeder. They work with another farmer to supply brown eggs, though they raise their own broiler chickens. "Partnering with other producers and pooling our resources makes sense," Nikki says. Similarly, they no longer raise crops but buy corn and hay from neighbors. "We do what we do best," she says. "And we let them do what they do best."

These strategic moves have helped make the business profitable. "We're pretty conservative about financial decisions," Scott says. "We took a lot of time to plan and took the training wheels off slowly." They ran the business part time until deciding it was feasible for first Scott (in 2001) and then Nikki (2005) to leave secure jobs in industry. A few years ago, they also began selling utility trailers at the farm.

Support for Small Businesses

Another stroke of luck, their meat processor is located just two miles down the road—a huge benefit since Nikki inspects every carcass and every cut. "We have a great relationship with Uselman Packing," the Royers say about their symbiotic association with owner Jason Paxton.

Poultry is processed over the state line at Arthur, Ill. Like the Royers, both processors are small, family-owned businesses.

Royer Farm Fresh sells about 40,000 pounds of meat a year. However, they keep inventory low and don't stockpile. "We target animals more ready for market, so the meat is fresh," Nikki says.

The Royers are part of a small business lifecycle, both customer and seller in their rural county. "Early on, it was about making a living and raising good food," Nikki says. "Now it's also about making a difference in the community." Nikki is a member of the school board, and Scott serves on the 4-H Council.

"This is a good fit for us and makes it possible for us to give back to the community and support other small businesses," Nikki says. "There's a lot of potential here to do good things."

Generations of Farming and Service Unite McKinneys, Tipton County

Tom McKinney sits on the front of an ATV. Tom McKinney was raised in a family where living in a community also meant giving back to the community. There are few nonprofit organizations and charitable causes that he hasn't served in some capacity over the years. "You've missed out if you haven't given back," he says. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Tom McKinney is a seventh generation farmer and third generation Purdue Agriculture graduate—two distinctions that have influenced him all his life.

The first McKinney to settle in Clinton County was a blacksmith—the anvil, double-oxen yoke and muzzleloader he used are still in the family. His mother Judy's Kirkpatrick family roots are nearly as deep, going back five generations. The McKinney farm holdings expanded into Tipton County, where Tom's parents settled and raised their family.

Tom and his three siblings—twin brother Ted, Mike and Becky—are all involved in food and agriculture, but Tom is the only one who returned to the farm. After completing a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics in 1980, Tom says there was no doubt he would return to carry on the family legacy. "I have a passion for farming and agriculture; I knew I wanted to be a farmer," he says. Tom farms both McKinney and Kirkpatrick land, as well as rental ground, and until recently raised swine, too.

He and his wife Karen operated a contract corn detasseling business for many years. In addition to a source of income, it was a way to employ local kids and impart a strong work ethic.

"Many of them had not worked before or came from broken homes," Tom says. "Anyone who makes it all the way to the end knows detasseling takes a strong work ethic. If you have it on your résumé, employers will know you can work hard."

On the state level, Tom followed his mother's footsteps to advocate for his alma mater on the Purdue Council for Agricultural Research, Extension and Teaching, known as PCARET, and served as president his last year. He's currently president of the Indiana 4-H Foundation board of directors; 4-H, too, impressed upon him the values of leadership and service during his youth.

As a youngster, he was learning how to serve the community by watching—and helping—his parents. There are few nonprofit organizations in Tipton County that Tom hasn't come into contact with over the years, either directly or through the boards of First National Bank and Trust, the Tipton Community School Building Corp., Purdue Extension-Tipton County and the Tipton County Foundation.

Small but Mighty

Tipton County, located in north central Indiana, is among the state's most rural counties, as determined by Purdue research analyzing 2010 U.S. Census data. With a population under 16,000, it ranks among the 10 least populated counties in the state.

But thanks to the foresight of community leaders like McKinney, the county is at the top of one list—it's home to the largest per capita foundation in Indiana. The Tipton County Foundation funds charitable causes and makes improvements that affect quality of life for residents, dispersing more than $1 million annually back into the community.

The foundation takes care of community needs, says Tom, who is serving his second term on the board. While grants perennially support the Boys & Girls Club and prescriptions for senior citizens, for example, they also address special circumstances, such as flood relief during a year of severe flooding along Wildcat Creek.

Other grant recipients include the Tipton County Education Center—a partnership with Purdue Extension—and the C.W. Mount Community Center, two of the county's community development gems.

Tom was in the unique position of having worked on the education center during the planning phase as a member of the Extension board and during construction as president of the foundation board. The foundation helped facilitate a $3.3 million Lilly Endowment grant to Purdue Extension to fund the center.

The learning center, which opened in 2002, provides access to college courses from many state and private universities, as well as classes related to workforce skills; math, reading and computer literacy; and personal enrichment.

Tom was also on the ground floor of planning many other major building projects in the county through either the foundation or his role at the bank. These projects carried over into his volunteer work through his financial background in agribusiness and "because there was a need," he says.

Another project was the C.W. Mount Community Center, which opened in 2001. Tom was among the Tipton County leaders who determined how to best use funds willed to the county by Tipton native, businessman and former circuit court judge C.W. Mount. His estate designated funds for such a center that would provide activities for residents from youth to senior citizens.

The center houses the Boys & Girls Club, senior citizens center, fitness center and has banquet and meeting space for public rental. Its calendar shows a full slate of activities nearly every day of the year.

Scholarly Connections

Tipton schools continue to be important to Tom and Karen. It's where they both attended classes and began dating in high school. Karen, a former teacher, is a member of the school board. Tom served on the school corporation's building committee through projects that ultimately united the high school, middle school and elementary school onto one campus.

"We're a team," Tom says of their joint philanthropic interests that include education, 4-H, church and causes that aid disabled persons.

Three years ago, Tom became more involved in the schools than even he could imagine when Tipton High School's agriculture teacher, who advised the FFA chapter, left midway through the school year. A Tipton FFA alumnus, Tom stepped in to serve as adviser, assisted by Tipton County resident Deborah Kuhn, who has an agricultural education degree. "Deb was a stay-at-home mom with a heart of gold," Tom says of her help. He also recruited other Tipton County producers to coach in their crop or livestock specialty areas. It was a community effort, Tom says. "People responded and asked, ‘how can I help?'"

A Model for Future Generations

Though farming often means long days in the field, Tom says being self-employed also gives him the freedom to volunteer his time, whether its making financial decisions in the boardroom or helping rebuild a wounded veteran's home.

His parents, teachers, FFA advisers and 4-H leaders were examples for him to follow into a lifetime of community service. He hopes that what he's been able to do will provide an example for the next generation.

"I hope they will become more involved and provide continuity of leadership in Tipton County for the years to come," he says. "You've missed out if you haven't given back."

Families Share Purdue Agriculture Legacy

Like his forefathers, Vermillion County farmer Knic Overpeck was an accomplished livestock judge. In 1961, the animal sciences major won the individual title at the National Collegiate Livestock Judging Contest for Purdue University. Knic's score set a record that still stands more than 50 years later.

Nikki Overpeck was just a toddler when her dad Knic '62 showed 4-Z, the 1971 grand champion steer at the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago. Many other championships would follow, and he judged top livestock competitions throughout North America. After his death in 2000, the Simmental Breeders' Sweepstakes named a prestigious championship—the Knic Overpeck Supreme Champion—in his honor.

Nikki, too, was a champion in the show ring. And she followed her dad's path to Purdue Agriculture, graduating in 1992 with a degree in biochemistry. Nikki married Scott Royer '92, who, like her dad, was an animal sciences major.

Tom McKinney's Kirkpatrick ancestors moved from Illinois to Indiana for better educational opportunities. Their goal was realized when Tom's grandfather, Frank Kirkpatrick of Frankfort, Ind., became a Purdue student, majoring in soil and crop management. While at Purdue he met Mary Bishop, a home economics major from Arcadia, Ind.

Purdue had no campus housing for female students in the early years, so Mary boarded with John Carroll Latta—recognized as the father of Purdue Agriculture and Extension—and his family as a nanny and household helper.

Frank and Mary, both 1923 graduates, married, and their daughter Judy followed in their footsteps. Judy '54 majored in home economics and married animal sciences major Mark McKinney '53. Their four children became third-generation Purdue Agriculture students: Mike, through a cooperative program with John Deere, and Tom, in agricultural economics, both '80; Ted '81 in agricultural economics; and Becky '93 in agricultural and biological engineering and biochemistry.

Tom's future father-in-law, Dorman Rogers, a 1951 graduate in agricultural education, was vice-principal at Tipton High School when Tom was a student there.

Next Tuesday: Grant funding can make a big difference for Indiana towns and nonprofit organizations operating on tight budgets. Representatives from municipalities and nonprofits turn to Purdue Extension to learn how to write winning proposals. Funded projects have totaled $9 million for services and infrastructure to help build more livable communities.