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 hel​ping turn the tide. Check in each Tuesday for a new segment.

Extreme Makeovers

Purdue Extension Helps Rural Communities Reinvent, Revitalize

By Steve Leer

Darryl Brown has no time to lose on this winter day. Customers are starting to arrive at his rural Fowler, Ind., business, and he's got to deal with the six inches of snow that fell the day before.

With a sense of urgency, Brown tosses shovelfuls of the white stuff to the right and left until he clears a path from the parking area to the front door of the building. "There, I think we've got it. Come on in," Brown says to a visitor who just pulled up. "At least you won't have to walk through all that snow."

If Brown were engaged in a traditional form of his business, he probably would never need to pick up a snow shovel. He likely wouldn't need a coat, either—waders might suffice. And winter storms? Forget it. He'd be more concerned about tropical depressions and hurricanes.

Aquaculture Success

Brown and his wife Karlanea are the co-owners of RDM Aquaculture LLC. They raise shrimp.

Darryl Brown nets shrimp from a large saltwater tank. Darryl Brown nets shrimp in this tank, a recirculating saltwater shrimp system. Brown and his wife Karlanea raise about 120,000 baby shrimp in six of these 400-gallon tanks. (Photo by Steve Leer)

RDM Aquaculture, which started in 2010, operates one of 18 recirculating saltwater shrimp systems in the United States. Every month the company raises about 120,000 baby shrimp, or post-larvals, in six 400-gallon tanks,. Eighty percent of those juvenile shrimp are sent on to shrimp farms in 10 states—from New York to Iowa—with the other 20 percent being raised to adulthood and sold on the retail market.

The Browns sell about 300 pounds of shrimp a month to customers who walk into the retail storefront of the RDM Aquaculture building. The shrimp fetch $15 per pound.

"People come from all over to buy," Karlanea says. "In fact, we just had someone from Mississippi stop by who'd heard about us. We also have a regular customer from Ohio."

Karlanea is quick to add that none of this would have happened without the assistance of Purdue Extension. In 2009, Purdue Extension educators in Benton County helped convince county officials not to rezone the Brown's farm from agriculture to general business. Purdue aquaculture researcher Robert Rode helped the Browns understand shrimp farming technology, and aquaculture specialist Kwamena Quagrainie guided them through the maze of marketing their seafood. The Browns say Purdue is a partner in their success.

"When we've had questions they've been here for us," Karlanea says. "They've loaned us equipment from their own aquaculture program. We're now trying to learn how to fly our shrimp to other countries because our business is expanding, and they've provided us contacts who can help us find out what we have to do. They've just done so much for us."

RDM Aquaculture sells about 80 percent of its juvenile shrimp to other shrimp farms to raise. The remaining 20 percent are raised to adulthood and sold direct to consumers. (Video by Steve Leer; edited by Kelsey Getzin)

RDM Aquaculture is a case study in how Purdue Extension is helping rural Indiana communities reinvent themselves to meet changing consumer demands and the challenges of producing more food for a growing population on fewer acres. The shifting landscape is forcing rural areas to become more innovative in order to remain economically viable. That, in turn, has led Purdue Extension to think and act more entrepreneurial as well.

Online Farmers Market

A recent example of Extension entrepreneurship is Hoosier Harvest Market. Established in 2013 through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant, Hoosier Harvest Market is a membership-based farmer cooperative that connects Indiana producers of specialty foods with consumers interested in purchasing Indiana-grown products.

Farmers and food vendors pay $150 per year to belong to the cooperative, which provides them a place on the Hoosier Harvest Market website to promote and sell their products. The farmers deliver to the aggregation point, and then HHM delivers to buyers at drop-off points. Customers order and pay for the products online.

Jennifer Pinkston picks up her Hoosier Harvest Market bag order. Jennifer Pinkston picks up her Hoosier Harvest Market order from the Purdue Extension-Hancock County office in Greenfield. Pinkston takes advantage of the food hub to find fresh, local food. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

"We were looking at finding a new way for farmers to market their products in addition to going to a farmers market," says Roy Ballard, Purdue Extension educator in Hancock County and HHM coordinator. "We like to describe it as 'a farmers market meets the Internet.' Hoosier Harvest Market is an online marketplace where you can purchase produce, meats, eggs, cheeses, wheat products, flowers, honey and much more. It's all grown in the heart of central Indiana and supports local family farms and businesses."

HHM works like this: The online market is open from noon Friday until midnight on Tuesday. Orders received during that period are sent by email to member-producers. On Thursday, producers deliver the ordered products to the "hub" at the Purdue Extension office in Greenfield, where HHM workers send them on to six designated buyer pickup locations in Hancock and Marion counties. Pickup takes place from 4-7 p.m. on that same evening

"Farmers are responsible for maintaining their inventories, the quality of the product and the prices they charge—some update them on a regular basis—and they can attend the pickup times and talk to customers if they want to," Ballard says. "It's all about giving the farmer and the shopper new and convenient ways to make the connection.

At the end of 2013, Hoosier Harvest Market boasted 28 producer-members, about half from Hancock County. Michael Morrow, the program's market manager, said other farmers and food vendors have called him and are interested in joining.

"We have some big plans for 2014," Morrow says. "We hope to have two delivery days to increase the amount of product that can be sold, and I've been talking with YMCA officials about the possibility of establishing up to 11 new pickup locations in the Indianapolis metro area. We're also ironing out the logistics on a program to sell food to schools. And we're looking at getting a community garden started in the Indianapolis area, which would allow those who grow vegetables in the garden to benefit from the expertise of Hoosier Harvest Market farmers."

Robert Engleking of Charlottesville, Ind., raises Holstein cattle—free of antibiotics, growth hormones and steroids—on pasture and homegrown grain. Engleking and his family sell steaks, roasts, ground beef, pork and eggs through a retail store on their farm. While business is good at Engleking's Country Beef Shop, Engleking says Hoosier Harvest Market has allowed him to reach new customers who might never have visited the store.

"I'd say our business has increased about 150 percent since we joined the hub," Engleking says. "It started out slow when we joined last May, but once people began to try our products in the first month or two, it took off.

"We've even become customers ourselves and really love the products we buy through the hub. The lettuce is phenomenal. So are the spinach, breads and cheeses. It's stuff that we don't grow ourselves."

Preserving the Family Farm

Programs like Hoosier Harvest Market would not exist if there weren't strong farms to continue filling the food pipeline. Although less visible to the public than the online farmers market, Purdue Extension's research and educational offerings in farm succession planning focus on keeping today's farms operating tomorrow.

Passing the farm on to a son, daughter or younger business partner when it's time for a farmer to retire isn't as easy as handing over the keys to the barn. The farmer and his or her successor need to work through the financial arrangements, management procedures and, perhaps, even family issues before control of the farm is transferred.

"I always say, 'Policies before problems,'" says Maria Marshall, a Purdue agricultural economist and succession planning expert. "Passing the land assets on doesn't necessarily make it a successful transition from one generation to the next."

Marshall has studied intergenerational farm and non-farm family businesses and found retiring farmers often are more willing to pass the farm on to a child or partner, even if it might place the farmer at greater financial risk. That probably shows the extent to which most older farmers want the farm operation to continue after them.

That emotional investment of farmer to farm has led to such Purdue Extension programs as the Farming Together Workshop series. The workshops bring together the farmer and farm successor, and Extension specialists lead them through sessions on effective communication skills, business organizational structures, working as a team and developing a shared vision for the farm. Before the two-day workshop is over, the farmer and younger partner write a succession plan.

The workshop was invaluable to Dave Forgey, a 70-year-old Logansport dairy farmer who attended with his 40-year-old unrelated farm partner. The partner's wife also attended.

"One of the things that was brought to my attention before the workshop was that my partner's wife had never been a part of the farming operation. She was working a town job, and he was on the farm," Forgey says. "It was good she was at that workshop because it became apparent she lacked a lot of knowledge about agriculture. My wife and I, on the other hand, had 40 years, and my partner had 10 years in ag."

Farming Together opened the partner's wife's eyes to the financial risks associated with agriculture—risks she had not previously been willing to accept.

"That workshop was a real help in getting us started in the way we wanted to go," Forgey says. "We wouldn't have gotten where we are today without it."

Next Tuesday: About one in six Hoosiers is now living in poverty with an annual income of less than $11,000. Find out how Purdue Extension helps Indiana residents find a bridge out of poverty.