The term "diversified" farming may rightly be applied to Clay Bottom Farm east of Goshen, where husband and wife Ben Hartman and Rachel Hershberger grow 40 different kinds of vegetables—over 80 cultivars—as well as raise chickens for eggs and a few steers for meat.
Unusual for northern Indiana, they also produce crops all year with the aid of unheated greenhouses. Their focus is salad mixes, with contents that vary through the growing season.
"We've been tweaking the recipe for four years," Hartman noted, adding that there is no comparison between fresh-picked greens and those that have been flown in from across the country. "This is one area where a small farmer can compete," he said.
Another adjective Hershberger and Hartman use to describe their operation is "artisan." While that expression is often used in connection with bread, they feel that the quality of their product and the direct connection with their customers justifies the term.
That connection is enhanced by their marketing methods. As a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, their customers sign up to receive a box of in-season vegetables and fruits (which come from a Michigan grower) weekly. Deliveries are made to drop-off points in Goshen and surrounding communities.
Having a direct link to people eating their food is satisfying, Hershberger said, adding that they are often sent photos of creative dishes made with the produce or "kids eating our green beans."
The couple met at Goshen College. While neither have agricultural degrees, Hartman grew up on a traditional 400 acre corn and soybean farm in LaGrange County. Hershberger came from a family that grew a "huge" garden and canned. She missed those activities while studying, so after graduation was pleased find work with Jubilee Partners in Comer, Georgia, in a large community garden. There she learned to grow "good food for a lot of people." Later, she worked as manager for the Goshen Farmers' Market, where she and her husband still maintain a booth.
Meanwhile, Hartman, who graduated in 2001 with degrees in English and Philosophy, worked four summers at Sustainable Greens, an organic greens and vegetable farm in southern Michigan that supplies upscale Chicago restaurants.
Since purchasing their farm in 2008 after three years of renting farmland, the couple has continued that commitment to organic practices.
For them, "this means more than staying away from chemicals. It means working with nature to create growing systems that are deeply sustainable; systems that rely on local, on-farm inputs, and that increase farm biodiversity."
Clay Bottom Farm is well named: its soil type is definitely heavy. Thus, organic mulches are an important part of the program both inside the greenhouses as well as on the outside plots. Mulch comes from mainly three sources: their own vegetable waste; animal waste, courtesy of the steers, as well as leaf compost—free from the Goshen Environmental Center. Also, local farmers sometimes have composted duck manure available.
Clay can be a "very rewarding" soil if not worked wet, Harman said. The couple strives to minimize compaction by cultivating by hand or using a two-wheeled, walk-behind tractor.
In return, the soil can grow crops with darker, greener leaves—and thus more nutrients—than other soil types.
Cover crops—such as peas, oats, and winter rye sown in early fall—are "a must," in addition to mulching.
Mulching is a key to not only improving the soil, but to weed control, Hershberger pointed out. As an organic operation, their answer to controlling weeds is "never let a weed go to seed." By addressing the root of the problem, weeds are reduced in subsequent years. Thus, they walk their gardens frequently, using a walk behind wheel hoe—"a great investment for large gardeners"—as well as a stirrup hoe.
Planting seeds closely also gives weeds less of a chance to grow. Salad is sown two inches apart in 12 rows in 30-inch beds, "as thick as grass." Most crops are grown on six-inch raised beds.
Because of research being done on winter hardy varieties, the pair is able to acquire cultivars that do well in their unheated greenhouses. Crops are covered at night for extra protection with lightweight fabric.
Those crops include Japanese turnips; radishes; spinach; salad mix; kale; pac choi (a Chinese cabbage), and Asian greens. In the summer, they are replaced by tomatoes, pepper, and cucumbers in the greenhouses.
Home gardeners may easily extend their season with a cold frame, Hartman pointed out. Suitable fall crops would be carrots, red beet, lettuce, and spinach.
The duo is very excited about growing fresh vegetables all year. Their CSA is in operation 10 months (and even during the two-month hiatus, January and February, they offer turnips, carrots, winter squash, onions, potatoes, and sweet potatoes at the farmers' market), while most CSAs only provide products June through September.
There are other interesting developments cooking at Clay Bottom Farm as well: Farm to Table meals, concocted by a chef and served on the farm for groups of 12-20, are popular; school groups are invited for educational tours; and Hartman and Hershberger have developed an internship program, designed to give students a hands-on learning experience in organic food production.
Currently, they are hosting a young man from Indonesia, who hopes to take his newfound skills in growing and marketing vegetables home to his country after this year. "And he has promised to teach me how to grow rice," Hartman joked.
There is also a Thursday morning volunteering opportunity from February to mid-December, in which local people may come out for a three-hour work session and a common lunch, and go home with a box of fresh produce.
What fuels this energetic couple?
Hershberger, admitting it may sound sappy, said that "there is nothing more satisfying than working in a garden under a blue sky," having meaningful work and providing a basic, good product to help sustain healthy lives.
Her husband, while agreeing, was more pragmatic. "I like challenges," he said. And while those challenges have included less welcome events such as a storm blowing one of his greenhouses onto the top of the barn roof one year, at the core of that challenge is learning how to provide fresh food even during the winter months.
With the price of oil increasing the price of transported food, "we are going to have to start feeding ourselves more locally," he said.