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A farmer harvests his field in L:aGrange County Oct. 6 under the setting sun.

Ever wish you had a better idea of where your food comes from? Ever wish you could see first hand what that food went through before it got to your plate? If so, there’s a growing “green” agriculture movement in Elkhart County that’s looking to answer those very questions.

Included among the trailblazers in this push for greener, more sustainable agriculture are Clay Bottom Farm owners Ben Hartman and Rachel Hershberger.

Located at 11434 C.R. 34, Goshen, Clay Bottom Farm is one of the area’s largest fruit and vegetable operations dedicated solely to organic growing practices.

“Organic agriculture is what I’m personally passionate about, and I saw a rising demand in the public here locally,” said Hartman who started Clay Bottom Farms back in 2008. “People want to know where there food is coming from. Almost on a weekly basis you hear scare stories about everything from spinach to peanut butter. The people that come to us, they want to know that we’re using sustainable growing practices, and that we’re not using chemicals to grow their food. In the end, it’s about establishing a better connection with your local farmer, and knowing where and how your food was produced.”

When producing their crops, the couple use only organic growing methods, which means staying away from chemicals while at the same time working to increase farm synergy and biodiversity.

“We use a lot of composting, like grass and leaf composting, and composted animal manures for fertilizing,” Hartman said. “And we also use cover crops, which are crops that are planted after a cash crop has been harvested to help replenish the soil and cut down on erosion.”

Blue Heron Farm

Also leading the way in this push for more sustainable agriculture in Elkhart County is Blue Heron Farm owner Tom Stinson. Located at 13415 C.R. 44, Millersburg, Blue Heron Farm specializes primarily in the production of organic fruits and vegetables and sustainably raised livestock such as cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens.

Like Hartman and Hershberger, Stinson is a graduate of Goshen College, and it is his time spent at the college that he says he first became interested in the hows and whys of the growing sustainability movement.

“Through my classes at school I was learning about land use issues as well as environmental issues, and getting to know some farmers who were already doing the more green or sustainable model of farming,” Stinson said. “From there I began to see that it was a viable option, and while it certainly hasn’t been without its challenges, I think it has definitely been worth the time and effort.”

Through his vegetable operation, Stinson utilizes a combination of crop rotations and cover crops as well a mulching with organic materials for fertilizer.

“We also don’t irrigate expect in extreme cases,” Stinson said.

As for his livestock production, Stinson said he focuses primarily on a pasture-based rotational grazing system.

“It’s all pasture based, so the animals are on fresh pasture regularly for consumption, access to sunshine and freedom to move. And our sheep and cattle are fed solely on grass and hay — no grain — primarily to reduce our ecological footprint. And then for our chickens and pigs, we feed them a non-genetically modified mix of grains that is all grown locally.”

More receptive

With several years in the “green” farming business under their belts, both Hartman and Stinson say they are encouraged by the growing reception and interest they are seeing for the movement in the local area.

“I think people are more receptive to the idea, but at the same time I think there is a long way to go,” Hartman said. “There is a lot of food being eaten in Elkhart County every day, and a lot of it comes from outside the county. I’d like to see a lot more food being grown here in the community and staying here in the community.”

Stinson was quick to agree.

“I think there are still a lot of people who may not know what it means to grow sustainably,” Stinson said. “I think there is a lot of education that still needs to be done, and that’s a big part of what we do when we’re selling our produce and meat.”

One big way each farm tries to get that information out is through their respective CSA programs, or Community Supported Agriculture, where customers essentially purchase a share of each season’s crop that is then delivered to them once the harvest is complete. Both farms also have a large presence at the Goshen Farmer’s Market in Goshen. And more recently, local eateries such as Kelly Jae’s Cafe and the Constant Spring have also begun to call on the farms to supply locally grown, organic foods for their menus.

“Often times we demand a premium price for our products because it’s so much more labor intensive to produce them,” Stinson said. “We have to tell people why we charge those prices, and more and more people seem to be receptive to that, and even looking for that specifically.”

Alive and well

So it’s official. The “green” movement in agriculture is alive and well in Elkhart County. Even so, both Hartman and Stinson agree that considering a change to a more sustainable mode of growing can be intimidating for a beginner looking to make the switch.

Their advice?

“My advice to a beginner would be to talk to farmers who are already using these sustainable growing practices, and maybe even consider doing a year-long internship with them,” Hartman said. “There’s a huge learning curve when it comes to sustainable farming. It’s often assumed farming is something anyone can do, but in reality, it takes years of experience and a large body of knowledge to be successful at it.”

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