Crothersville man leads area farming initiative to create local food market

The Batesville Herald Tribune

Nate Brownlee of Crothersville decided to become a first-generation farmer after being attracted to the “meaningful nature of the work.”

“Everyone eats, and everyone who manages land has a responsibility to do right by the land,” Brownlee said. “At the end of the day, you see the tangible results of your work and your care. You can bring your family and friends around the table to enjoy the fruits of your labor.”

In late 2016, leaders from the Batesville-based Food and Growers Association chose Brownlee as the program director for the new Southeastern Indiana Farmer Training Initiative, which was made possible with financial support from Interact for Health in Cincinnati.

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The pilot initiative looks to build a sustainable local food market and enable area farmers to market their products to individual consumers and institutional buyers, including schools, hospitals and restaurants.

“It’s a great idea,” Brownlee said of the initiative. “I’ve not come across a similar program that has the institutional supply of local food at the forefront. I love the idea that a community can realize the importance of serving good, local food to their kids and those in the health care world and then prioritize their work to get that food onto plates in their schools and hospital.”

He wanted the position, he said, because he and his wife, Liz, realized the importance of a good agricultural support network when they moved back to Liz’s home of Crothersville to start Nightfall Farm.

“Mostly because we couldn’t find the support we wanted,” he said. “As a beginning farmer, I know how much help you need to succeed in building your farm.”

On their farm, they raise produce for friends and family and raise chickens, pigs, lambs, turkeys, laying hens and shiitake mushrooms to sell commercially at three area farmers markets, including Seymour. They also operate their own Community-Supported Agriculture venture, where customers sign up to purchase a monthly share of meat from their farm.

Brownlee said starting Nightfall Farm with his wife has been his greatest personal accomplishment.

“While we were gaining experience and working on other farms, we were giving the best of ourselves to those farmers and not to each other or our own land,” he said. “Now, we are improving our land. We are building our community, and we are putting the best of ourselves in our future.”

This coming season, they will pasture-raise 1,400 broiler chickens, 20 large black pigs, 15 Katahdin lambs, 115 Thanksgiving turkeys and 45 laying hens.

Through the Southeastern Indiana Farming Training Initiative, Brownlee said he is excited to help build a structure of support for farmers who are just embarking on a new enterprise.

“It’s a lot easier to jump into a farm enterprise if you know there will be support along the way,” he said. “Indiana farmers deserve good organizations to support their efforts to feed their communities and neighbors.”

And family farms are important to the health of a population and a local economy, he added.

Brownlee became interested in improving local food options for these reasons.

“Local food interests me because everyone wins,” he said. “Increasing the number of diversified family farms means more jobs, more money staying near our homes, knowing where your food comes from and almost always means better-tasting meals.”

And good farming practices can benefit the environment, too, he said.

“Successful farms keep land from being developed and preserve our rural landscape,” he said.

With just more than two months under his belt, Brownlee is still new to the program director job with the Southeastern Indiana Farming Training Initiative. So far, he has helped select a cohort of students and has worked to build mentor relationships for the program.

“We are working to strengthen our program structure as we look toward the future of the initiative,” he said. “It has been a privilege to interact with the SIFTI students and see their vision for building this supply of local produce.”

Brownlee is working with Ivy Tech Community College instructor Matt John, who developed and teaches a certificate course on introduction to growing vegetables.

John also is a part of the SIFTI, focusing on the educational component of farming.

“Matt is a great resource for Indiana farmers,” Brownlee said.

The pilot SIFTI program is a one-semester class, which ends this May, but Brownlee said regular meetings and mentor relationships between students and farmers will continue throughout the year.

“The plan for the following years is to run the course throughout the year in order to take advantage of matching particular topics to particular points in the season,” he said. “For instance, it makes more sense to learn about season extension in the late fall and experience the principles that you are learning about.”

Brownlee said the biggest challenge of being director of a pilot program is getting it up and running.

“A lot of work has gone into planning, and now, you are taking the ideas and making them a reality,” he said.

But the support has been “phenomenal,” he added.

“So many people want this program to work and are willing to make it a reality,” he said. “When I feel challenged, I know there is a committed team working toward the success of SIFTI.”

The ultimate goal of the initiative is simply for all of the hard work to pay off, Brownlee said.

“For the Food and Growers Association to have a program that they are proud of starting, for the hospital, schools and restaurants to have great sources of local food, for our students to become successful farmers and for future farmers to know they have an organization to go to for the support they need,” he said.

Besides the Southeastern Indiana Farmers Training Initiative and operating his own farm, Brownlee also is working to start an Indiana chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition, is helping to produce a Hometown Food Guide for the greater Columbus area and supports the Seymour Area Farmers Market as needed.

His advice for those interested in pursuing an agriculture career is to start by educating yourself and then getting out there and doing the work.

“Reading books and attending workshops and conferences is a great place to start,” he said. “But there’s no substitute for getting down and dirty working on a farm.”

There are options available, such as Willing Workers on Organic Farms, apprenticeships, working on a farm crew or volunteering at a nearby farm.

“You need to know what it’s like to go through routine and mundane tasks, in good and bad weather, to see how badly you want to farm,” he said. “It sounds silly, but to be successful as a full-time farmer, you must be someone who has to farm, who wouldn’t be happy doing anything else, because oftentimes, it’s a lot easier to be doing anything else.”

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Name: Nate Brownlee

Residence: Crothersville

Spouse: Liz

Education: Hanover College graduate with a major in cultural anthropology

Previous jobs: Pizzeria manager, elementary school crossing guard, non-medical senior care service companion caretaker, nonprofit education coordinator, camp counselor, movie rental store employee, consulting forester assistant, worker on five different farms.

Favorite pastimes: Play board games, read novels, watch movies, go hiking.

Organization involvement: I am one of the leaders of the new Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition and active in supporting the Columbus Food Co-op.