Local farmer honored as environmental steward

A local farmer is being recognized for her work connecting Hoosiers to the natural areas in the region and building a network of young farmers.

Liz Brownlee, executive director of Oak Heritage Conservancy, has been named a 2021 Hoosier Resilience Hero by the Environmental Resilience Institute at Indiana University for her commitment to the environment.

“I was totally surprised by the award,” Brownlee said. “It’s a pretty cool program, and I’m honored to be a part of it.”

Abby Henkel nominated Brownlee for the award.

“They take nominations from all over the state. Then they recognize 12 or 13 people, and I got to be on the radio for Earth Day for a program all about the heroes,” Brownlee said. “It was neat to see the diversity of people who were being recognized, including high school students, farmers and people from all over the state.”

She thinks part of why IU hosts the heroes program is because there are a lot of people working on sustainability throughout the state who want to take care of our planet and communities, and this is a way to try to highlight that.

Brownlee’s work includes running the Oak Heritage Conservancy land trust and working on her farm that is committed to local food and carbon sequestration practices.

She also co-founded the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition, a community of sustainable farmers in Indiana.

As the sole employee of Oak Heritage Conservancy, Brownlee helps landowners protect wildlife habitat, hosts nature programs and helps steward the land trust’s 1,100 acres.

“We’re a very small group and have been volunteer run for quite a few years,” Brownlee said. “I came on as the only employee about six years ago, so I work part time for Oak Heritage.”

She said there are 1,200 land trusts all around the country, and Oak Heritage covers southeast Indiana.

“Every land trust is different and a reflection of the community they serve,” Brownlee said. “Basically, what we all try to do is protect wildlife habitats and green spaces for future generations for people to enjoy. So when we protect a property, it’s protected forever as a natural area.”

Oak Heritage has several properties in the area, and there currently are 13 nature preserves.

Brownlee said the closest one is Lebline Woods Nature Preserve in Rockford, where a wildflower walk recently was conducted.

“Our preserves are lake and forest land, creeks, ponds and some pollinator habitats, like native prairie and wildflowers,” she said. “The idea is to protect the most beautiful spots in southern Indiana. Then we try to open them to the public so people can go and hike, bird watch, fish and enjoy those places.”

A sustainable farmer and conservationist, Brownlee is connecting Hoosiers in southeast Indiana to the natural wonders of the region and helping build a network of young farmers who share her desire to make agriculture part of the solution to climate change.

Brownlee and her husband, Nate, spent years working on farms in the Northeast. They returned to Indiana in 2013 to turn her family’s farm into Nightfall Farm, a small-scale diversified operation committed to local food and carbon-sequestering practices such as rotational grazing.

“Nate and I have been married almost 12 years and live in Crothersville,” she said. “Jackson County has always been home, and I went to Crothersville High School, where my mom taught and my brother teaches there now.”

She co-founded the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition to build a community of sustainable farmers in Indiana. Brownlee’s example on the farm — and among the nature preserves of southeast Indiana — is inspiring a new generation of Hoosiers and helping revitalize rural communities.

“That work is really important to me. I grew up here on my family’s farm, I was a 10 year 4-H member and was in FFA while growing up, but I never aimed to farm. That wasn’t my goal,” Brownlee said. “I was told farming was not the way to make a living and I should get an education and should get off the farm.”

She fell in love, however, with sustainable agriculture and spent about five years working on other people’s farms in Maine and Vermont.

“We really loved focusing on the wide diversity of crops they had,” Brownlee said. “They had vegetables, all sorts of livestock and meat, veggies and honey and a diversity of food, which they sold in their communities locally.”

That style of agriculture really spoke to her, and the food communities were thriving, both the farmers and the customers.

“So when we moved home to start our farm eight years ago, I didn’t know where to find those other farmers in the community of people who were focused on sustainable agriculture,” she said. “I have lots of neighbors who are farmers, and I spent time with them but wanted to find people who were doing the same sort of thing I was.”

The Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition work is really close to Brownlee’s heart because they’re building up a community of sustainable farmers in the state, and that feels useful to her.

“We have fun events to get farmers together for things like farm tours, potlucks and Fourth of July parties with the goal of spending time together, trading ideas, commiserating and celebrating together,” she said.

Coalition members are environmental stewards and want to be part of the solution for all sorts of things, like hunger in our communities, nutrition and climate change.

“The USDA has a big push right now to try to encourage folks in their first 10 years because so many of the farmers now are in the 65 and up range,” she said. “They are ready to retire, and there’s not necessarily a group of us that’s ready to take on the task of feeding the country.”

She said this can be looked at as a big gap and a big problem or a big opportunity for folks like her who want to come home to their small town and take over the family farm.

“My husband didn’t grow up in farming, and his family lived in town, but a lot of people are becoming first-generation farmers and learning,” she said. “So there’s lots of room for people to come back to small towns and bring them back to life.”

Everyone can be a part of making Indiana a sustainable place. It’s a fun and exciting place to live, she said.

Volunteers are always welcome at Oak Heritage to help with the trails or there are ongoing opportunities to be a steward for one of the preserves. There are many ways to help the organization.

Brownlee also participates in the Seymour Area Farmers Market. The regular market season will start from 8 a.m. to noon on May 29 and continue through the last Saturday in September.

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Oak Heritage Conservancy

Website: oakheritageconservancy.org

Facebook page: facebook.com/oakheritageconservancy

Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition

Website: hoosieryfc.org

Facebook page: facebook.com/hoosieryfc

2021 Hoosier Resilience Heroes

Website: eri.iu.edu/who-we-work-with/residents/2021-hoosier-resilience-heroes.html

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“Everyone can be a part of making Indiana a sustainable place.”

Liz Brownlee, executive director of Oak Heritage Conservancy