Southern Indiana Blueberries.....coming to our bellies sometime in June!
My assumption in moving to Orange County, Indiana, a farming community, was that the surrounding farms would, well, have food that I could buy. Boy was I wrong. At that point in time, the only easily accessible tomato anyone could get was to be found in Wal-Mart, which had moved into this small county of 20,000 people sometime around 1996, and had slowly but surely eliminated all other competition. So, besides the few Amish families in the county that would set up small retail stands on their farms, the only bet in town for purchasing a tomato, even in the middle of a southern Indiana summer, was a Mexican tomato from, yes, you got it, Wal-Mart. OK if you don't mind eating Styrofoam. Everyone was growing corn, soybeans and hay, due to financial incentives from the government. So, we were surrounded by farmland, which had the potential to make our community somewhat self-sufficient, but it was being used to grow a commodity crop and we were forced to rely on a multinational corporation in order to eat. Crazy but true, and true for many, many rural communities in the United States.
I have to say that this wake up call was for me somewhat self serving at first. I really wanted that good food for my family and me, and was not happy to have to drive 50 miles each way to buy it. I would often sit in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart crying over the poor quality of the produce and lack of any real organic food, and being forced to shop at a store I didn’t want to support. I would watch as young moms filled baby bottles up with cola drinks outside in the parking lot. I felt unhealthy, not myself. Luckily Linda Lee from the Lazy Black Bear farm, my neighbor, had started a garden and would often let me forage. I started a small garden myself. That summer was a horrible drought, and I was lugging pails of pond water up to our garden, in my third trimester of pregnancy. The local animals would often try my produce out for themselves the very same morning I was fixing to pick it. They have perfect timing! My dog even joined in the revelry, helping herself to the one watermelon I was able to grow in that dryness.
This was for me, the beginning of a lifetime of living according to, "To kvetch is human, to act is divine." After a summer of kvetching, in 2000, I found a group of like-minded neighbors and friends who wanted to work together to honor what was good about the community, and work together to create the opportunities. We all met up at a series of gatherings hosted by Orange County Economic Development. They had gotten a grant to do a feasibility study on what would make Orange County a better place to live, with help from Ball State University. Our small group wanted to keep going, so from that, we formed a small nonprofit called Orange County HomeGrown. The original group included Andy Mahler, Melinda Sketo, Helen Vasquez, Jim Wootten, and others I am now forgetting. We organized in the Amish and English farming communities and found many farmers or wanna be farmers who felt as we did, and wanted to grow food if there was a market.
Many, including members of the town council of Paoli, the county seat, were hesitant to support us, and denied us the use of the courthouse lawn. They were the same group who gave the Wal-Mart the permits to locate in a flood zone, and promised that the increase in traffic into town would increase business to the Square….but you know the end of that story. They said they were afraid of the increase in traffic a farmers’ market would bring. But the nearby town of Orleans had a forward-thinking leader who supported us setting up on the Orleans Square. Fast forward to 2011. The Orange County Farmers' Market has nearly 90 vendors, operates on Saturday mornings from May until October, and was voted one of the top ten farmers' markets in the country in 2010. Amish farmers, small organic farmers, crafts, etc fill up almost two sides of the Square. Locals bring out their instruments and play every market, and anyone is invited to join in. Orange County HomeGrown now have two staff people, a market manager and an events coordinator, and some of the original board is still involved. There is a book exchange mobile, youth activities, cooking demos, yoga, zucchini boat racing, and the list goes on. This group later birthed another group that started a natural foods coop, the Lost River Coop, in downtown Paoli. When I go in there I sometimes think it may be a mirage, as it doesn’t seem real that a small seed of desire could grow into such abundance.