Alex Smith: Rise Up Farms
In this new department, we listen to the voices of local farmers who are changing the face of food production in our communities. Our first farmer featured is Alex Smith, who left an academic career to grow food in Elkhart, Indiana.
Alex Smith writes:
Like many people who enter farming from a non-agricultural background, I was inspired by the writing of Wendell Berry. After reading The Unsettling of America in my last year of college, I signed up for a summer internship at Eaters’ Guild farm in Bangor, Michigan. I found that the work suited me. I have a hard time sitting still and have always identified strongly with nature. In farming, I found a way to be active outdoors while doing meaningful work. I was also fascinated by the farm as a complex living system and impressed by the deep knowledge of place that farmers cultivate.
I entered a master’s program in ecology at Indiana University the following year, resolved to do work that would be relevant to small farmers. I studied wild bees that pollinate fruits and vegetables, and how organic farmers can protect them. The work introduced me to many farmers and their farms, and I began to learn how small-scale, biodiverse agriculture can heal some of the damage done by the industrial food system.
After finishing my program I helped to start a community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription program for Strangers Hill Organics in Bloomington, Indiana, and worked for two years as CSA manager. I found that many people were motivated to join the CSA by the same things that inspired me to try farming: the desires for place-based community and connection with the Earth. I worked to make spaces for people to come together, interact with the farm and share their love of food.
Despite my great experiences farming, there was still an expectation that I would pursue an academic career. After my time at Strangers Hill, I entered a graduate program in agricultural science at Michigan State University with plans to complete a PhD. I joined a project working with small farmers in Malawi, in southern Africa. I was privileged to meet farmers building a basis for survival in the face of extreme poverty by strengthening community and sharing knowledge and seed. At the same time, I felt uncomfortable with my role as an outside expert, since the real experts were the farmers themselves. Th e experience convinced me that I did not want to simply give advice to farmers; I wanted to be a farmer. I decided to finish at MSU with a second master’s degree and started work as farmer at Rise Up this past spring.
My time at Rise Up has been rewarding, though not without its challenges. People come to help out on the farm, often bringing their kids, and we find ourselves exchanging recipes and garden tips while sharing the experience of productive work. When our CSA members tell me how they are preparing their produce, I know that I am contributing something of value. This is my first time managing a whole farm operation and I am making mistakes, but I am also learning as I go. -- AS
Nourishing The Land— And The Neighbors
Located just three miles east of Elkhart, Indiana, Rise Up Farms maintains roughly fi ve acres as a permaculture cooperative. Permaculture is a holistic approach to agriculture that looks to the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems as a model for farming. Apart from providing organically grown produce, Rise Up also manages its resources with methods that promote environmental stewardship and sustainability.
“We don’t want to be extracting from our ecosystem,” says Rise Up Farms principal farmer Alex Smith. “We want to be maintaining everything that’s here and shaping it.”
Th e farm began as a dairy farm in the 1870s, but remained unused during the past few decades. In 2009, a group of Elkhart residents reclaimed the unused farm to cultivate it into what it is today: a sustainable, environmentally friendly community-supported agriculture cooperative.
In addition to raising conventional Midwestern crops like tomatoes, corn and beans, Rise Up Farms has been experimenting with some surprising vegetables. Visitors can find a Chinese cabbage called bok choy, a brown and yellow Indian cucumber called poona kheera, various peanuts, rice and oyster mushrooms.
But Rise Up Farms’ unusual nature isn’t limited to its produce alone. The methods used to grow its crops add to the farm’s unique character. Th e farm reuses water from geothermal heating and cooling systems. It raises bees for pollination and honey production and uses strategic crop placement, such as intercropping, to receive the most yield for the least amount of energy. Rise Up Farms doesn’t use any insecticides (including organic insecticides) for the sake of maintaining a healthy ecosystem. With these and similar agricultural methods, Rise Up Farms seeks to strengthen the local ecology and food economy.
But the farm seeks to do more than provide produce-related goods.
Rise Up Farms also wants to serve the community as a resource for knowledge and skills revolving around community resiliency, sustainable architecture and creative artistry. For example, the farm provides workshare opportunities, offers volunteer gardening options that benefit the Church Community Services food bank and hosts yoga classes at 9am on Saturdays.
Smith says he wants people to visit and interact with the farm as much as possible.
The produce grown and cultivated at Rise Up Farms can be purchased through its CSA, at the Purple Porch Co-op in South Bend, Indiana, and at various local foods grocers.