Old Ways, New Ways
Amish traditions meet organic certification at Fish Lake
For Fritz Miller, organic farming is much more than a business—it’s a way of life to which he is deeply committed. The love of the land and sharing its bounty, natural and unspoiled, with appreciative customers, puts a smile of Miller’s face.
“To go out to my ground and put the pure seed in the soil, raise the plants in a healthy and natural way, harvest the fruit and bring it to the farmers market,” Miller says, “is a greater satisfaction than I can describe.”
Born and raised on an Amish farm near Emmatown—between Topeka and Shipshewana, Indiana—Miller grew up husking corn and milking by hand in the generation before Amish farmers began to rely on herbicides and other chemicals. “I treasure every second I had growing up on a farm like that,” he says. “Now I’m trying to cultivate my land using the methods I grew up with.”
Miller’s love of the farming methods handed down for centuries by his ancestors has made him a pioneer among today’s Amish growers, many of whom adopted techniques from agribusiness during the 1970s and ’80s.
Miller purchased the land for Fish Lake Organic Berries in 1987 from a neighbor, who had used the land for pasture. Fritz, who raises mostly berries and vegetables, was among the first group of area Amish farmers to become USDA certified organic in 2004. Since then, more Amish farmers in the area have chosen this route. There are now around 50 certified organic dairy farms in Michiana’s Amish country between Goshen and La Grange County.
When I asked Miller what had led him to go through the laborious process of certification, he said, “My customers.” Miller began selling berries at the Goshen Farmer’s Market in 2001. His hand-made signs said “grown organically,” but Miller took note when some customers asked him if his farm was certified—and then walked away when he answered no. Fritz had no trouble selling his berries, but he wanted to earn the trust of his most scrupulous customers. “Now that I’m certified, they know for sure that my produce is organic.”
Organic certification is labor-intensive, expensive and must be re-applied for every year. All stages of production and handling are documented, from the planting of the seed to the fresh and finished products at his market stand. Miller says that he has come to appreciate the documentation process, which enables him to analyze the content of his soil in detail and adjust the nutrients accordingly. “I put my money into the soil,” he says, “and, weather allowing, everything else comes together.”
When I asked Miller about the challenges of growing organically, and how he coped with pests, he told me that he has little trouble with them, other than the occasional Japanese and cucumber beetles. “If you have healthy soil and your plants have healthy feet”—their roots, he clarifies—“you’ll have healthy plants and beneficial insects in your garden.”
Miller describes the thrill he gets when finding a lacewing among the raspberries. “My heart flutters,” he says, in awe of the harmony that emerges in agriculture that is in balance with nature. Lacewings eat aphids and other pests, and their presence is an affirmation of the restorative power of his organic farming practices.
Berries are demanding to maintain. Black raspberry bushes, for instance, are finicky and susceptible to bushy dwarf virus. Every six to eight years Miller pulls out his black raspberry plants and spends five to seven years putting nutrients back into the soil, using the age-old method of crop rotation. After their last growing season is over, Miller pulls the plants and seeds the ground with “green manure” (rye), lets it winter over, and plows it back into the soil in the spring. The following season, Miller plants vegetables or vine crops in that space. After a few years, the soil is again ready for berries. The record keeping required for organic certification has become a valuable tool for Miller in learning how best to rotate his crops and enhance the soil.
Miller has been at the Goshen Farmers Market for over 10 years now and his business has expanded in order to sustain a year-round presence when the berry season is over. Year round he sells cheeses made in nearby Middlebury, Indiana, and in Walnut Creek, Ohio; nuts and snacks from Root Farms in Walnut Creek; relishes and pickled red beets from Grandma’s Jams and Jellies; and local honey and chocolates. Smoothies made from Fritz’s organically grown fruit are available year round.
Among his Fish Lake Organic Jams and Jellies, top sellers include blackberry/raspberry jam and red raspberry/rhubarb, two of his unique fruit combinations. Miller’s own favorite is the black raspberry jelly. All of his jams and jellies are 1/3 less sugar than commercial products or no-sugar-added jams and jellies that he developed at customer request. Miller sweetens the no-sugar added jams with juice from white grapes he raises himself. He raises the fruit for raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, currant, gooseberry, blueberry, rhubarb, and grape jams and jellies.
He also makes jams from apricots, apples and peaches from other local growers. The most unusual jams and jellies—serviceberry, elderberry, crab apple and autumn olive—are made from foraged berries from the Fish Lake area. Miller learned the art of foraging from Loris Steury, a well-known local forager who once sold juices and jams from his foraged fruits at the farmers market, and chose Miller to carry on the tradition.
Of the jams and jellies produced from the fruit on his farm, Miller says, “I can tell you which day it was harvested and what patch it is from.”
At least one large retailer has approached Miller about marketing his jam. However, he believes that quality control is important, and he has all the work he can currently manage with his small operation. Miller would like to expand, but he is not in a hurry.