This November, Indiana Humanities is focusing on our One State / One Story selection, Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home. The Year We Left Home explores ideas of rural, urban and suburban experiences, the American Dream and how we connect to a place. To help us explore these ideas further, we’re connecting with Hoosiers who have unique perspectives to share on the future of rural.
Today we’re talking to Liz Brownlee. Liz and her husband Nate own and run Nightfall Farm in Crothersville, and they started the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition. Learn more about Liz and Nate’s farm here.
Tell us about yourself and your road to farming.
I grew up on our family farm but never intended to be a farmer. I was always told that you couldn’t make a living farming and that I should do something off–farm. I loved being outside and playing in nature, and I studied biology at Hanover College. I started to think about how my diet impacted the planet—and that’s when I started to learn about sustainable farming. I was thrilled to see that farming could be part of the solution to climate change and hunger and dying small towns. My husband Nate and I worked on other people’s farms for five years, learning about how to run a small–scale, diversified farm. We moved back to Indiana in 2013 to start our farm.
Today we’re in year seven of our farm (Nightfall Farm). We raise livestock on pasture on my family’s farm in Jennings County. Each year we raise about 1,800 meat chickens, 15 to 20 pigs, 15 to 20 lambs, a flock of ewes (mama sheep), about 100 laying hens and about 110 turkeys for Thanksgiving. Our goal is to rebuild the health of my family’s farm. That includes rebuilding the soil, encouraging wildlife and contributing to our food system here in southeast Indiana. We know that small farms are part of the solution for rural communities like ours, and we’re excited to be a part of the growing small–farm community.
You’ve spent time on farms all around the United States. What brought you back to Indiana?
Finding and affording farmland is a huge hurdle for beginning farmers—but my family had held onto our farmland. My parents stopped farming during the 1980s farm crisis, but it was really important to keep the land. So when my husband Nate and I decided that we were ready to start our farm, we knew we wanted to come home—partially for the land and partially because our families were here.
Our statewide read, The Year We Left Home, asks us to think about how we connect to a place. How have you connected with other farmers in Indiana since returning?
We realized pretty quickly after moving home to Indiana that we needed to find the other farmers! We had been working on farms in Maine, Vermont and New York—places where local food has been happening for decades. We were around other young folks farming all the time—but when we moved home, we felt pretty isolated. Nate and I teamed up with other sustainable farmers and started the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition. We’re a chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition—basically, a group that connects folks in their first 10 years of farming and advocates for the policies they need at the national scale. We love that policy work—but we feel like here in Indiana, the main thing we need is connection and community, so that’s what our chapter focuses on. We bring beginning farmers together to learn from each other, to share resources and to celebrate and commiserate together. The farm tours and farmer socials and potlucks have buoyed us time and again. We just really value that time together, and the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition makes it happen.
How do you see the 1980s farm crisis impacting farmers and communities today?
I think a lot of kids like me, who grew up in the ’80s or soon after, heard loud and clear that farming was no way to make a life or a living. I was in FFA and 4-H, but I never took an animal to the fair or did real work on a farm. I wrote essays and gave speeches and built the skills that an off-farm workplace would demand. Most of us left the farm with a feeling that coming back to the farm would be a failure. I know that when we told my parents that we were moving home to farm, they were extremely worried for us. My parents stopped farming because they couldn’t make the farm pay with just 100 acres of corn, beans, hay and cattle. My mom said that the day they had to sell the cows was the saddest day she remembers. And here we were coming home to try farming on that same land. But slowly our families have come around—primarily because they see the farm paying the bills, and they see how much our customers love our food. It’s not all roses, but it is working. And there are thousands of farms just like ours across Indiana—where the kids left and the land was rented out to the neighbors’ corn and bean operation . . . but where the kids could come back if they can believe in our rural communities, and if our communities will encourage their farms along.
How will farming need to change for the future?
Farming has to be part of the solution to climate change, to our state’s poor health and to our dying small towns. Indiana is an agricultural state—and yet we import 90% of what we eat, and we emit huge amounts of carbon through the way we farm. If we diversify and add more food crops like small grains, vegetables and livestock, we could actually sequester huge amounts of carbon in the soil. Diversified farms simply require more labor than corn and soybean operations, so farming in Indiana could change into a major source of jobs and small businesses all across the state. Last but not least, local food tastes better, so if we were growing more local food and encouraging our citizens to eat better–tasting food, we would simultaneously be encouraging them to eat healthier, local food. Here’s what I like most about farming as a solution: It’s not hairbrained or expensive or something that will take forever. It’s actually a proven solution that can start making a difference in just one growing season. We could create a better future—shoot, a better next year—through farming and the food we eat.
What kind of youth culture is there in farming?
The youth culture around farming is diverse and beautiful. There are folks in their 20s and 30s farming in every type of community in Indiana—urban, rural and everywhere in between. Each farm brings a flare that contributes to a truly happening culture of farmers. We’re Black and White and Latinx, we’re city kids who caught the farming bug and fifth–generation farmers, we’re poor and we’re well connected, we have liberal arts degrees and no degrees at all, we’re straight and we’re LGBTQIA+. We’re raising veggies and livestock and honey and fruit and mushrooms and more. We’re baking sourdough and old family recipes. We’re selling to restaurants and farmers markets and farm stands and CSAs and via home delivery. Here’s what we have in common. We believe that food is part of the answer. We want to do something tangible to improve our communities—and farming lets us do just that. Farming is our way of inhabiting our bodies and being of use to our communities.
As someone who lives and farms in a rural community and who works with other farmers through the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition, what gives you hope around the future of rural and the future of agriculture?
Other young farmers. I get to do all sorts of things for the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition, but one of my favorite is following other beginning farmers on social media and cheering them on. I’ll take a moment in a busy day to just scroll through my feed, and I’ll see farmers accomplishing so much all around the state. An urban farm in Indy just installed a new “high tunnel” (an unheated greenhouse) to grow greens later into the winter. A rural farm in northwest Indiana shows off the new well they installed to irrigate their veggies. A veteran farmer between Bloomington and Evansville has a new way to cook down maple syrup. A livestock operation in central Indiana teaches their customers how to make pork wontons. These are all signs of hope—because the farmers are investing in their farmland, their customer bases and their futures. It makes me feel like a part of a community of farmers. The joy we take in this work and the way we’re doubling down on our farms—that gives me hope for the future and for the future of rural and urban farmers in Indiana.