From sunup to sundown most days, Sarah Dye, her husband, Douglas Mackey, and their two sons are out working on their all-natural farm on Upper Schooner Creek Road.
They’ve owned Schooner Creek Farm for five-and-a-half years.
They’ve been farming for markets for seven years, the early years in Greene County.
Brown County is where Dye spent most of her childhood, so now she has come home.
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Primarily, the farm is a market garden, meaning they grow to sell at farmers markets in Bloomington every Saturday for 10 months out of the year. They also sell at a market in Bloomington on Tuesdays.
It is also a community-supported agriculture farm — the only such farm in Brown County listed with the Local Growers’ Guild. A CSA allows customers to purchase food directly from a farmer. Customers pay Schooner Creek Farm upfront for 22 weeks of fresh produce from May through September.
This year, the family will also begin selling at the new Nashville Farmers Market at the Brown County Inn.
Schooner Creek Farm uses permaculture pipe practices and is a no-till farm. That means they mimic nature by layering natural components on the soil that break it down, like manure, leaves, straw and hay. The components nourish the soil, and earthworms help, too, Dye said.
“Soil is actually a pretty magical, fragile thing, that we feel like if you take very good care of it, then over the long term, you’re always investing and making it better so that it will kind of become more sustainable,” Dye said.
“With regular, intense tilling, it tends to destroy soil over time. A lot of times you’ll get good results from tilling in the first five years, but then you will start seeing some pretty bad problems on down the road. It depletes it.”
Chickens also play an important role. They are contained by solar-powered fences that can be moved around the property. In the wintertime, they help prepare soil for planting.
“They kind of till it up in a gentle way — naturally, too, from scratching. It’s really amazing, too, because the chickens eat a lot of bugs and so it cuts down on a lot of our pest problems.”
Goats are raised for milk and meat. The farm’s Shetland sheep are used for meat and wool.
Schooner Creek Farm does not use any chemicals to grow and care for their produce or herbs, but they cannot call themselves an organic operation because they are not certified. “Naturally grown” is the term they use — “and biodynamic, meaning … wanting to close loops and circles with the farm, trying to utilize the manure from the livestock and things like that,” Dye said.
“I think what a lot of people aren’t realizing is that chemical agriculture didn’t become a major thing until the ‘50s and ‘60s. Even then it wasn’t really that popular,” Dye said. “A lot of times our grandmas, they were eating organic, but they just didn’t call it that back then.”
Along with caring for the farm, Dye also homeschools her 7-year-old son, Thuja, and 2-year-old son, Talon.
Thuja has his own garden with peas, spinach and carrots growing. He plans to plant corn and potatoes, too.
“Along with their academic education, they are definitely getting some pretty good education on how to live self-sufficiently and learning real life skills that hopefully they will be able to use when they’re adults as well,” Dye said.
“He gets a kick out of being able to help and feeling a sense of pride and ownership in the family business.”
Why support local food?
It’s tradition, it’s good economically for the consumer, and it creates community, Dye said.
“I think that it’s very traditional to have numerous small farms that are helping to provide or supplement the food needs of the community, versus an entire community being completely reliant on big agriculture,” Dye said.
She said “big agriculture” is part of the reason why food prices at the grocery store are on the rise.
Knowing where your food comes from by supporting local farmers also creates a sense of community, Dye said.
Educating the community on what can be grown here, what types of vegetables grow here and how to eat in season is also another reason why it’s important to have local food initiatives, like CSAs or farmers markets.
Fresh, local produce also offers more nutrition, Dye said.
“Produce that has been in the grocery store — while I love grocery stores and they serve a really important purpose — but produce that’s there has been picked two weeks, three weeks, sometimes even a month or more,” she said.
“The sooner you get that vegetable home and eat it, the better for you.”
Dye said the Brown County community has been “very receptive” and excited about any kind of local food initiative, like supporting local market farms. She recently attended a SEED Brown County meeting.
“I think the Brown County folks are ready for this to become a thing again here,” she said.
Torrie Birkemeier, with SEED Brown County, agrees. She moved to Brown County two years ago from Phoenix, Arizona, where she started a seed swap, then a vegetable swap.
“We created a Facebook group and now there’s 2,000 members. It’s an exchange network. Basically it’s just people saying, ‘Hey, I have everything from fertilizer to jars to food to seeds,’” Birkemeier said.
After taking the LEAP leadership program in Brown County, Birkemeier noticed a gap in services offered by organizations — there’s no one working on building and connecting our community through local food, she said.
The first meeting of SEED Brown County attracted 100 people, she said.
“I was like ‘Oh, this community is ready. They want to learn,’” Birkemeier said.
She said a local food initiative makes sense for Brown County for a number of reasons.
“The history of Brown County shows that with the lack of infrastructure and resources here, people had to be resilient anyways. They had to figure out how they were going to feed their family, how they were going to water things. Plus it’s a really challenging place to grow because of all of the shade and everything.
“We’re not an agricultural county, but if we look at the history, we can see that people had to fend for themselves. This history and knowledge is within our community.”
She recently incorporated SEED Brown County in order to receive grant funding so that she can continue to educate people about local food economies and how to build food communities.
Birkemeier said food waste is a big component of the local food initiative.
She said food waste can be recycled to build “nutrient-dense” soil, which then results in nutrient-dense foods and seeds that can be replanted.
“Our goal is to basically inspire our community to compost food waste, which enriches soil, which grows food that feeds us,” she said.
“We know this mission will take an assortment of individuals, families and organizations in which to collaborate on a solution so that our community has more access to local and organic food.”
Birkemeier is sharing seeds with the community through two seed boxes at the Brown County Public Library, where periodic SEED Brown County roundtable discussions are hosted.
Schooner Creek Farm can take on 10 customers per season, who pick up boxes of fresh produce weekly from the farm. Two spots were left for the spring/summer season as of last week.
Schooner Creek Farm grows primarily vegetables and herbs, but this year the farm will also offer strawberries and melons. Eggs will also be for sale, but won’t be included in the CSA boxes.
“Each week the customer gets a box of whatever is ripe on the farm that week. It’s a medley,” Dye said.
Tomatoes, onions, shallots, beets, radishes, arugula, kale, lettuce, greens, green beans, sugar snap peas, zucchinis, summer squashes, heirloom potatoes, cilantro, dill, basil and carrots are some of the products the family is working to grow this season.
Half-shares and full shares are available. Half shares are designed for two people or people who are transitioning to eating more fresh produce, Dye said. A half share costs $375; a full is $525.
“Those numbers sound high, and sometimes you’ll get people that are like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so much money,’ but I think that when people actually sit down and realize what they pay for food, (the price) actually isn’t, in the big scheme of things, that much,” Dye said.
Shares can be customized. For example, if a customer doesn’t like tomatoes, Dye will add more of another product to make up the difference.
A side benefit is customers visiting the farm to pick up their food, she said.
“They are getting to see how their food is being grown. If they want to cut a flower bouquet while they’re here, they can do that, (or) visit with the chickens. So it’s kind of a special relationship that’s formed.”