What always surprises me about Indiana is how quickly the landscape can change. There is no endless suburbian sprawl followed by the newly developed exurbs that is haunting other areas of the country. Here, our towns mostly have a decided end to them and you quickly find yourself at cruising speed on a county road with rich, black soil and fields on either side of your running boards.
As you move out of Lafayette and steer east, you will see some newer homes begin to intercede with the older farm houses. This part of the state is quite flat and it is here where the dirt is so black that when you hear someone refer to “black gold”, you think they are surely referring to the amazing Indiana soil!
It is here that I meet Levi Huffman. A fifth generation farmer of the land and in everyway a steward of the land, his community and his family. The land was first farmed in 1870 by Levi’s forefather Ralph Wies. This is old farming land…over 3,200 acres of prime, rich soil that Ralph farmed and what Levi and his son and son-in-law have made it today. Levi was born in Ohio and when he married his wife Norma, he moved to the outskirts of Lafayette. Then, the 1,600 acres were raising corn, soybeans, hogs and wheat. Today, he has doubled that acreage and uses more than 500 acres to cultivate more diversified agriculture.
Levi was close to 50 years old when the farm was turned over to him to manage. However, Levi decided that it would benefit his son and son-in-law and the farm if he were to turn the day-to-day management over to them at an earlier age. His son handles the corn and soybeans and his son-in-law deals with the diversified crops and marketing. The farm raises processing tomatoes for Red Gold and Sam’s Club’s Italian Rose sauce. Additionally they sell to Club Chef…which means the next time you sit down at Chipotle, the cabbage in those tacos are likely from Levi’s farm! The farm is beginning to experiment with other crops, including cut flowers, jalapeno and hot cherry peppers. And at the end of the day, Levi is quite astute in business as well. All of his vegetables are spoken for and are already contracted.
Levi is happy to have the land continue in his family and it is equally important to him that the family is a strong community member. He has received the Apex Award and is a member of Driftwatch. He sits on the Dean’s Advisory Board at Purdue and has discovered he has a passion for assisting people with family transition issues. And like all true Renaissance men, you can find him on LinkedIn.
Some farmers want to feed the their communities…
Some farmers want to feed their communities and the soul. Eric Himelick is a seventh generation farmer with a detailed history of the land he stewards in Upland, Indiana just north of Muncie.
Victory Acres was home to an early settler village called Lick Skillet in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Before Indiana was a state, people were already moving to this Northwest Territory from points further east. One of these early settlers was Eric’s great-great-great- great grandfather, Daniel Wise . Jacob Wise, his son, did quite well for himself and ended up owning more than one local farmstead. One of those farms most probably is the property that is now Victory Acres, and it was part of his wedding present from Jacob’s in-laws, the Marine family. When Jacob was just starting his family in the mid-1850’s, the railroad arrived, bringing with it progress and change. He raised a daughter, Lydia, across the tracks from the farm that was to become Victory Acres.
A dashing young gentleman arrived from the east and soon came courting Miss Lydia. Shortly before the marriage of George Himelick and Lydia Wise in 1893, George secured the farm across the tracks, with assistance from his future in-laws as a wedding gift. In 1900, the Himelicks built a new house as part of a wedding gift. They raised twelve children in that house, including Eric’s great grandfather, Waldo Himelick. Even as the Grant County gas wells gave out, the automobile and airplane were invented, and the clouds of WWI darkened the world horizon, the farm was a place that endured the changing times.
When George passed away in 1939, Lydia moved to town, and for several years the farm was rented out or left empty. WWII came and went. Waldo’s son–Eric’s grandfather–Verlin Himelick, USMC, saw action in the South Pacific. His many war stories he kept to himself, but they affected him deeply. He returned home and married a beautiful young lady from New Mexico after a courtship of only four months, after which he moved her back to the fertile lands of Indiana to farm. Needing a place of his own, he talked with his grandmother about buying the “Old Home Place.” The sale was arranged, and for the next 50 years, he called it home.
Eventually, our Eric Wise’s father married and shared the land with his parents.
“The farm was the only home I knew for the first 18 years of my life,” he said. “While my parents worked and my mother went to nursing school, my brothers and I often spent time with my grandparents in that same old farmhouse. Having them that close to us was a huge blessing.”
Like many farmers, Eric’s grandfather hit hard times in the mid-1980’s. He lost his farm equipment to a bank foreclosure and spent the next ten years as a truck driver. He approached the twilight years of life without a retirement fund, working into his late 70’s driving a truck for his brother, Jack Himelick, at Jack’s gravel operation. Because he was cash poor but land rich, he began to contemplate the unthinkable: selling off his land as a way to have something on which to live when he was no longer able to work.
” The idea of my grandfather selling off the family land was gut wrenching, but few other options remained,” Eric recalled.
Having lived at the farm his whole life, Eric’s roots in Upland ran deep. As Wendell Berry would say, “Everyone is born to a place,” and this farm was his. But like most young men he went exploring. He studied theology and pastoral ministry at Union Bible College, serving an internship in St. Louis, which opened his eyes to the needs of urban America. Returning from St. Louis forever changed, he began to minister among the needy in an eastside Indianapolis neighborhood. He had no real plans to start a ministry, but he soon learned God had other ideas. By 2005, his wife Rochelle and he had been building Victory Inner-City Ministries for seven years. One of the challenges faced again and again was the need for people — broken, hurting people — to disengage from the city. At funeral after funeral he wondered if things could have been different for young men if they had been able to get away from the challenges of the inner city.
In Upland was a farm that had fallen into disrepair and needed people to do good work, and on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis were people, many unemployed and homeless, that needed good work to do.
Over the past six years, the farm slowly come back to life — new fields, new greenhouses, new crops, new people, and a new generation of Himelicks living in the old farmhouse.
With his parents living down the lane, it still feels a lot like a traditional family farm, but they are slowly transitioning to a different form of ownership. Now, as a non-profit farm, they are stewards of the land. The farm will always be connected with the Himelicks family story and the Himelick family name, but it has become more than just a place for our family to call home. For many, it has become the home they never had and the family they never knew. It has become their farm too.
Victory Acres grows produce and meat. The cattle is pasture-raised as are the chickens and sheep. Among the many vegetable varieties that are grown at the farm is garlic. The farm raises over 800 pounds of garlic annually shipped all over the country! The following places are where you will find Victory Acres produce and meats:
Indiana Market Maker – www.in.marketmaker.uiuc.edu/
The Farmer Stand in downtown Muncie – http://www.downtownfarmstand.com
Marion Farmers Market
Victory Acres CSA – http://www.victoryacres.org
Upland Farmers Market
This is such a great summery salad. It will remind you of eating Taffy Apples at the Fair…
Taffy Apple Salad
1 – large can of Crushed Pineapple – well drained, save the juice
2 Cups – mini marshmallows
Mix the drained pineapple & marshmallows together and refrigerate overnight.
Combine retained pineapple juice with the following & heat:
1 – beaten egg
1 Tablespoon – Flour
½ Cup – Sugar
1 teaspoon – Vinegar
Cook until thickened. Refrigerate overnight covered.
The next day…
Mix the sauce with 8 oz. of Cool Whip. Add in your pineapple mixture.
2 Cups – Diced Apples – with peeling on (Try one of Perry’s Favorites – Dandy Red or Ruby John)
1 ½ Cups – Peanuts
Mix well and enjoy!
Wea Creek Orchard
Drive south of Lafayette on South 18th street, you will head past Lafayette Jeff High School (my alma mater) and keep going. Keep going past the new development of the Southside and you will quickly wander into the quiet agrarian edge of town by the old Wea School. For me, it was also like wandering back into time. This area was part of my youth – as a family we would head out of Lafayette this way to Colfax for the best fried fish dinner in the state at Miller’s…but I digress. This part of town is full of nice memories and it seems that if you enjoy getting out for a drive in the country, this area will not disappoint.
Unlike many county roads in the state, Wea School Road weaves and bends along the Big Wea Creek as it moves through the once lush corn fields and it makes it way to US 52. But just as you are lulled by the rows of houses and then corn, you will see up on a bluff Wea Creek Orchards. To those with a strong memory, this is referred to as the Old Thompson Place. Or as Julian and Josephine Huffman Thompson called the land: Patrius Ara… the land passed down from our fore fathers. This is exactly how the current holders of the land see this bloom-filled piece of paradise.
I drive out to meet with Perry Kirkham on what we had hoped would be a warm spring day. While the Indiana winter doesn’t seem to want to let go, the blooms on the peach trees are glorious while the blooms on the apple trees are just beginning to peek out. Perry spends some time describing the lay of the land and how his possession of the family homestead evolved. He is excited to tell his family’s story of how Josephine Huffman Thompson’s grandfather started the farm in 1850, and how in 1888, his great-great-grandmother, who was the youngest of eight and the only girl, inherited the land due to a brother that was kicked by a horse and lost his life. His grandfather took over the farm in 1913 and 2008 saw the last of the Thompsons in name when Ruby passed away, leaving the farm to Perry’s parents. His family is the 7th generation to cultivate the land passed down from his forefathers on this registered archeological site. His daughters will make it 8 generations (talk about some family history) and because one of his daughters married a Thompson (no relation), the name will return to the farm.
To stand on the bluff, with the dogs running in and out of the rows of fruit trees, is really quite peaceful. You can hear the wind as it sings up the hill from the creek and rustles the few brave leaves on the young orchard. There are about 1,600 trees on the farm with about 15 different varieties. Pixie Crunch is the newest variety on Perry’s land, while Dandy Red and Ruby John are his favorites!
I met Perry a few months ago in a “Farm to School” meeting that is attempting to provide locally grown foods for our schools here in Indiana. In my conversations with him I learn that he is a farmer AND works on the Research Development team at Purdue. Perry had attended Purdue as an undergrad and earned his PhD in Immunology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He then moved with his wife to Cambridge England for a post-doc fellow in protein engineering. His next career step was to Washington D.C. to the National Institutes of Health. As it will do sometimes, life threw him a curve and Perry stepped to the plate and played ball. His grandmother Ruby fell ill and Perry moved his family back to the farm. Then Purdue offered him a position, and not just any position…he is responsible for organizing the Life Science teams that respond to federal research calls, such as the recent one to map the human brain. In a word…WOW! At the farm he works closely with his Health Physicist brother, Tim. During the Spring months it is all hands on deck at the farm. His brother is there as well as their spouses (who handled the weddings in the beautiful old white barn). His son-in-law, Kevin Thompson, is even the orchard manager!
Wea Creek Orchard sells its apples and peaches to area schools and the Purdue University lab kitchen at Marriott Hall. But the orchard does have a u-pick so you can come out to the orchard for some of the freshest fruit you can find! An added bonus when you pick yourself of course is that you can experience the food on the same day. I was able to enjoy this part! You can walk through the orchard with the dogs and enjoy a view over Wea Creek. Bring a picnic lunch and spend some time – it is a small piece of paradise.