Snow and ice covered the farm fields in southwestern Johnson County.
Mounded rows where vegetables once grew were barren, barely visible underneath the blanket of white. Chunks of ice fell from trees as the January sun warmed them.
And yet, at Nature’s Gift Organics farm near Morgantown, leafy green heads of lettuce grew in a row. Varieties such as Summer Crisp and Bergen’s Green spread out in the cold dirt, growing in the relative warmth of a high tunnel greenhouse despite the freezing temperatures outside.
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“Basically, this is food storage. All we have to do is sustain it,” said John Woodbury, founder of Nature’s Gift.
For Woodbury and his family, being able to grow produce year-round is an important part of their vision for the farm. Nature’s Gift Organics has focused its business on local consumers. The farm is part of an online community-supported agriculture program, sells produce at farm stands and is active in farmers markets in the area. Their produce is being featured in some area hospitals.
Nature’s Gift has started partnering with Johnson County schools as well, ensuring that students have fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria. This farm-to-school program is part of a larger movement looking more closely at where the food we eat comes from.
“It’s the way it should be. The customer is happier, the food is better quality,” Woodbury said. “It helps the local economy, and helps people be more food-conscious, to think more about what they’re eating.”
The idea behind the farm-to-school concept is to connect growers and producers to schools in their communities. The farmers gain another revenue stream, and children get to have fresh food that was grown just miles from their schools in their cafeterias.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture supports the program, helping schools and agriculturists forge relationships. In addition to helping provide area-grown food to schools, resources also are available to help start school gardens, and for teachers to implement lessons about local food systems and where food comes from into the curriculum.
More than 42,500 schools throughout the U.S. participate in some type of farm-to-school activities, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Clark-Pleasant Community Schools have focused on including local producers in cafeteria offerings when possible, said Kim Combs, food service director for the corporation.
They have worked closely with Nature’s Gift to include greens, potatoes, blackberries, zucchini, cherry tomatoes and other items. When the farm offered sweet corn, the schools would buy it in bulk, letting the students shuck the corn themselves before it was prepared in the cafeteria, Combs said.
The lettuce that Woodbury was growing in January was slated to go to the Clark-Pleasant schools.
“We try to take advantage of whatever they have at the time,” Combs said. “We hope we’re exposing the kids to new items in the vegetable world.”
Nature’s Gift is a certified organic grower through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Woodbury’s family has a tradition in agriculture on their property, just northeast of Morgantown. They’ve grown corn, soybeans and grain on half the land, with other portions reserved for timber farming.
In 2012, after graduating with a degree in biology from Franklin College, Woodbury founded Nature’s Gift Aquaponics on the land. The operation blended tank-bred tilapia with produce grown in the same water.
They raised lettuce, red Russian kale, cucumbers and rainbow chard, among other vegetables. Nature’s Gift would then sell the produce at farmers markets and other stores, which solified their relationships with the existing local food system.
The Woodburys eventually decided to focus their attention on the agricultural aspect and sold the aquaponics operation.
“I was doing a lot of work in the aquaponics. It’s a cool concept and I enjoyed doing it, but I just wasn’t getting enough to fill orders,” Woodbury said. “When you’re talking to schools, they want hundreds of heads a week, and as I looked into the future, there’s no way aquaponics could provide for three, four, five school districts.”
Nature’s Gift has a retail arm of their business, providing produce through the Hoosier Harvest Market, an online community supported agriculture program based in Greenfield. The Woodburys also have a farm stand two miles south of Bargersville on State Road 135 and are active at the Franklin Farmers Market.
But the farm-to-school relationships have been the most exciting.
“(Farm-to-school) was a perfect fit for us, because from the earliest years, we decided to choose varieties that were ‘family friendly,’” said Linda Woodbury, John’s mother and the one who handles contracts with local schools. “To us that meant finding something nutritious that young people will eat, parents seek, and we feel improves the world around us.”
The Woodburys learned about farm-to-school at a conference of food systems, and as they learned more about it, figured out how they could be part of it themselves.
For three years, Nature’s Gift has been working with schools in Johnson County and surrounding counties to provide food.
The Woodburys contact area schools that they work with, letting them know what they have in season and how much they can provide.
“The schools seem to be getting into this kick more, with the local food thing, and we try to provide a really good clean product for them,” Woodbury said. “And the kids really seem to get into it.”
Inside the Woodburys’ high tunnel, the heads of lettuce grow in straight rows the entire length of the structure. Each lettuce plant is protected under frost blankets to protect against the unseasonably cold January that central Indiana was experiencing.
The brutal cold has tested Woodbury’s abilities to grow produce year-round. Even with the sun shining and heaters going, the sub-zero temperatures have wilted some of the lettuce that they planted.
“Farming is always a test, and I’m always trying to test the limits,” he said. “This winter has shown me how I can make adjustments.”
In order to make winter growing work, Woodbury has to have his lettuce grown to full size by late November or early December. Any growing after that is thwarted by lack of daylight.
Then, it’s all about maintaining the living lettuce in the ground. The ground that the lettuce grows in gives off minute amounts of heat, which keeps the lettuce alive when protected from the cold. Industrial heaters also makes the climate inside the high tunnel tolerable.
The high tunnels not only allow for winter growing, but provide Woodbury with a place to plant produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers and broccoli to be ready in the spring.
When the weather warms, Nature’s Gift provides greens and other vegetables to numerous schools. This year, the hope is to have contracts with up to four school districts, Woodbury said.
Nature’s Gift received a grant that allowed them to build a second high tunnel in 2017, and the Woodburys project that with the contracts they’ve lined up, they’ll have it at capacity with greens as well, Linda Woodbury said.
“Everybody seems to be moving toward more local, and that’s a good thing,” John Woodbury said.