Clearsprings Produce Market 'Springs' to Life

Diversity key for small farmers. Tom J. Bechman

Published on: Apr 1, 2004

If you visit LaGrange County this summer, perhaps for the Indiana Farm Management Tour, June 30-July 1, ask how to find Clearsprings produce auction. It's a unique business that's carving out its own niche. Steve Engleking believes it may be a sign of things to come.

"They've taken a few years to get off the ground," says the LaGrange County extension ag educator. "But they're now grossing several times through the facility that they did their first year."

The business is fascinating, the educator believes, because it is not your typical model business. It's not a cooperative in the true sense, or even in a loose sense, of the word. Instead, it's a loose operating agreement between farmers and neighbors who are looking to add to their farm income by diversifying into vegetable crops. The market gives them the opportunity to sell their produce at a reasonable price.

LaGrange County is the king of small farms in Indiana, with over 1,300 farms still operating in 1997, according to the 1997 Census of Agriculture. Many, but not all, of those farms are Amish farms.

Several producers who bring produce into the auction to sell are Amish growers, Engleking says. He has worked closely with Amish communities within the county over the past few years to provide education on developing value-added businesses.

There are also conventional, English families who grow vegetables and sell at the auction, the educator notes. Much of the produce is purchase by independent grocery stores. So far, no major food chains have made a regular habit of buying at the auction.

To make the operation possible, it needed phone lines, electricity and computers. Since the Amish religion forbids those things, those planning the auction facility were faced with an obstacle to overcome. They hit upon a plan—rent the business, or let it be operated, at least- by English folks with no aversion to electricity, phones or other modern conveniences.

That's what they did, Engleking observes. Because they did, the business has prospered, Engleking concludes.