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Rob & Kirstin will lead a Food & Storytelling Workshop, a presentation and discussion that explores practical ways for living our deepest values with our food choices. Workshop will accompany a potluck lunch with locally grown foods.

For more information about South Bend Christian Reformed Church, please visit their web site.

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I've written before about my fond childhood memories of Zandstra's Farm: roaming the acreage collecting vegetables for soup, building sod houses out of pallets and crates, making cups out of dried gourds, swimming in irrigation ditches and making mudslides through the onions. I couldn't help but feel a personal sense of loss in the nineties as the land along Indianapolis Boulevard in Highland, Indiana was gradually sold off until the entire area was taken over by housing and commercial developments.

Like many small family farms in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Zandstra's had to adapt to shifting trends in food and agriculture by making major changes in their operation. Today, the farm business is mostly in bedding plants, with large greenhouses less than a mile from the original farm and a location further south that still maintains about five acres in vegetables. We had the privilege of talking with Butch Zandstra, one of the brothers who currently own and operate the farm, about the history of the business and current cultural trends.

Like many Dutch immigrants around the turn of the century, Butch's grandfather quickly found factory work south of Chicago in Pullman, but as soon as he was able, he purchased a piece of land to tend. Founded in 1903, the Zandstra Brothers Farm served thousands of families with fresh produce over the years through the farm stand, u-pick and the market in Chicago. Butch noted that the family was especially attentive to growing vegetables that would appeal to local ethnic communities.

In 1978, Butch and his brother Nick bought out the farm from the rest of the family and change the name to Zandstra's Farm. Over the next couple of decades, the demands of the market shifted from fresh produce to bedding plants. Even though Butch still feels most at home among the vegetables, they followed the trend, which led to selling off the original farm. Butch isn't sentimental about the old property, but he admits that it made its way deep into his memory--where they planted certain crops and when, what weeds came up where, which fields tended to flood, all oriented to the path of the high tension wires and the sky blue Highland water tower.

The large majority of the Zandstra's Farm business is no longer in growing food for people, but the indelible mark of living from the land is on Butch's children, who are always glad to eat at home. He and his son Rob debate the nature of sustainability, often coming down on opposite sides, both theoretically and practically when it comes to the family farm. It matters, Butch says, whether your view of the world is geocentric, anthropocentric or theocentric. A theocentric view would indicate a kind of symbiotic harmony between land and people, use without abuse. What that looks like in particular is up for debate--the question of going organic, for example. Zandstra's Farm is not organic, but by understanding love of creation as a reflection of love for the Creator, the family has tried to live in harmony with the land. It's good theology and good business. Butch cites an example of how their crops are on a ten-year rotation in order to replenish the soil, whereas a fellow farmer in the area has a three-year rotation and sees the evidence in his yields. Zandstra's tomato plants have a very long season of production because of this rotation, while the other farmer needs to replant several times throughout the season in order to produce a substantial crop.

As a practitioner of agriculture, Butch doesn't come off as particularly defensive, but he does resist people's urge to blame farmers for poor eating habits that are contributing to health crises such as obesity and diabetes. The problem isn't corn syrup, he says, which is just a cheap sweetener, but it's overconsumption. We have access to more, cheap food than ever before in history, which is both positive and negative. It seems that both farmers and consumers are being adversely affected by the pressure to serve the market's insatiable craving for consumption. For example, advertisers help create a market for corn syrup to turn the wheels of consumption, consumers respond to the competition and farmers find themselves dependent on corn subsidies for growing a crop that's not even good for people to eat. There's a lot of complicity, but very few benefits. When we suggest that the ideal system might start with a collaborative, direct relationship between eaters and farmers, he is cautious but encouraging. He has seen a rising interest in locally grown food and from their five acres of vegetables, they sell produce at the Highland farmer's market.

What is the future of Zandstra's farm? Right now, the bedding plant business is thriving and they've put in new greenhouses and a paved parking lot. Butch and Nick have several years to go before retirement, but, even though several of their children have an intellectual interest in the family legacy, there is no one who is planning to take over the everyday operations of the farm.

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The first official stop on the tour was Perkins' Wholesome Harvest Farm in Demotte, Indiana. Just last year, Dan and Julie Oudman-Perkins bought a 19-acre farm not very far from Julie's parents. Most of their time and energy so far has gone into renovating the farm house, where they hope to move soon with their not-yet-one-year-old son Harper.

Julie, who grew up in Demotte, said she'd never marry a farmer and she'd never move back to Indiana, though in the course of seeking to be faithful to the movement of the Spirit, she's done both. With Dan employed full time in the area of water quality, much of the work for the test garden has fallen to Julie and she's really enjoying the fruits of such labor, literally and figuratively, often with Harper on her back or "helping."

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On our tour of the property, we enjoyed fresh sugar snap peas and met Chaco, the Australian shepherd who guards the tender spring produce from woodchucks and deer. We also saw the beautiful old milk shed, which is a simple building that seems to have captured Dan and Julie's imaginations as they dream about what its potential might be. A bakery, perhaps? It's incredible how four walls and a roof can beckon creativity and possibility.

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The couple plans to start small next year with an organic CSA serving 10-20 area families with fresh, seasonal produce. They've begun the process for organic certification, even as they also attempt to heal the soil from years of highly intense farming that have stripped many of the nutrients. They've planted cover crops that can be turned back into the soil along with compost and manure to create a healthier medium for their vegetables.

After several years spent working for other farms, including Victory Acres CSA, the Oudman-Perkinses are relishing the opportunity to invest in a piece of land that may well represent their life's work. Dan, who grew up in Maine, was introduced to large-scale midwestern agriculture when he decided to attend Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, which is where he and Julie met. Explaining his interest in farming, Dan said,

[I became involved] more on the political side of things--taking an interest in what was happening with water quality, the side peripheral effects of raising food in an industrial way, what some of the negative consequences were that were beginning to show up from an environmental standpoint. So then I kind of came to the conclusion that if I'm going to talk to farmers, engage farmers and institute any sort of change, I have to know what the life is like; I have to at least be able to speak with some authority that isn't just educational--like, I'm a PhD or I have a Masters or something--something that's a little more direct. So I started doing apprenticeships and that's kind of where I got stuck.

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Toward the end of our interview and tour, Julie asked if we had dinner plans, leading to a spontaneous invitation to join the evening meal at the Oudman household, where Dan, Julie and Harper are living while their farm house is under renovation. We enjoyed great conversation, baby entertainment and tacos--with a side of fresh lettuce from the test garden, of course--before moving on for the first workshop of the tour at Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Demotte.

Thanks to Dan, Julie, Harper and the Oudman clan for their openness and hospitality! We look forward to seeing what grows at Perkins' Wholesome Harvest Farm and in the surrounding area in the coming years.

Communications are flying about the Midwestern U.S. as we make connections and firm up dates and locations for the Eat Well Food Tour.  Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Demotte, Indiana has agreed to host the first Food & Storytelling workshop of the tour.  Thanks for your interest and help, Pastor Rick!  We look forward to teaching and learning in the rural farming community of Demotte.  If you live in or near Demotte, we'd love to see you there.  We can also use all the help we can get for promoting this event, which is coming up in less than two weeks, so check out our promotion page for ideas.  We're on our way!