Seven Steeples Farm

Last month I got to meet Justin Berg and Mike Higbee, who are doing something I admire: turning unused urban land into an agricultural oasis. As with many such endeavors, they glean local materials to build soil—leaves from curbside refuse, manure from the police department’s Mounted Patrol stables.

What’s unique about this urban farm, though, is that it’s being built atop the pulverized remains of an old mental institution.

Seven Steeples Farm

Seven Steeples Farm

To anyone growing up in Indy, as I did, “Central State” was synonymous with the loonybin. We all knew that it was an insane asylum, back in the day, and as late as 1994 it was still operating as a psychiatric facility.

The enormous campus fell into disuse after Central State Hospital closed, but recently the site has been redeveloped into Central Greens urban village. Part of the project includes Seven Steeples Farm, so-called because the 5-acre parcel being farmed is on the footprint of a building called Seven Steeples, where women were institutionalized.

The building was demolished midcentury, and apparently is now buried under the vast lawn area where Justin and Mike have begun growing produce for the past year. Sheltering old trees that must have borne witness to all kinds of pain still stand, shading the chicken run and outdoor classroom area.

I have to say, this thing has lit my imagination in surprising ways. I’ve read The Yellow Wallpaper and other stories of “madwomen in the attic.” How easy it was to cart women away for any infraction back when this asylum was established (1850s.) I can think of several reasons why I myself, in an earlier era, could have gotten myself tossed in there.

And what sort of “treatment” did the women undergo, inside the walls of Seven Steeples?

It feels to me like a major healing of an old wound to have an urban farm there. Community volunteers (and patrons) enjoy a peaceful setting smack in the middle of a somewhat sketchy part of town. The food is accessibly priced so that people living in the middle of a food desert can have a decent choice of nourishment.

Justin Berg, farm manager, and Mike Higbee, project coordinator, with lady friend

Justin Berg, farm manager, and Mike Higbee, project coordinator, with lady friend

Visitors love to sit on the stumps next to the chicken run and just get on “chicken time.”

The farm has announced 2015 CSA (community supported agriculture) plans, and will also have a weekly farm stand to sell eggs and produce. (More info: info@sevensteeplesfarm.com or 317-713-9263.)

Justin says, “Call to set up a tour, and everyone’s more than welcome to come by the farm stand if they’re in the area. They can grab up some produce and come check out what a rural setting could look like in the city.”

See my Farm Indiana piece for more on this project.

A Rural Rebirth, One Ag Business at a Time

Earlier this summer I visited Becca Selkirk at her Wayne County, IN farm, Unique 2 Eat, where she raises quail, chickens, and rabbits. She sells the eggs from her quail and chickens, along with rabbit meat. And she has two goats just for fun.

I was researching a story for Farm Indiana, having met her through Carthage Mill. (You might remember founder Anna Welch’s powerful guest post, “The Face of Resilience,” from a few months back.)

The mill is a sustainable agriculture business incubator, and its existence allowed Becca to expand into animal feed.

Becca Selkirk with a handful of her locally grown and milled feed.

Becca Selkirk with a handful of her locally grown and milled feed.

Using all organic and local ingredients, such as Fields of Agape‘s black bean halves and flax seeds, she’s developed a high-quality chicken feed. At 19 percent protein, her layer feed out-competes the industry standard. It’s all ground right onsite.

She markets her products at the mill and through Hoosier Harvest Market, the online marketplace that delivers small farmers’ and producers’ wares to several drop points.

I interviewed one Carthage resident who made the switch for his chickens and was thrilled with the result. “The quality of it’s great,” Devon Hamilton told me. “And my birds look healthier.” He says the price point is only slightly higher than what he was buying. And it’s worth it to him to know the ingredients were locally and sustainably raised.

Next on Becca's list is a formula for quail feed.

Next on Becca’s list is a formula for quail feed.

Plus, he wants to support the new venture. “I was there one day when Becca was mixing (the feed),” he says, “and she was working very hard. It’s very labor-intensive.” He feels that Becca has priced her feed appropriately, given everything that goes into it.

Becca is also one of the principals of local fertilizer maker Sterling Formulations, another company leasing space at Carthage Mill. And I just found out that she’s been able to expand into another new line. She’s cooking up ready-to-eat soups and developing a gluten-free pizza crust for “take-and-bake.”

She’s only been able to do this because of Carthage Mill: It has a commercial kitchen that’s certified for use in organic food production.

This is rural revitalization, one small ag business at a time.

Check out the full Farm Indiana story on Unique 2 Eat Farm. (Warning: adorable fuzzy animal photos involved—Josh Marshall‘s photography is terrific as always.) For more on Carthage Mill, see “Cooperative Offers Rural Rebirth,” my Acres USA story.