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Uplifting farmer-driven research at Purdue

Since 1988, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) has offered farmer-driven grassroots grants and education programs in every state and island protectorate through funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). In Indiana alone, SARE has supported 178 projects equaling $6.2 million in funding.

“The core value of SARE is to support the sustainability and well-being of all aspects of agriculture and those communities that support agriculture,” said Lais McCartney, Indiana SARE state coordinator and agriculture and natural resources educator for Purdue Extension – Hancock County. “We practice this value by making connections and helping agriculture professionals in Indiana understand farmer needs by listening to farmers first.”

As the land-grant university in Indiana, Purdue manages SARE grant money and trains agriculture professionals, including Purdue Extension educators, to help farmers meet their goals. Six farmer-directed applied research grants are awarded each year.

“It’s invigorating to see the various types of research happening on small farms because of Indiana SARE funding. Farmer-directed research and programming are needed because of how diverse food and small farms are across the region,” added Armonda Riggs, Four Flags Farm owner.

Despite having limited agricultural experience, Armonda and her husband, Ben, dreamed of starting a diversified farm.

“Purdue Extension has been involved since the beginning of us exploring farming. We started by connecting with Purdue for beginning farmer development, which was vital for making our dream come true,” said Armonda. “Through the workshops and programs, we met some great beginning young farmers in our state. The online Purdue Extension store with publications was hugely beneficial along with working with our county’s agriculture and resources Extension educator too.”

Woman stands in high tunnel greenhosue filled with plants wearing a pink hat and holding radishes. Armonda Riggs, owner of Four Flags Farm. Picture courtesy of Armonda.

The Riggs' diversified farm is now over 31 acres with products ranging from Shitake mushrooms, maple syrup, herbs and root vegetables. In addition to selling these products at the local farmers market, Armonda is also a community leader and participant in the Greene County Food as Medicine Program, part of the statewide Indiana Healthy Opportunities for People Everywhere (I-HOPE) effort.

For Robin and Nate Shannon, owners of Shannon Farm and Homestead, LLC. in Gary, Indiana, a partnership with Purdue Extension and Indiana SARE has provided them a chance to share their experiences with the hope of helping others.

“When Purdue Extension and SARE coordinators visit Shannon Farm and Homestead, it allows us to have the one-on-one exchange to discuss why urban farming is important. It allows us to show that we have a viable system in place from production, distribution, marketing and networking to serve the needs of our community affordability,” says Robin Shannon.

Man and woman stand with yellow shirts in front of raised garden beds. Robin and Nate Shannon, owners of Shannon Farm and Homestead, LLC. Picture courtesy of Robin.

The couple is committed to growing and distributing food within their community and surrounding areas intentionally and purposefully to fight food apartheid. Their biggest challenge, like other small farmers, is finding funding and resources to maintain and expand the farm.

“No two farms are alike and we know there are more opportunities for Purdue Extension and Indiana SARE to help diversified farmers in Indiana and the region. Part of Indiana SARE’s responsibility is to listen to individual farmers and take their challenges and successes to agriculture professionals so they can be better prepared to serve the farmers,” said McCartney.

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