Western Wayne News Podcast
Western Wayne News Podcast

Years ago, Wendy Carpenter realized that she just wanted to work with plants. Today, she and her son run an organic farm that provides vegetables, community and connection to area residents, and that works to make food production a more local, sustainable venture. In this episode, Kate sat down with Wendy to talk about how Community Supported Agriculture works, what a WWOOFer is, and how their business might serve as a model for solving other kinds of problems in the world.


Wendy Carpenter: I am Wendy Carpenter, owner of Christopher Farm in Randolph County.

Kate Jetmore: From Civic Spark Media and the Western Wayne News in Wayne County, Indiana, I’m Kate Jetmore. As a native of Richmond Indiana. I’m excited to be sitting down with some of our neighbors and listening to the stories that define our community. My guest today is Wendy Carpenter, who’s been tending to the land handed down to her by her grandfather over 25 years ago, devoting herself to a love for growing food, playing her part in developing local community food webs and enriching the soil. Over this time, Christopher Farm has become a flourishing, organic vegetable operation that supplies the local community with a much-loved coalition of nutrition and education. Welcome Wendy, and thank you so much for joining me on this show today.

Wendy Carpenter: Thank you for having me.

Kate Jetmore: It’s great to have you here. I’d love to start with CSAs, which are something that I’ve heard about over the years. I know people who’ve used them and love them. I have to admit that I personally have yet to try a CSA, but let’s start there. What is a CSA? What does CSA stand for? And how does it work at Christopher Farm?

Wendy Carpenter: CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. And before I go into that, I’m just going to give you a little background about our farm because that’s all a piece of it. We’re a very small, diversified organic vegetable and cut flower farm. We’re about an acre and a half, a very intensive production. We’re certified organic, and we also have real organic project certification, which is a whole other conversation. I graduated from Earlham College and was gone for several years, and came back. And at this point the farm has grown and I operate with my son, Adrian Hess, who has returned to do that with me. So the premise of community-supported agriculture is that farming involves a lot of risk. It involves risks that are weather-related, market-related and pest, just there’s so many different issues that organic farmers in particular deal with. So the idea behind community-supported agriculture is that the community that eats the food that the farm provides, shares in that risk in some way.

And the way that that is done is by paying for a season’s worth of produce in advance of the season. Most of our expenses fall in January and February. It’s a remarkable amount of expense we have in those two months, and that’s the time period where vegetable protection is at its lowest. We do produce throughout the winter, but because of the low sunlight hours, we call it the Persephone period, when there are fewer than 10 hours of sunlight a day. Vegetable growth comes to a halt to some degree. So we have a lot of expenses and not much income. So the community then, by purchasing, we call them shares, are supporting our ability to then produce food for them later in the season.

And that can take a lot of different forms. Here at our farm, what that means is we provide vegetables for six months of the year. So it’s a twenty-six week CSA, which is longer than a lot of them are. And we deliver to West Richmond Friends Meeting/Richmond Friends School in Richmond on Tuesday, late afternoon, early evenings, weekly throughout the season. And it starts ideally the last week of April. This year we were a little late just because it was so cold we couldn’t start until May. So then we went into November a little bit.

Kate Jetmore: And when you say you deliver to West Richmond Friends and the Friends School, then do all the people who participate in your CSA come and pick up there?

Wendy Carpenter: They do. They come and pick up there. And for people who are unable to make the drop off, for some reason, they contact me in advance and I can just leave their share, which is in a waxed cardboard box on the porch there until they’re able to get there. So it works out really nicely. I think a lot of our participants at this point are in that relative area, and so it’s a convenient location for them.

So we do three size shares that we offer. We have a small share, which is designed for one person or for people who are hesitant vegetable eaters. We have a full-size share, which is more designed for two very enthusiastic vegetable eaters or four people depending. And then we also have a family share, which is a bit larger. And we additionally have something that we call a full-choice CSA, which is for people who… So I’m going to back up a little and say that one of the things about CSA is you are given a box of seasonal produce, and a lot of people like the idea of eating seasonally, and like being given the challenge of, okay, what do I do with this? And we do offer serving suggestions and recipes in particular for things that are a little bit more unusual for people.

But some people still don’t really want that much challenge. They want to plan their menu in advance and pick what they’re going to get. And for those folks, we offer something called a full choice CSA, and they can go on to an online store that we have and just order what they want each week, and they can get it every week. They could get it every two weeks. They can get it as frequently or as infrequently as they want in the amount that they want. So it gives them a lot more flexibility.

Kate Jetmore: Okay. That is very helpful. Very helpful. And I’m guessing people can get more information on specific dates and specific costs for each of these options if they visit your website. Is that right?

Wendy Carpenter: Right. Our website is-

Kate Jetmore: And what is your website?

Wendy Carpenter: It’s christopherfarm.net.

Kate Jetmore: Okay. All right, great. Well, Wendy, I think some people would agree that we’re living in turbulent times. I guess that’s a subjective opinion, but whatever your opinion is, there is always something very powerful and very comforting in the idea of engaging in local food production. I’d love it if you could talk a little bit about the role your farm plays, given the context of, say, climate change and the fragile global supply chain, for example.

Wendy Carpenter: Yeah, I think that’s a really important question. Historically, we understood that the average vegetable would travel about 3000 miles to get from a farm to your plate. And just that fact alone was a really good argument for trying to purchase local vegetables and fruits. But now in the last 10 years, we’ve learned so much more about soil science and it’s so exciting. We’ve learned that every time we disturb the soil, even if it’s just moving a shovel full of dirt, that we release carbon into the atmosphere. And so the less we can disturb the soil and the more we can do to encourage biological life in the soil, the more it’ll capture carbon in the soil. So we’ve really taken that to heart in the methods that we use for growing here. I think honestly that’s probably one of the biggest reasons that my son Adrian came back to the farm is he felt like that was a way for him to make a meaningful contribution to the climate crisis.

And I feel like that’s a really large part of the education that we do with our interns and apprentices. So it’s partly the importance of developing your local community and your local economy, but it’s also important just the way in which we’re growing it. So the supply chain issue is also really important. We, in 2020, when the pandemic hit, everybody knows how all of a sudden the grocery store shelves became empty, and people were panicking and trying to figure out where they were going to get their food. And a lot of people turned to their small local farms and we’re able to pivot on a dime in a lot of ways. Now, we couldn’t anticipate what was going to happen in 2020. So our supply at that point, we hadn’t grown as much as we might’ve been able to. We were preparing for normal sales levels, but we were able to provide a lot of food for people.

And we even worked on our online store, which we had done for years, offering produce to people outside of traditional farmer’s market seasons. So we collaborated with other local producers of meat and eggs and baked goods and honey and maple syrup so that people could order all of those things. And then we would aggregate it here and take it to parking lots and meet people where they could pick it up. And I had multiple families tell me that was their only source of groceries for that first really scary period of time. So I feel like just the flexibility that small local farms has is critical. And the fact that we don’t have to work through a long supply chain. We’re right here. When we look at climate projections and what we need to do to address climate issues in the future. Having food at the very minimum regionally local, even if it’s not like hyper local, but even having it regionally available is just such an important piece of the puzzle. And so that’s another thing we’re really committed to trying to figure out, how can we help to develop those networks?

Kate Jetmore: There’s so much here, Wendy. Obviously you have a working farm, it is your source of income, but there are so many other layers. And one of the things I hear you saying, I think, about yourself and your son who returned to Richmond in a very focused way, is that it seems like it forms part of how you see yourselves as citizens. Would you agree with that?

Wendy Carpenter: I definitely would. We have to make a living doing this, but that’s not the real reason we’re here and the real reason we’re doing it. And so yeah, that’s a huge part of it as citizens and as members of our community.

Kate Jetmore: Community is at the heart of this podcast, what makes a community, who are the members of this community, what can we do to make our community stronger? What ideas do you have? What do you wish you could see? And so I’m always thrilled when people like you agree to join us on the show, and are able to draw such a beautiful and direct line from what you’re doing to the heart of our community. Now I want to ask you, you mentioned the moment when you go to market. There’s a moment in your production cycle when everything magically comes together. You know it’s not magic, it’s the result of many, many hours of work, but everything gels and your produce is now in the hands of your clients. What can you share about the personal relationships you cultivate through the food you raise?

Wendy Carpenter: So the way that I got into this in an indirect sense is I had a job that was a very people intensive job that went awry. I had a very bad experience at a job. And at that point I said, I just want to work with plants. So I gradually evolved into market farming. And the thing that I’ve found is that I work with people so much partly in the context of working with our farm crew, but also in the context of working with the people who eat our food. And I think for me, it’s the most rewarding part of what I do.

We have people who buy from us that we’ve known for more than 20 years. I’ve been at this farm since 1997. And so just watching their families grow and seeing the changes that people go through in their lives. And we send a weekly newsletter out to all of our customers. And so I think it gives them a real sense of what’s going on with us. They understand where we are, and then they share a lot about themselves. So that connection is really huge. Going to farmer’s markets and doing CSA is not the easiest way to market your vegetables, but we feel like wholesaling wouldn’t have the same satisfaction for us that those direct sales where we really get to know the people who are eating our food.

Kate Jetmore: And what can you say about what you’ve just shared about we’ve chosen maybe not the easiest way to market our produce, but it’s the way that we believe in. How can you marry that to what you were saying before about your role in the community?

Wendy Carpenter: Well, I think that clearly gives us a better eye into what’s happening in our community. We spend a lot of time talking and thinking about food here. Who gets our food? What do they do with our food? Who has access to our food? Who doesn’t have access to our food? We see different programs come and go at the Richmond Farmer’s Market and how that affects different people’s ability to purchase healthy food. And so there was a program that ended at the end of August that was designed for people with diabetes. And when we saw it ending, we started doing research a little bit. I was into, okay, what are some other possible programs that are out there?

And so I contacted the market master and said, here’s some models you might want to look at. Here’s you some Contacts that you might want to look at just to help to increase that availability for everyone. And then the other piece of it is we just waste hardly anything here because anything that goes unsold, we donate to our local food pantry here in Randolph County. And they’ve told me that at times we are the only source of produce that they have. So it’s just a way of being tuned into all the different places that there’s a need and a wish for healthy food.

Kate Jetmore: And the word that leaps out at me listening to you talk about that is access. There are people who have the luxury, and I think we can agree the privilege, of having access to fresh produce, and there are people who can’t. And that is a tragic reality. It sounds like you’re doing what you can to encourage the powers that be to look into opening new avenues of access. What would you like to see? What programs have you seen elsewhere that you’d love to see in Wayne County?

Wendy Carpenter: I read a book in the past year called Developing Community Food Webs, which was an excellent book. I haven’t quite finished it. But it has examples from around the country of really innovative projects that people in different parts of the country are doing. And a lot of it is through food banks and creating programs where food banks are purchasing food from local farms. And often the people who are getting food at the food banks have a lot more control of what happens there. It’s not so much just a handout as a buy-in. And then there are different educational programs that are started.

So I feel like there are a myriad of different programs out there and different systems out there. And part of what reading that book taught me is that each community needs to identify its own needs and then develop what best suits its needs. And long ago I worked as a community organizer, and I really firmly believe that the people that are most affected by the problems are the people who need to be figuring out how to solve those problems. I don’t really endorse a top-down kind of problem-solving.

Kate Jetmore: Interesting. And a big part of addressing any need or any problem is the conversation. So I really appreciate you contributing with your voice.

Wendy Carpenter: Thank you.

Kate Jetmore: Oh, sorry, go ahead.

Wendy Carpenter: Well, I was just going to say, and I think you’ve already said this, but I also really believe that those people who don’t have access, it’s easy to judge people and say, oh, they just eat junk food. But it’s not that people are doing that by choice. It’s a matter of what can people afford. So I feel like when people have the ability to purchase healthy food, they do that.

Kate Jetmore: Yes, yes. Thank you for saying that. I appreciate that. Now, Wendy, when I was preparing for our conversation, I had a look at your beautiful websit.e and I noticed that you have, and you mentioned this earlier in our conversation, you have both apprentices and WWOOFers on your farm. Can you explain to our listeners what those positions involve?

Wendy Carpenter: Sure. So we’ve been hosting WWOOFers since about 2015, I believe, was when I first started hosting WWOOFers. And WWOOFers, it stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. And I have had a couple of international people who WWOOFed, it’s not a paid position, and there’s a WWOOF website. People become a member. All the farms are inspected, vetted, and so people can go onto the website and look for a farm that meets their interests. Different farms require different lengths of stay. I think our minimum length at this point is a week. This past summer, we had somebody who stayed for two months and somebody who was here for five weeks. And I think they both learned a huge amount. And I just always say that having different people on the farm makes my world bigger too. We learned from them. It’s definitely an exchange in some ways. So that’s been a really rewarding thing for us, and we continue to do that as long as we have enough housing available for them. So they get-

Kate Jetmore: And what are their logistics like? Where do they live? Do you share your meals? Who does the cooking?

Wendy Carpenter: So WWOOFers and apprentices all get room and board. And the lodging is essentially the same too. We have an old grain bin that I’m actually sitting in right now that we turned into a house, and it has two bedrooms in it. It has a fully functional kitchen, bathroom. And then for additional bedrooms, we use campers. So those folks still have access to the grain bin for their living space, but the camper’s like an extra bedroom. And apprentices receive a monthly stipend. And we generally look for them to be here for a minimum of six months, essentially the whole season, April through the end of October.

And I feel like we really do put a lot of emphasis on trying to teach people the things they want to learn. So part of my interview process is what are you interested in? What do you want to learn? And then we really do work on that, both hands-on in the field, but we also have what we call educational conversations at lunch where we present information for people and it’s an opportunity for conversation around different ideas. So that’s been a lot of fun too.

Kate Jetmore: Oh, interesting. And where do your interns come from? Are they generally through universities or are they free agents or how does that work?

Wendy Carpenter: I think most of them have graduated because somebody who’s in school would only have a few months off in the summer. So most of them have graduated. And we have one person who was here last summer, and she’s going to come back for this coming season. She lives 35 minutes from here. She wants to start her own farm. And so this is her way of getting the knowledge she wants, and we want to do everything we can to help her with that. So it’s really exciting to have a returning person

Kate Jetmore: And that speaks volumes. She must have had a really positive experience.

Wendy Carpenter: I think she did. I think in general, people do. We do our year-end reviews, and they’re positive. We had another person last year who was just interested in learning more about where her food had come from. She had been working at a giant grocery store and said it just made more sense for her instead of working to earn wages to buy food that she wasn’t too excited about to actually learn how to produce that food. So she spent the season with us and was going to look at possibly a protein farm next, but just learning how different parts of food are produced and figuring out what, if any, role she wants to play in that.

But if nothing else, she’s going to be a really informed consumer when she leads that process. You never know. I had somebody who WWOOFed in 2022 who wanted to go into local food system work, and so she felt like the place for her to start was to learn about how the food actually is produced. And now she’s been applying for jobs like I think helping to manage a farmer’s market in South Carolina and that kind of thing. And this season, as of now, we have a woman from Peru who will be joining us who’s interested in learning more about what we’re doing. So that’s kind of exciting to have an international person.

Kate Jetmore: Oh yeah, that is exciting. And I’m wondering if any of our listeners might be interested in getting more information. Would that be on your website as well, Wendy?

Wendy Carpenter: Yeah, it’s definitely on the website. And Adrian’s actually been trying to update the part about building the grain bin part, just so people get a read on what the housing actually looks like. So yeah, we are not the most tech savvy people, so we’re constantly trying to update things, but we have been working on that this winter.

Kate Jetmore: Okay, wonderful. Well, I look forward to seeing that when it’s up and running. And Wendy, I want to thank you so much for joining me today for this wonderful conversation. It’s been great to learn more about your farm, about Christopher Farm, and I want to wish you and your son all the best.

Wendy Carpenter: Great. Thank you, Kate. And thanks for inviting me.

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