Home on the Free-Range

Count Stonewall Farm owner Keith Cannon, his wife, Jerlene, and their children among those who realize life rarely turns out as planned. What began roughly eight years ago as a 100-acre opportunity to teach their children about responsibility, stewardship of land, and a solid work ethic has transformed into a business venture Cannon hopes will become more popular in the Evansville community: an all-natural, free-range, community supported agriculture (CSA) farm.

Over the past 20 years, CSA farms have risen in popularity across the United States, as consumers have become increasingly interested in knowing where food comes from and how it is produced. The idea is fairly simple: Consumers may purchase subscriptions from a CSA farm in exchange for monthly products, from fruit and vegetables to cheese, or, in the Cannons’ case, eggs and meat.

Throughout the year, the Cannons raise 150 layer and 1,500 broiler chickens, 20 lambs, 150 turkeys, and 20-30 hogs on their West Side farm. Without proper cattle fencing, the Cannons rely on a friend to provide a home for their cows. On average, they process one steer per month.

The advantages of CSA farms are “a win-win for the farmer and the consumer,” Cannon says. “For the small farm operator, he’s able to farm for the exact needs of his customer base. So he knows, in the case of produce, how much to plant, or in my case, how much livestock to purchase.” Managing inventory and remaining debt-free is invaluable to Cannon. And for customers, CSA promises “a guaranteed amount of meat at a great deal that is raised without all of the hormones and antibiotics that have become a standard in the growing practices of many of the large factories (and) farms,” according to the Stonewall Farm website.

For Cannon, relationships are central to CSA farming. Customers “have that relationship with the farmer,” he says. “They know him personally, they know the connection is there between the farmer and his customers.”

The next step, Cannon believes, is to take the idea of relationships to the broader Evansville community. It’s easier said than done. While trends show that most people — even middle-class and single-income families — are willing to skimp in other areas of life to spend more on food, Cannon understands that making the initial jump will be difficult or even impossible without financial help from the outside.

During the farmer’s market season, from May to mid-October, the Cannons sell retail on weekends — roughly 28 days. “No business can stand up to that if you put them up to trying to make a living off of 28 days per year,” Cannon says. “So we need a place in Evansville that would have a year-round farmer’s market, hopefully something that offers 5-6 days per week so we could really get our product out to people.”

Cannon’s suggestion: a city subsidy or foundation grant to kick off the industry, which he believes will become self-sustaining over time. Cannon loves the idea of a farmer’s market and restaurant at the old Downtown Greyhound bus terminal, an idea that is being discussed as Indiana Landmarks acquires and renovates the building.

“There are a lot of people who will buy from us, and they know the food costs more because they know how expensive it is for us to produce it,” Cannon says, “but they’ll buy because they want to buy locally, and they want to support the local economy.” And when money and products stay local, he believes, the result is a much more solid city economy.

In addition, buying locally promotes traceability, another growing trend. Consumers “want to know the farmer; they want to know the farm where the food is grown,” Cannon says. “How do we treat our animals? How do we treat our land?”

Stewardship, the starting point for Stonewall Farm, is key. Cannon believes that their free-range farm will attract a growing number of consumers who are concerned with animal treatment. Rather than confinement farming — where animals, especially chickens, live in tightly confined areas and in their own waste — the animals at Stonewall Farm roam freely. (A chicken made its way nonchalantly under my car while I was there for the interview.)

In addition to a higher quality of life for the animals, Cannon says free-range farms provide other benefits, not the least of which is better tasting meat. Eating naturally means “the animals taste like they’re meant to taste,” Cannon says. “Things like that — the superior taste — is something that money can’t buy. You’ve got to get that from local stores; you’re not going to get it any other way.”

It all begins with marketing. From presentations around town to menu suggestions at local restaurants, “the biggest thing we’re trying to do now is step into the wholesale market,” Cannon says. “We’re trying to get the community educated, so we can feature our goods as specialty products.”

Community education is going a long way. In March, Stonewall Farm became the official grass-fed beef provider for Mesker Park Zoo. It’s just one way the Cannons hope to offer Evansville “a whole atmosphere that cultivates community,” Cannon says. “That’s what we’re all about.”

For more information on CSA farms, or to purchase meat or a subscription, visit www.stonewall-farms.com.

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