Profile: Iron Creek Farm of LaPorte, IN
By Heidi Lewis
In America, the small family farm has become a heritage breed as cherished and coveted as the heirloom plants some of them grow.
The 2007 agriculture census reported that nearly 40 percent of all U.S. farms are under 50 acres. According to the census there are two million farms left in the U.S., down from five million in 1950. Some major factors for the drop in farms include high land costs, consolidation and large corporate farms, and younger generations that chose not to run the farm.
The Michigan Fruit Belt
Iron Creek Farm is located in the highly fertile Northwest corner of Indiana in LaPorte County. “Five miles from Lake Michigan, the warming from the lake gives us a subterranean climate. A special zone known as the Michigan Fruit Belt,” says farmer Tamera Mark who, along with her husband Patrick and three children, runs Iron Creek. “Fruit belts” are microclimates that provide ideal growing areas for fruit. Often occurring within snow belts, the most notable ones in the U.S. are clustered around the Great Lakes.
Their bounty begins in spring, as Iron Creek is known for its early tomatoes. A variety of produce, everything from asparagus to zucchini, feeds their CSA members, three farmers markets, Chicago restaurants, and The FruitGuys, until winter. Tamera knows a few season-extending tricks, such as using hoop houses, also known as “high tunnels,” to cover rows of vegetables. The crop row is spanned with pliable pipe, or wooden ribs, and then covered with fabric, protecting the plants from wind and frost.
There’s no downtime between seasons. In December, the last of the lettuce is still peeking out of the hoop houses. In January, they get the seedlings started in the green house in preparation for spring planting. During the cold winter, the greenhouse is heated by a boiler fueled by wood harvested in the woodlands near the farm.
Tamera talks lovingly of the rich soil on her farm, “It’s about as black as it can be.” The riverbed dirt, high in organic matter, is so fluffy that after tilling it, they have to drag a light packer behind the tractor to keep the topsoil from blowing away. The prized soil and flat topography are what first drew farmers to this Great Lakes region, including Patrick Mark’s grandparents, who bought this farm about a century ago.
Patrick and Tamera’s three daughters, Brittney, Kaela, and Aryn, all work on the farm, making them the fourth generation of Marks to work this land. Brittney and Kaela farm full time and Aryn (who is still in college) contributes when she is home on break. Brittney has a degree in biology; she also spent a year helping establish an organic farm for a school in Nicaragua before returning to Iron Creek. Kaela has a degree in English and Aryn is studying biology and natural resource management.
“The girls are able to contribute what they’ve learned along the way and put it back into the farm,” says Tamera. Iron Creek’s two generations of women farmers belays a quiet yet growing trend for American farms: currently over 306,000 U.S. farms list women as primary day-to-day decision makers, a 30 percent rise since the 2002, according to the 2007 census.
Iron Creek Farm is well diversified: of its 30 cultivated acres, there are fields for growing vegetables; newly planted fruit orchards and blueberries; as well as 50 acres of woodlands and some protected wetlands. A tornado in 2010 wiped out 150 precious trees, so the Marks milled the lumber and took it to local Amish craftsmen to build furniture for their home. An example of a lemonade-out-of-lemons solution that small farms like the Marks practice to keep their farm going, always bringing heart, strength, and experience back to the family farm.