Indiana farmer gives harvest away to the needy

By Maureen C. Gilmer, Gannett Writer
From the Indianapolis Star

GREENFIELD, IN -- Jonathan Lawler loves to work the land. For seven years, the Greenfield-area man operated Lawler Farms, a for-profit, sustainable produce farm, harvesting nearly 700,000 pounds of food annually.

Now he's on a mission to feed the hungry in Central Indiana. Lawler has revamped his 36-acre farm into a nonprofit operation called Brandywine Creek Farms. His goal for the first year is to donate 500,000 pounds of food, which he said is realistic based on the farm's capacity and the addition of an army of volunteers to help through the season.

On top of that, Lawler has joined forces with GleanersMidwest Food BankKenneth Butler Soup Kitchen and other area food banks as distribution partners.

Lawler, who also owns a transportation consulting firm that helps pay the bills, says his 15-year-old son inspired him to start thinking differently when it came to his farm.

"He came home from school (Eastern Hancock) and talked about kids who take home food from the food pantry," Lawler said.

"My awareness of hunger was limited to the homeless in Downtown Indianapolis. The last place I would expect it is in a rural farming community like where I live."

As he began to look around, the 39-year-old married father of three realized that the "commodity" farms in Hancock and surrounding counties produce tons of corn, soybeans and wheat, "but nothing you can just pick up and eat," he said.

Lawler and most of his neighbors are self-sufficient. They grow what they need or have access to quality food at supermarkets. If he needs something he didn't grow himself, Lawler said, he can jump in his truck and drive 12 minutes to the nearest grocery. But for someone who doesn't have reliable transportation, that 12-minute drive could be a two-hour hike, he said.

The same is true in urban areas, where the declining number of supermarkets in lower-income neighborhoods presents an obstacle to healthy eating. Dollar stores and fast-food restaurants sell plenty of food, but much of it is not nutritious.

"Obesity and hunger are close neighbors," Lawler said. "People with no access to good food may be overweight, but they are being starved in a way."

According to statistics provided by Gleaners Food Bank, 1 in 8 people in Central and southeastern Indiana struggles with hunger and food insecurity; that number grows to 1 in 6 in Marion County. Of the 170,820 people in Marion County who lack consistent access to enough food, 51,440 are children, according to Map the Meal Gap 2015, compiled by Feeding America.

Midwest Food Bank reports that Hancock County was among 14 counties in Indiana that ranked highest in total food insecurity (9 to 10 percent) in 2013.

Many of those who struggle to put food on the table don't qualify for the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program because of income guidelines. They rely on faith-based aid and food pantries to bridge the gap.

With these statistics in mind, Lawler thought about the impact he could make if his farm's production was directed at food banks and soup kitchens instead of retail and wholesale outlets.

When he mentioned his idea to a friend and fellow farmer, the friend said, "Brother, you will not only plow through the soil, but also the darkness."

So he took a leap of faith.

Lawler started Brandywine Creek under the umbrella of Project 23:22 as a way to encourage other landowners to participate in feeding the hungry.

Project 23:22 refers to a Bible verse from the Book of Leviticus: "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner residing among you."

John Whitaker, executive director of Midwest Food Bank, says Lawler's operation will be "a huge blessing."

"If everyone fed and helped their neighbors, most of the hunger problem would be solved," Whitaker said.

Midwest Food Bank expects to distribute close to 15 million pounds of food this year through a network of 320 faith-based and social service organizations in 58 counties. Whitaker, vice president of Indy Hunger Network, a coalition of representatives from leading anti-hunger organizations, said having access to more fresh fruits, vegetables and protein is crucial.

"We feed 70,000 to 80,000 individuals each month, and we want to feed them well," he said. "Highly nutritious foods are the hardest to get."

Lawler estimates it will take $100,000 to fund his first year in operation. Much of it he is investing himself in the form of land, equipment and labor. Small donors and other nonprofits are pitching in to help; as of midweek, he had raised approximately $7,000 and was working with a couple of businesses on sponsorships. His goal is to make the farm self-sustaining and increase the amount of food donated every year.

To help absorb operating costs, about 10 percent of the food produced will be sold, but the rest will be donated, with the food banks in Central Indiana providing the distribution manpower.

Lawler said he plans to implement a mobile farmers market to enter food deserts, those geographic areas where affordable and nutritious food is harder to obtain, particularly for those without cars.

The farm will grow tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, zucchini, green beans and sweet corn. In addition, Brandywine will raise hogs and cattle on a small scale. One hog can feed a family of four for two to three months, Lawler said.

Working the fields will be an army of volunteers, likely members of Park Chapel Christian Church in Greenfield and at-risk youth affiliated with The Landing, a recovery program for troubled teens.

"A constructive schedule of hands-on learning would be valuable to the youth," said Linda Ostewig, director of The Landing, which leads 70 to 80 teens in a recovery program for addiction and other mental health conditions. "Giving back builds character and self-esteem."

Lawler also has four intern positions open for military veterans interested in learning about specialty crop agriculture.

"The goal is to serve multiple needs with one operation," said Lawler, who is modeling his farm after Matthew 25 Farm in New York and another in Maryland called First Fruits. Ideally, he said, the vets also will serve as mentors for the young people.

Rick Rarick, farm manager at Matthew 25 Farm near Syracuse, N.Y., said his family started their farm under the umbrella of their church in 2009 but now operate as a separate 501c3 nonprofit. The 50-acre farm has a $90,000 annual budget, which includes one full-time and one part-time paid position. Volunteers do much of the work, while grants, fundraisers and individual donations pay the bills.

"I let other people worry about the money, and I worry about the plants," said Rarick, who added that, like the hungry people he serves, he understands hard times. "I once had to go to food pantries, too."

That's why educating volunteers about how to grow their own food is a thrill for him, he said. "The middle class is shrinking. They need all the help they can get. I don't know how to fix the economy, but I know how to grow stuff."

Lawler will be supplying his own labor force as well. He and his wife, Amanda, have three sons, ages 10, 13 and 15, who will be putting in plenty of hours on the farm this summer. Lawler expects to work up to 80 hours a week himself.

"Fresh-produce production is very labor-intensive," he said, so he welcomes any and all volunteers to spend an hour, a day or a week on the farm.

Whitaker said the food-insecure in Indiana need more people like Lawler.

"We'd all like to live in a world where feeding the needy is a thing of the past. But until that day comes, we'll stay in the fight."

Jonathan Lawler and sons Elijah, 13, and Daniel, 10, take a break in the barn.
Jonathan Lawler is gearing up for planting season at Brandywine Creek Farms, a nonprofit operation he founded to help feed the hungry in Central Indiana.