by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Midwest
Austin and Kristen Witt have been growing blackberries on their District 6 Farm in Jasonville, Indiana, since 2015. It isn’t easy to grow blackberries in the state, but for the Witts, it was a lot easier than selling them.
“This is all new to us,” said Austin Witt. “I didn’t even know until last year that there was a difference between grocery store and foodservice fruit.”
The Witts have done a lot of learning in the past year. They heard about a new program called Indiana Grown, but it wasn’t until they joined that they realized how much they didn’t know.
The three-year-old program is operated under the umbrella of the state department of agriculture. It encourages residents to buy, sell and share food and products made in Indiana. The Witts would occasionally receive a newsletter from Indiana Grown, and one caught Austin’s eye. It included information about an event called Monumental Marketplace to be held in July 2017 in Monument Circle, a landmark in the heart of Indianapolis. Members could tout their wares in half of the circle in a farmers’ market-style venue. There was no charge for Indiana Grown members to take part.
Austin suggested that Kristen go and take some coolers of blackberry “seconds” and try to sell them.
“Those are perfect berries for cobblers, wine, yogurt, whatever,” Austin said. “But more importantly, I said, ‘go try to meet people.’ That’s what my wife is really good at. She’s good at a lot of things, but she’s really good at socializing and that’s not my forte.”
Kristen and her father set up at Monumental Marketplace. Before long, a man came by—maybe he was wearing a polo shirt, but it had no logo on it—and tried one of District 6 Farms’ blackberries.
First marketplace is monumental
Heather Tallman, Indiana Grown membership development program manager, had only been with the program since January 2017. She had the idea to have the farmers’ market-type venue on Monument Circle that July.
“One of the staff members here said, ‘you ought to name it Monumental Marketplace,’” Tallman said. “So, we did it on half the circle last year, and we had an amazing turnout.”
The man who had tried the blackberries turned out to be Marcus Agresta, VP of business development with Indianapolis-based Piazza Produce & Specialty Foods. Agresta told Tallman that the Witts’ blackberries were the best he had ever eaten and said he had to have them.
“Heather went up to Kristen after the event and she said, ‘You’ll never guess what Marcus told me,” Austin said. “And Kristen was like, ‘Who’s Marcus?’”
Heather explained that he wanted to buy all of their fruit. The Witts were ready to deal.
“We had been selling to distributors that sell to grocery stores, these huge companies that are selling the fruit all over the country, and they’re paying for all this trucking and charging an outrageous commission. They don’t give you a very good price, which is up and down like a barrel of oil—and usually down,” Austin said. “They didn’t take ownership of a problem in Chicago, and you lose several thousand dollars.”
The way Piazza Produce & Specialty Foods does business won over the Witts.
“It’s night and day, totally different. Now we’re working with a company out of Indianapolis. I have their phone numbers. I know where their office is,” Austin said. “Heather can help us solve any problems. If we’re having communications problems or whatever, Indiana Grown is there to help.”
Tallman accompanied the Witts when they went to Piazza’s headquarters to consummate the deal.
“Heather is awesome. She was really just there to listen and she helped organize everything so…we met with the fruit buyer as well as Marcus,” Austin said. “Overnight, almost, it completely changed everything—who we’re selling to, how we’re selling it, how often the fruit is getting picked up. Yes, it has completely changed our business. Completely.”
You could say the rest is history, except that the story doesn’t end there.
A huge problem solved
Because Indiana Grown’s Tallman just so happened to place District 6 Farms next to Owen Valley Winery for the Monumental Marketplace in 2017, a relationship that began there yielded even more good news for the Witts. The winery just so happened to be looking to buy blackberries to make wine. Tallman said it was just meant to be because she had no idea the winery was looking for blackberries.
“Now we are the only blackberry supplier to this winery, and they’ve alleviated a huge problem that we had, which was selling our seconds,” Austin said. “We have an excellent relationship with the owners of this winery now. Their blackberry wine has gone from being their No. 5 seller to their No. 2 seller in one year.”
Not only are the blackberries they grow delicious, but the story of the Witts’ District 6 Farms is compelling.
“When people walk into the winery and they see the picture of me and the wife and our kid out in the berry field, and they hear that it’s just down the road and this blackberry wine was made with fruit from this farm and they see our faces, they just eat it up,” Austin said.
In short, Indiana Grown helped to make the family’s farm a much more successful and sustainable business.
Indiana Grown cultivates members
Tallman said the first 50 to 100 Indiana Grown members were not that hard to get. They were people who wanted to be involved. When she joined the program in January 2017, there were about 500 members.
“We really focused in 2017 on finding the people that we thought we could help, trying to share our story, trying to help people understand what the brand was,” Tallman said.
Over the course of 2017, the program brought on more staff. Today, Indiana Grown boasts more than 1,100 members. Some days, two or three companies will sign up. Tallman hopes Indiana Grown will have 2,000 members by the end of this year.
That is one goal. The other has to do with the leverage that having so many members affords the program.
Indiana Grown signs went up in stores everywhere last year, but Tallman said some larger retailers did not quite meet the requirement of the program.
“We want these signs in these stores so people can be able to find the local food—but we want everything in front of those signs to be from Indiana,” Tallman said. “Local to us is the confines of the state of Indiana. So, now we have a little bit of leverage because we have depth. We want people to find more products and still retain the fact that we are an economic development program for the state of Indiana. So, we have to keep that in mind.”
Tallman also wants buyers for independent grocers to be empowered to look beyond what their distributors tell them. There are producers they may not know about.
Ted McKinney, formerly director of the Indiana State Department from 2014-17 and current USDA Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, had just one problem with the 2017 Monumental Marketplace: they only used half the circle. This year, they will use the whole circle. Tallman said there will be between 180 and 210 member booths at the second annual Indiana Grown Monumental Marketplace on June 15.