HILLSBORO, Ind.—When Danville native Kim Crane, 35, and her partner Nick Johnson, 34, started an organic farm near Hillsboro, Ind., last year, things didn’t exactly go according to plan. The planting was late, rains flooded the crops, and they were still learning how to work their antiquated equipment. But despite their initial woes, the couple never regretted their decision to trade white-collar jobs and a life in congested Claremont, Calif., for the dream of living off the land in rural Indiana.
“It was kind of a spontaneous decision,” said Johnson, who grew up in the suburban sprawl of Highland, Calif., about an hour east of Los Angeles. “In February last year, Kim just said ‘Let’s go home and start a farm’. We had two months to plan. We got here in April and had about enough time to put our stuff down and start planting.”
With no previous experience in agriculture, they learned a lot through trial and error, and this year Craneberry Farm, as they chose to name their operation, is gaining momentum. Crane and Johnson are regulars at the Danville Farmers Market, where they sell turnips, radishes, lettuce, mushrooms, berries and a wide variety of other seasonal produce every Wednesday and Saturday. They also have a roadside stand outside the farm, run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, do a pumpkin patch and hayrides in the fall, and run a Christmas tree farm in the winter. And customers are starting to take note. “A ton of people are excited about it,” said Johnson. “Danville is definitely our base; that’s where most of our customers are. We know a lot of people there because that’s where Kim grew up.”
The farm, located just out of sight off of State Road 341 about a mile south of Hillsboro, has been in Crane’s family since at least 1836 and sports 250 acres of woods, pasture and tillable land, as well as a rustic homestead. Crane, a 1993 Schlarman High School graduate, grew up in Danville, but spent her summers at the quaint country hideaway with her five siblings and their parents, Dan and Judy Crane, of Danville. Though she had fond memories of the place, it wasn’t until Crane left the Midwest to go work as a teacher out West that she really started to appreciate her Hillsboro haven. The silence. The flocks of wild turkey. The enormous herds of deer that would run across the pastures every night. “In California we’d drive two hours in traffic just to get to a place where you can be outdoors, and then when you get there, it’s packed,” Crane said. “Out West, this is what everybody wants and I didn’t pay attention to any of it until I went away.”
Two years ago, Crane started contemplating a career change and going back to school for a masters degree in environmental engineering. But with the economy heading south and few job prospects in that field, the plan changed. “This property was just sitting here. My siblings are all over the place,” Crane said. So instead of going to grad school or spending a small fortune to buy something in California or Oregon, the idea of starting an organic farm back in Indiana began to take root. Johnson, whom she’d met when they were both subbing at the same school, was on board. A marketing and computer professional who had lived in the city his whole life, Johnson liked what he’d seen of rural Indiana and Illinois so far.
“I thought it was all beautiful. The cornfields, the puppy clouds, the fireflies. I’d probably been back here six or seven times before to see Kim’s family, so I knew what I was getting myself into,” he said. “I do like the fact that there’s room here, the cost of living is lower and there’s no traffic. And it was time for a change.”
Before leaving California last April the couple prepared as well as they could by reading up on organic growing methods, but they knew they would have to learn the rest in the field. It was a steep learning curve for both. “In California, if you need your car or mower worked on, you call somebody. Everybody’s got a gardener and a mechanic,” Johnson said. “I didn’t even know how to run a chainsaw, so I had to learn all the basics, like where the oil goes in the chainsaw.”
Craneberry Farm currently has three acres in vegetable production and countless acres of wild berries and morel mushrooms. The farm is not certified organic, but the couple has sworn off pesticides and herbicides, and they only use all-natural fertilizers. “For us the goal is to be more regenerative. Everything we use on the farm we recycle,” said Crane. “We don’t want to produce any waste; we want to make sure that we’re doing our part.”
Though Johnson still works from home with search engine optimization for an Indianapolis company, the longtime goal is for the farm to support both of them. In order for that dream to come true, the couple vows to keep working to make their farm a destination, for locals and tourists alike. “The sky is the limit. But we don’t want to spread ourselves too thin, so we won’t expand until what we already have is running 100 percent. Right now we’re just trying to get up and going,” Crane said.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY LINDA McGURK
(Danville Commercial-News, June 2011)