Reconnecting to rural roots: Uncertain times inspire more gardening and homesteading in Fort Wayne

Only a few generations ago, it wasn’t uncommon for Indiana families to grow a large percentage of their produce at home. Fast forward several decades, and agriculture practices on top of the convenience of modern life have made this practice nearly obsolete, especially for those living in the city with little or no backyard space. 

The pandemic, however, is challenging several norms of modern American life. In the face of mass shortages of food and other supplies, a record number of people have taken to skills like gardening and homesteading, or living simpler, more self-sufficient lifestyles.
The garden at Fox and Fodder.
A July 2021 article on Vincennes University’s website outlines the scope and scale of this trend.  It cites a national survey by Bonnie Plants, the largest national supplier and producer of vegetable and herb plants in the U.S. The company shares that younger generations are taking up gardening, with nearly two-in-five Americans under age 35 growing food.
 
Ashley Sharp Bradtmueller, 34, of Fort Wayne is among them. She and her family live on an 80-acre property in Fort Wayne’s rural outskirts near New Haven. They currently use the land to feed their family of four and rely on it as a source of income.

Bradtmueller is the owner of Fox and Fodder, which sells vegetables, fruit, herbal skincare products, pastured eggs, raw honey, crafts, and more—all without the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides. You can find her at the YLNI Farmers Market.
Fox and Fodder's booth at the YLNI Farmer's Market.
But before she was a farmer and an entrepreneur, she was a concerned citizen.
 
“(Several years) ago, my husband Garrett and I watched a few documentaries about the food system,” Bradtmueller says.  “I had been wanting to do stuff like this for a very long time, but I hadn't said anything to him about it. We were living in the city at the time—there was just no hope in my mind of ever moving to a farm.”
 
Fast forward a few years, and in 2018, the opportunity presented itself for the family to leave their home in the 46807 neighborhood and move to the country. Bradtmueller felt right at home in their new community, as she grew up in a rural area. Her family raised rabbits and grew vegetables. Today, she gets the chance to introduce this “simpler” lifestyle to her two sons. Plus, she notes, growing organic produce is better for the planet.
One of Sharp Bradtmueller's sons helping with the garden.
There’s also the economics of it.
 
“Initially, our plan with the farm was just going to be subsistence food for us,” Bradtmueller says. “But then, being a single-income family, I didn't have a lot of my own money to buy seeds and the equipment I needed. So I started doing the farmers market. Most of the produce ends up at the market, and what doesn’t sell, I try to can, freeze, or cook—or feed to the chickens.”
 
Speaking of the farmers market, Bradtmueller says she noticed an uptick in interest when the pandemic hit.
 
“It was crazy how much our profits increased since our first year in 2019,” she says. “2020 was our second year; we doubled profits that year. I had people messaging me in February, asking for produce. I also had people asking if they could come pick stuff up from the farm because they were too scared to go to the farmers market.”
Fresh produce and other goods from the garden at Fox and Fodder.
Bradtmueller herself felt similar anxieties because of the virus and the stressors associated with it. She says it was a bleak time, but the farm provided a welcome (and spacious) distraction. At the same time, it became abundantly clear how fragile our food system really is.
 
“Having that garden and chickens is kind of like a security blanket—knowing that if I need to, I can grow a lot of food for us,” she says.
 
Terri Theisen has heard this sentiment before. In addition to being a former hobby farmer herself, she works as an Allen County - Purdue Extension educator with a focus on horticulture and urban agriculture. She says since the pandemic, she’s heard from established gardeners and newbies alike looking to do more in the way of homesteading. The Master Gardener program, in particular, has been in demand.
 
“Even during COVID, we've had lots of people taking the classes to learn how to grow and help their community grow,” she says. “That's the one educational piece that we've seen continuously increase through COVID.”
 Terri Theisen, an educator at the Allen County - Purdue Extension office, examines a plant.
You might say people are hungry for information, and the Extension Office is one means to that end. Theisen says her team has documented an increase in calls to the Master Gardeners hotline. This is a service to the community, in which Master Gardeners can offer advice to callers on gardening-related matters.
 
Another metric that frames the story, Theisen says, is the increase in green industry products.
 
“The green industry encompasses things like landscaping supplies,” she says. “We've seen a steady about 8 percent increase since the start of COVID, which doesn't seem like a lot. But that's a huge amount. It's a multi-billion-dollar industry. So, an 8 percent increase is a pretty big jump.”
 
There’s also the fact that seed companies had a hard time keeping up with demand.
 
“As a gardener or farmer, it's been hard to get the seeds that we need because there are so many more people buying them,” she says.
 Onion seeds ready to be planted at Fox and Fodder.
So as the world emerges from the pandemic, will this trend toward gardening and homesteading continue to gain popularity, or will it lose traction? If you ask Theisen we’re in a “phase of great growth.” She likens it to the victory garden movement during World War II. As part of the war effort, the government rationed certain supplies. Labor and transportation shortages made it hard to harvest and move fruits and vegetables to market. So the government encouraged Americans to plant "victory gardens” to encourage self-sufficiency. Nearly 20 million Americans answered the call. They planted gardens in backyards and empty lots, or even on city rooftops.
 
Unlike that time, modern growers now have social media, which provides an outlet to share the fruits of their labor. Theisen says this can be both a blessing and a curse, as people are reluctant to share their failures and might underestimate the challenge of gardening. In working with the community, she gets a behind-the-scenes look at people’s attempts, however.
 
“I get to see some of those failures and help spread the word about how to mitigate some of those,” she says.
 
Amanda Langan, a Fort Wayne resident who works as a dietician with Parkview Health, is among those who are experiencing trial and error with homesteading. She started a home garden about seven years ago in a small, four-by-four-foot plot and a pack of generic seeds from Costco.

“That did really well,” says Langan. “Every year, we kept doing it and adding new things and eventually ended up with two larger raised beds.”
 Amanda Langan helped friends with their garden.
Word got out about her success, and she was approached by a friend to assist with a larger in-ground garden bed at their property. In her words, it was a “flop,” likely because they didn’t do a soil test before.
 
“It's very different from doing raised beds where you have complete control over the soil and the nutrition and all of that,” she says. “When you're going straight into the ground with a homestead garden, you're at the mercy of what that soil looks like when you get there.”
 
Langan says the garden didn’t have a lot of yield, which prompted her to reach out to Theisen at the Extension Office to address the soil quality. This experience also piqued her interest in the Master Gardener program. Upon completion, she’d like to marry her career as a dietitian with her growing hobby.
 
“I feel like it would be great for more people to do home gardens, even if they're small, to help with their carbon footprint and eating healthier,” she says.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.