Sustainable agriculture grows opportunities in Northeast Indiana

What happens when sustainability, education, and agriculture intersect? Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College is a leading example.

Michael Galbraith, director of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s Road to One Million calls the center a “hidden gem.”

Merry Lea is a natural sanctuary near Wolf Lake, Indiana, rooted in caring for plants and nature.

Wetlands, mudstone, and glacial gravel formations are among the center’s natural features. The campus also provides practical applications of wetland, prairie, and savanna restorations, as well as sustainable agriculture. This involves determining which plants are best suited for soil types, the regional climate, and food preferences.  

Merry Lea mostly grows heirloom crop varieties and raises crops with organic practices to protect soil ecosystems, encourage beneficial insects, grow healthy food, and live in harmony with its surroundings.

In a business dominated by big agriculture, which can harm the environment, Galbraith says Merry Lea is an example of a local center growing the right way.

“It’s the idea that, as a society, we want to do the right thing,” Galbraith says. “(Merry Lea) gets those concepts out to the public.”

Environmental Educator Carol Good Elliott works with children during an Autumn Adventures program.

In addition to practicing sustainable agriculture, Merry Lea engages the community in its work, offering tours and preK-12 educational programs. Each year more than 5,000 students participate in its environmental education programs designed to fit school curricula, as well as state science standards.

“To be able to have students hone in on (environmental) knowledge is a great thing for us,” Galbraith says, in terms of bettering the region and its educational attainment.

The jobs of the future will present new and different demands. Galbraith says green jobs will be a necessary reality, and the Hoosier state is already seeing growth in industries like construction and food production.

“All of these areas are seeing an emphasis on sustainability,” he says. “We need to do a better job of taking care of the resources we’ve got.”

Another reason Galbraith and other regional leaders are pushing sustainable agriculture to play a larger role in the state’s future is its return on investment.

“It’s really important to us as a region to know we’re leading in an area and pushing boundaries in different ways,” he says.

According to a report from the Indiana State Department of Agriculture (ISDA), agriculture, food, and life sciences have seen more than 6,500 new jobs and more than $5 billion of investment since 2005.

“You want to continue to invest in things that are economic drivers,” Galbraith says. “It starts with programs like (Merry Lea) in terms of making agriculture sustainable.”

Assistant Farm Manager Ellie Schertz and Morgan Short, a summer intern, prepare basil and tomatoes for CSA shares at the Merry Lea Sustainable Farm.

Merry Lea is just one part of Indiana’s growing emphasis on sustainable agriculture.

In recent years, the state has been home to many new ventures, and many are getting noticed. The North Central Region SARE (NCR-SARE) is one of four regional offices that runs a nationwide grants and education program to advance sustainable innovation to American agriculture, known as the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.

According to SARE, Indiana has been awarded $2,574,209 to support 99 projects, including but not limited to, 16 research and education projects, five professional development projects, and 52 producer-led projects. Indiana has also received additional SARE support through multi­state projects.

“Not only do we have traditional agriculture, we are also starting to see farm-to-fork initiatives happening,” Galbraith says.

He cites Maple Leaf Farms’ success alongside booming farm stands as two varied examples of the Indiana’s growing agricultural footprint.

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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.