Urban farming key to this ‘Taste of Indiana’

The inaugural “Dig In: A Taste of Indiana” set for Sunday afternoon at White River State Park in downtown Indianapolis will be unlike most events carrying similar names.

Only dishes made from locally produced meats and vegetables will be available, in an effort to highlight what’s known as the “slow food movement.” The growing trend that dates to the late 1980s promotes local farming of plants, seeds and livestock.

Though the event might seem more fringe than mainstream, it’s backed by the Indiana Department of Agriculture. In fact, Annie Schmelzer, the department’s program manager for entrepreneurship and diversified agriculture, is organizing the festivities.

One of the aims, she said, is “to help people realize there is much more than corn grown in Indiana.”

White River State Park has hosted a more traditional Taste of Indiana in the past. But the location serves the latest incarnation particularly well. That’s because it will be held near a 6,000-square-foot garden operated by Growing Places Indy, a not-for-profit founded in December to encourage urban farming.

Growing Places Indy partnered with the Indianapolis chapter of Slow Food USA to obtain a $30,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to start the garden. It features about 60 different crops and varieties of crops that local restaurants purchase weekly.

Chefs from 17 restaurants in Indiana will be at the event on Sunday showcasing their dishes made with local ingredients. Participating restaurants in Indianapolis include R Bistro, Goose the Market, Meridian and Recess.

“It’s just like we cultivate an arts culture or business culture in the city,” said Laura Henderson, a co-founder of Growing Places Indy. “We’re cultivating a food culture.”

Henderson and her husband Tyler are co-owners, with Matthew Jose, of Big City Farms LLC. They have accumulated 10 vacant lots totaling about one acre, all within a few blocks of one another in the Cottage Home and Holy Cross neighborhoods just east of downtown. Landowners have allowed them to use their properties for free because they like their land ethic and a clean lot.

Proponents of community-supported agriculture point to its lower distribution costs and carbon footprint, and contend the quality of food is better and safer. They also like feeling the connection with the farmer and knowing how the food is raised.

Recent data seems to prove the point. It shows that the number of farms in Indiana actually has increased 1 percent, reversing a 10-year trend of declines, Schmelzer at the state Department of Agriculture said.

“And it’s all farms that are under 10 acres,” she said. “You’re not growing a lot of corn or producing a lot of livestock on a farm under 10 acres.”

Schmelzer is hoping between 3,000 and 4,000 people attend Sunday’s “Taste of Indiana.” Hours are noon to 6 p.m., and tickets are $15 for adults and $7 for children over 3 years old.

It also will feature wine tastings, beer and food-pairing classes, Q&A sessions with local chefs, urban gardening exhibits and cooking demonstrations.

Schmelzer said she is confident the event can become an annual tradition.

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