Hancock County farm seeks to feed those in need

To the unknowing eye, Jonathan Lawler's 30-acre property is indistinguishable from most of the rural land surrounding it.

Thousands of stubbled corn stalks, raked over by combines from the fall harvest, stand in neat rows around the property; pigs and chickens roam muddied pastures.

The footprint of Lawler's field is a fraction of the size of most farms in the area, but the grower's vision for what he hopes to achieve on this not-for-profit farm is sizable.

In coming weeks, Lawler and a force of volunteers will scatter seeds throughout the fields, planting tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, sweet corn and green beans, all of which will be donated to local soup kitchens and food pantries.

The effort to create a local farm to feed the hungry began last fall; by year's end, Lawler hopes to contribute more than 500,000 pounds of fresh produce, along with hundreds of pounds of locally raised chicken, pork and beef to feed area residents who struggle to put food on their tables.

In 2015, more than 200 Hancock County residents in need of food sought aid from Connect 2 Help 2-1-1, a not-for-profit agency supported by United Way of Central Indiana that connects residents seeking assistance to local resources, according to the organization's annual report.

The Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen in downtown Greenfield sees that local need on a daily basis, as dozens of residents file through the doors in search of warm, free meals. The kitchen serves between 110 and 120 residents daily and saw a 10 percent increase in need from 2014 to 2015.

Lawler's work on his land near county roads 400E and 600N, called Brandywine Creek Farms, is an effort to serve those who depend on others to feed their families.

Lawler first realized how high the need was when his son, a student at Eastern Hancock High School, told him about the school's makeshift food pantry, which serves an estimated 45 to 50 students each week.

Lawler said he couldn't comprehend how in Hancock County — an area characterized by its abundant agricultural land — hunger could be such a struggle.

It was then that Lawler, a former for-profit farmer, decided to shift his focus.

Over the past several months, Lawler has established connections with dozens of officials from central Indiana food pantries.

He plans on providing food to several Hancock County organizations, including Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen, the Hope House and several local food banks supported by Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana.

Though he gave growing a break during the 2015 season while he worked as an independent transportation consultant for trucking companies, Lawler remains passionate about farming and the road ahead. He's familiar with both organic and traditional farming principles and looks forward to utilizing his skills for the betterment of his community, he said.

Though yields vary by crop, Lawler said he hopes to average roughly 20,000 pounds of produce per acre.

His fields also will hold about 700 chickens and 40 pigs that will be free to roam around the pasture, he said.

Carl Denny, executive director of the Hope House, the county's only homeless shelter, said Lawler's donations of fresh produce will offer nutritious alternatives to the organization's supply of canned foods, which are often high in sodium and preservatives.

While establishing connections with local representatives, Lawler has gained a lot of partners who hope their helping hands will make for lighter work.

Jill Ebbert, executive director of the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen, said she plans to connect Lawler with several locals willing to volunteer on the property.

He's also reached out to several veterans support groups to recruit additional help on the farm, which could present a therapeutic environment for those recovering from combat, he said.

Jim Nolte, Vernon Township trustee, who also helps coordinate a mobile food bank, said he plans to corral as much support for Lawler as possible.

After this year, Lawler hopes to find farmers who are willing to donate a small portion of their land to the project. He's already found someone in Indianapolis willing to give seven acres to the cause in 2017, he said, and Nolte said he's trying to find others willing to contribute unused land.

"We have to make a connection between those that are hungry and those that have the spare land," Nolte said.

Though Lawler has pieced together donations from several businesses and organizations, including discounted seeds and fertilizer, he's footing many expenses for the operation on his own.

After this year, he hopes to gain enough support from local organizations to sustain the operation and hopefully expand it, he said.

Within the next five years, he hopes to increase the farm's reach to benefit the hungry throughout central Indiana.

And there's certainly the appetite for it, he said.

"There's a lot of demand, but let's see what kind of dent we can make in this fight," Lawler said.

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