by Sally Colby
Matt Chandler has made some major decisions over the past year, including a plan to return full-time to his family’s farm in Fillmore, IN.
Although Matt was raised on the farm, worked there as he grew up and continued to work on the farm part-time, he hadn’t made a full commitment to operate the farm on his own. This spring, Matt will take over as the fourth generation to operate the 52-acre family farm, along with 10 acres he owns.
Strawberries were one of the original crops on the farm. “They had 20 acres of strawberries, and U-pick was really popular,” said Matt. “There were people lined up on the gravel road waiting to get in at 6:30 in the morning for opening time at 7. That was when many people still canned and preserved fruits and vegetables.”
When interest in U-pick strawberries declined in the early 2000s, the family stopped growing strawberries. “Then we were hounded by people who wanted strawberries, so four years ago I put strawberries back on the farm,” said Matt. “We put in about an acre and a half.” Dry conditions in 2017 resulted in crop failure, but this past spring, the Chandlers planted two acres of strawberries under plastic.
Five strawberry varieties, from early to late, are planted in plastic mulch. “They’re ready 30 days after bloom, which is typically Memorial Day for us,” said Matt. “The season lasts two to three weeks.”
The farm’s 17-acre apple orchard was established in 1975, and the last apple trees in the old system were planted in 1984. At one time, there were 275 apple varieties on the farm, some represented by just a few trees. Matt said with each variety’s unique needs, it was difficult to manage the orchard as a group. “From 1984 to 2009, we didn’t plant any new apple trees,” he said, adding that his father still worked off the farm at that point. “Once he retired, he wanted to restart the business.”
Today, the family is in the process of transitioning from the old, original trees to newer varieties. “We’re trying to maintain some of our heritage with the heirloom varieties, but we’re also updating the orchard and growing practices,” said Matt. “We’ve gone from about 300 bushels an acre from some of the older trees to the newer dwarfing rootstock. We planted our first tall spindle orchard this year, and the trees are four feet apart on dwarfing rootstock.” He said the long-term yield goal is 1,000 bushels/acre.
Rootstock includes Bud 9, G.935 and Nic 29. “Honeycrisp are difficult to raise on Bud 9,” said Matt. “I’ve heard some growers have had better luck with other G and Nic series for Honeycrisp.” Now, the orchard includes 300 Honeycrisp trees, but the next planting will be on different rootstock. Matt has found managing Honeycrisp carefully, including thinning, helps prevent alternate year bearing.
Some of the popular apple varieties include Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Honey Crisp, Priscilla, Brown Russet, Blue Pearmain, Strawberry Pippin, Macoun and Hudson’s Golden Gem. “Lady apples, which are barely the size of a quarter, are popular,” said Matt. “King David is another great variety. It’s super tart, and believed to be a descendent of Jonathan. We have folks who come from far away to get them. People also like Grimes Golden. We have some Red Delicious, but we don’t sell that many and I’m always eager to point out something people might like better.”
A high tunnel on Matt’s farm and another on the main farm were erected through NRCS’s original high tunnel program. Matt grew red raspberries in the original high tunnel, but still battled spotted wing drosophila (SWD). “Red raspberries in the high tunnel are amazing if you can manage that SWD,” said Matt. “We stopped growing raspberries and switched to tomatoes, and have had good luck with those. I wasn’t using the whole tunnel for tomato production because the market wasn’t big enough, but I think that’s changing. We’re trying to stagger the tomato season, and growing lettuce and green mixes with success. I think adding a different crop with different needs also helps improve the soil.”
Greens mixes thrive in the high tunnels and are popular at local farmers markets. In 2019, Matt will stagger lettuce plantings and use transplants instead of direct seeding. “I want to transplant into the tunnel because I can get them started and in the tunnel earlier,” he said, adding he starts lettuce in March. “Row covers in the tunnel help buffer the cooler nights.”
Matt said some crops can be grown with minimal inputs, but there are limitations and a balance between input and yield. He has successfully grown no-till pumpkins into cover crop stubble and plans to continue that practice. “We cash rent some ground and it all goes into corn,” said Matt. “One of the fields becomes the corn maze. We rotate that to different areas of the farm.”
Farmers markets have always been part of family’s marketing plan. “Having one location and also being able to sell at two or three more locations can help expand the customer base,” said Matt. “If customers are used to coming to the farmers market, they might come to the farm, which is where we want them. It increases the connection they have with us and helps them understand more about what we do. It’s all about building and connecting.”
As Matt returns to the farm full-time and moves the operation to the point of supporting his family, he has some changes in mind. “I’m trying to bring my business degree into this and aiming higher than break even,” he said, adding his dad is open to changes. “We have some more solid plans for the agritourism aspect and some changes in how we did things in the past.” The family has always hosted school tours and hay rides, and now that those activities are categorized as agritourism, Matt will continue to make appropriate changes.
“We don’t want to feel like we’re taking advantage of people, but at the same time, people have to realize how much time and effort goes into planting and maintaining a corn maze,” said Matt. “We grew sunflowers last year, and we’re going to do that again this year.” Matt hoped the eye-catching flowers would draw customers in August, just prior to apple season. Although the sunflowers drew attention, they didn’t sell well.
“Signage is important,” said Matt. “Saying you have something available doesn’t mean people are going to come. People need to know exactly what you offer. Things might go well one year, but you may not get the same results the next year.”
The family is currently working on succession planning, and Matt said attending training for the process has helped them work through some of the challenges. While the prospect of his first year on the farm full-time is a little scary, Matt knows his dad will be there to guide him. “I’m a little ahead of him with the high tunnel program,” said Matt, “but he has me beat with apples, strawberries and pumpkins.”
Visit Chandler’s Farm and Country Market online at www.chandlersfarmmarket.com.