I wouldn’t call myself a firebug. I rarely approach flames unless I’m lighting the barbecue.
But I understood the fascination when Larry Yoder placed a lit torch in my hands.
The flames brought excitement to a mundane task – weeding. The weeds crowding the Yoder family’s northern Allen County asparagus beds wilted under the propane torch’s heat.
But the long metal wand, placed in my unsteady hands, kept setting patches of grass alight. It was hard to maneuver, considering it was attached to a heavy propane tank you’d hook up to a gas grill. I couldn’t seem to aim the torch or keep it the correct distance from the plants. At least I avoided setting the season’s first asparagus shoots on fire.
Yoder prefers to use this weeding method to avoid damaging the asparagus. Spraying the wrong weed killer could easily damage the asparagus plants, and it would take his family years to re-establish the crop. Pulling weeds by hand would be time-consuming.
Although Yoder Farm is not certified organic, the family uses some organic practices such as flame weeding. Yoder’s prime concern is that the vegetables are safe for his 4-year-old grandson Henry Meyer to pluck and eat in the field.
I say this is grandchild-certified produce, he said.
I wasn’t sure it was so safe to let me man the torch while Henry was in the field. Visions of a grass fire sweeping through the fields and setting nearby Huntertown ablaze kept flickering through my mind. I gladly handed the torch – and the hefty accompanying responsibility – back to Yoder.
The extended Yoder clan is used to shouldering responsibility. The family wants to protect this 200-acre farm near the Cedar Creek and maintain it for future generations. The farm has shifted from a dairy operation to producing high-value crops for nearby city dwellers, Yoder said. He and his sister who manage the farm selected the product mix – which includes maple syrup and grass hay – with an eye toward environmental and economic sustainability. The Yoders try to think and act like nature, he said.
We’re interacting with the resource in a way that doesn’t use it up, Yoder said.
Yoder Farm reuses everything possible, Yoder said. Even ashes saved from the maple sugaring process serve a purpose. When scattered across the farm’s two acres of asparagus fields, the ashes keep the soil’s pH level, which determines whether the soil is acidic or basic, high. That helps the asparagus grow.
The Yoder family harvests up to 25 pounds of asparagus on the season’s busiest days between late April and early June. The farm raises about 300 pounds a year. Family members snap off each stalk by hand and trim off the lower part, which can be too tough to eat. Yoder prefers this to commercially grown asparagus, which has been cut in the field and still needs to be trimmed. Customers end up paying for the waste, he said.
Trimming the asparagus and other personal touches helped Yoder Farm build a reputation for quality, Yoder said. The farm has built a local client base that consumes the crop.
You have a relationship with our family as your food providers much the same way you have a relationship with your stockbroker, he said.
Yoder Farm contacts customers when the crop is ready, and consumers pick up orders at the farm. Most are eager to pick it up that day, said Shirley Meighen, Yoder’s sister. Consumers can sign up to join that list at www.yoderfarm.com. Yoder Farm charges $3.50 a pound for its asparagus. Scott’s Food & Pharmacy was charging $3.99 a pound for asparagus at its Georgetown Square store last week.
That allows the farm to turn a small profit, which is reinvested in the operation, Yoder said. The relatives who operate the farm earn a living from their day jobs.
Several family members are educators and eager to share farm experiences with students. Fort Wayne Community Schools sends classes to tour the farm’s maple syrup operation each year. The farm partners with Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center to offer educational programs. Yoder is an associate professor emeritus of biology there.
As Fort Wayne expanded north, Yoder said that created opportunities to supply produce directly to residents. Yoder Farm is a nearly 13-mile drive from Glenbrook Square. Many residents are willing to pay a premium for locally grown produce raised by a farm family they know and trust, he said.
Yoder Farm plans to continue supplying produce for many years, Yoder said. His children, grandchildren, nieces and nephew help run the farm. It’s the extended family’s responsibility to care for the ground they’ve inherited, he said.
It’s a way of life, Yoder said, a worldview.