Amid challenges, area farmers staying connected with their communities

·4 min read

Sep. 23—ANDERSON — The evidence isn't far from the house belonging to Brett Bays' parents.

A 40-acre plot of land carved into the vast cornfields along Park Road south of Anderson houses nearly 20,000 solar panels that collect and funnel energy into the power grid used by Anderson Municipal Light & Power to provide electricity to the city.

To proponents of renewable energy, the solar park represents a vital investment in green technology that provides electricity to more than 500 homes. To Bays, however, it means the loss of valuable farmland.

"We all love renewable energy, and there's a common sense to it," Bays said. "But that's 40 acres of farm ground that probably won't ever go into production — or at least it will be out of production for the next 30 years."

Coexisting with such projects, as well as advancing residential development — especially to the south, where new neighborhoods near the Interstate 69 corridor continue to sprout — are among the challenges Bays and other local family farming operations face as another harvest season approaches.

Noting that the ongoing war in Ukraine, a jittery economy at home and lingering supply chain issues have increased volatility in commodity markets, Bays expressed cautious optimism for a good crop yield this fall.

He and his brother Seth, his father, Alan, and uncle Brian believe their operation — and others like it — occupy an important place in the community. Brett is serving as vice president of the Madison County Farm Bureau this year, while Brian sits on the county's drainage board.

"I think it's important for us to stay interconnected with our communities just so we have an idea of what's going on," Brett Bays said.

The Bays and other families involved in farming are also facing demographic challenges. According to data from the 2020 census, 52% of Indiana's counties — including Madison — lost population in the previous 10 years. That represents the largest number of counties to lose residents between censuses since the 1980s.

As more people migrate to urban and suburban areas, demographers note that they often take with them resources that make small communities vibrant for farmers and others.

"We're trying to make sure that the resources and businesses located in those rural areas don't suffer because of loss of population," said Andy Tauer, executive director of public policy at the Indiana Farm Bureau.

In December 2021, the INFB hired Colette Childress, a former community liaison for the state's Office of Community and Rural Affairs, to be a local government policy advisor. In that role, she's charged with helping farmers become more connected with their communities and work with local government officials on quality-of-life issues.

Farmers, she said, are "more than just people on tractors. They're leaders in their communities. It's about setting the groundwork and foundation to really make a difference."

In Madison County, there's no shortage of farmers who are willing to step into roles in education, leadership and advocacy, according to Beth Vansickle, an ag and natural resource extension educator with Purdue Extension Madison County.

"I see a lot of our farmers stepping up — whether it's running for an office or sitting on boards," Vansickle said. "They're discussing those hot topics every month. We're seeing more conversations about being involved, and also trying to educate that younger generation. If they want to farm and they have things they want to achieve in their life, what can we do to help them see what they can do in our rural community?"

Brett Bays said that the ability of his family's operation and others to effectively market their products and services will in many ways dictate how long multigenerational farms remain viable.

"Farmers have not done a really good job — or we haven't moved fast enough, I guess — to educate the public on what we do," he said. "Especially for families who are on government (aid) programs, they have to be able to get food as cheap as they can, is what it boils down to. We need to be able to maximize our resources to be able to continue to do that."

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