The Jeff Hawkins family was named one of two Farm Families of the Year by the Wabash County Chamber of Commerce. The Hawkins family will be honored with the Nathan Fingerle family at the seventh annual Salute to Agriculture on Tuesday, March 21. Members of the Hawkins family are (from left) David Moan, Sarah Hawkins Moan, Zach Hawkins, Nila Hawkins, Kira Lace Hawkins, Kathy and Jeff Hawkins. Photo provided
By Joseph Slacian
NORTH MANCHESTER – The name Hawkins Family Farm is somewhat appropriate to the farming operation here at 10373 N 300 E. That’s because everyone, from employees to customers, feel they are treated like family.
The Hawkins Family Farm will be one of two Wabash County farming operations to be named the 2016 Farm Family of the Year by the Wabash County Chamber of Commerce. The Hawkins operation, along with the Nathan Fingerle Farm, will be honored at the Chamber’s Salute to Agriculture on Tuesday, March 21, at the Heartland REMC Community Room.
The 99-acre farm has been in the Hawkins family for 60 years.
“One of the values and commitments that we have involves that whole sense of familyness and neighborhood neighborliness,” Jeff Hawkins said, sitting around the kitchen table with his wife, Kathy; son, Zach; daughter-in-law, Kira; and granddaughter, Nila. “It seems like that sense of neighborliness and familyness, I don’t know that we think about it a lot. We don’t try to engineer it.
“But it seems to be part of our being. I think that’s one reason we favor the local. I like to talk about face-to-face relationships. We know all of our customers. We can talk about things face-to-face. When people come to this farm, even as our customers … it makes it feel like their farm, too.”
Jeff Hawkins’ grandparents, John and Velma Hawkins, purchased the 99-acre farm in 1957. Jeff is the third generation to work the farm, and Zach is the fourth.
“We currently farm the whole farm,” Jeff said. “There’s about five acres that are in a sort of woods. Most of the farm is in grass and pasture. We’re working toward an old-fashioned grandpa’s rotation, where we raise about ten acres of corn for feed for our animals, a number of acres of small grains as a nurse crop for pasture, and then that goes back to pasture because most of our farming is pasture-based. All of our livestock is pasture based.”
The amount of acres dedicated toward gardens varies during the course of the season, Zach noted, adding that the farm grows about 50 different garden vegetables and herbs.
“It’s in the neighborhood of three acres in vegetable gardening and herbs,” he said. “We grow everything from arugula to zucchini.”
Jeff and Zach farm full time, and seasonally, there are two full-time farm hands, as well as a few interns and part-time farm hands.
“Then on Saturday mornings between June and November we have a chicken butchering crew of four to six people,” Zach said.
The business has changed dramatically over the last few years, Jeff said, so much so, he joked, that it’s been like “a two-year sprint.”
On Friday nights from June until late August or early September, the farm also hosts Friday night pizza, preparing the meals in its wood-fired brick oven. That offering was an idea Zach developed.
The oven was made from the bricks of an old house on a neighboring farm. The Hawkins paid the owner 10 cents per brick and, with the help of a friend who was a masonry worker, built the oven. Today it serves upward of 150 people per Friday night.
Jeff Hawkins wasn’t always a full-time farmer. In 2003 he was a pastor at the Lutheran Church in North Manchester, and worked on the farm somewhat as a hobby.
“I left my call in 2003 and started in earnest to put together the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which is the basis of the farm,” he said.
Community Supported Agriculture has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. Through the program, a farmer offers a certain number of "shares" to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included, such as meat or dairy. Interested consumers purchase a share and in return receive seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.
The Hawkins farm is the only CSA in Wabash County, according to Curt Campbell, Purdue Extension Educator at the Wabash County Extension Office.
The Hawkins children – Zach and sister, Sarah, would work on the farm during the summers while home from university, Jeff continued.
“We did that for a number of years, steadily growing that business,” he said, “but recognizing that it was kind of a part of what I did.”
In addition, he did a number of other things, including running a clergy continuing education on the farm.
“In 2013, Zach was here for the summer and really taking charge of the gardening operation,” Jeff said. “Prior to that it was my work and my vision, but he would help. At the end of the summer he was supposed to go back to grad school in Iowa, but made the decision not to. He decided through the course of the summer that the farm was where he was supposed to be, so, at that point, he stayed.”
Zach said he had worked on the farm for many years, using money earned in high school to do such things as buy a car.
“It certainly was part of who I was,” he said. “Although, I think if you would go back in time and tell my 16-year-old self that I would be coming back to farm, it would be a little surprise to me then. But, over time, especially once I left to go to college and was away for a while, I began to see with clearer eyes the value of the work here on the farm. I began reading a lot of agricultural thinkers, and it all seemed to fall into place.
“There was this little voice, or this little vision, in my head that kept growing and growing until at the end of that summer I realized I couldn’t put it off any longer. I really wanted to be on the farm and go through the season with the farm.”
Kathy Hawkins said her son’s decision surprised every one.
“He couldn’t get out of this town fast enough,” she said. “He went to Iowa to go to school. But he grew and got wiser and decided what was really important. We didn’t really talk about it.
“It’s just wonderful that the two of them could work together and farm together. I wish Jeff’s dad was still alive. I wish Jeff’s grandpa were here. They would probably think, ‘What are they doing?’”
The next spring the family formed a limited partnership and began to recognize that marketing would take place in a number of different arenas. In addition to the CSA, the family expanded its farmers market activity to incorporate CSA pickups, and benefited from the boom in farm-to-fork restaurants.
“Because we’re known and had a track record for those number of years, and our products were good, then we were sought out for that as well,” Jeff said.
It was also the farm-to-fork movement that brought the Hawkins Family Farm a great deal of attention from around the state, including the Indiana Legislature. In 2016, the Legislature attempted to prevent farms such as Hawkins to conduct its business without going through a series of federal inspections.
They are known as the innovators of the new poultry processing law that was passed last year, Campbell noted.
“They were kind of the pushers who were able to get the law changed,” he said. “They can go ahead and process their poultry without having a federal inspector here at the time. They are able to sell their poultry to restaurants that they are currently selling them at. They are able to sell their poultry to restaurants in Fort Wayne and around the area.
“They kind of helped rewrite the law where the inspectors are going to come in on a periodic basis and inspect the facilities. They are kind of the pioneers in the state in getting that done.”
Jeff Hawkins jokes that he knew more about Indiana statutes than he ever thought he would, noting that he spent much of the winter of 2015 and 2016 studying statutes to be able to testify before lawmakers.
“That was a challenge that was presented and we found it necessary to rise to the occasion as best we could,” he said. “The odds were long, in a way, but we were very grateful to have support and people who were there for us.
“Indiana needs more farms like this and more food that’s produced face to face like this.”