The Nathan Fingerle family was named one of two Farm Families of the Year by the Wabash County Chamber of Commerce. The Fingerle family includes (front row, from left) Serena Fingerle, Elma Cook, Doug Cook, Chloe Fingerle, Isaiah Fingerle, Marlin Fingerle, Selah Fingerle, Marcia Fingerle, Salome Fingerle, (back row, from left) Cheri Reiman, Esther Shankster, Logan Fingerle, Nathan Fingerle, Diane Fingerle, Carson Fingerle, Malachi Fingerle, Hadassah Fingerle and Grace Fingerle. Reiman and Shankster are RiverRidge Farms employees. Photo by Emma Rausch
By Emma Rausch
ROANN – Rain, shine, sleet or snow, for nine years Nathan Fingerle’s RiverRidge Farm has supplied Wabash County with organic greens throughout all four season.
The 1.5-acre farm, located at 9559 N. 250 W. in Roann, home-grows all-organic vegetables and sells fruits, meats, honey, soil fertilizer and much more.
This year, the Wabash County Chamber of Commerce will honor Fingerle and his family as one of two Farm Families of the Year for his farm’s practices. On Tuesday, March 21, Fingerle and the Hawkins Family Farm will receive recognition during the annual Ag Day Dinner at the Heartland REMC community room.
Since 1940, Fingerle’s family has lived on the humble plot of land.
“Basically, this is the house I grew up in,” Fingerle told The Paper of Wabash County at his kitchen table. “This is the place I grew up and we only had a few livestock. As a kid, I was a very lazy youth. We’re near the Eel River and I loved to fish. My dream and goal in life was to be a professional bass fisherman. That never happened and I am very thankful for that.
“I was very lazy. People that knew me as a youth can’t believe that I’m doing what I’m doing today.”
But he had a very different vision for his children, Chloe, Isaiah, Selah, Salome, Logan, Carson, Malachi, Hadassah and Grace.
“It took until my teenage years to learn to actually like to work,” he continued. “I worked only enough to earn enough money to go fishing again and I wanted to give (my children) an opportunity to learn to work with their hands, and that’s a fight some days. Some days they love it. Some days they don’t. That’s probably the testimony of any body.
“But that was the vision for me.”
Prior to the farm, Fingerle worked as a factory worker and he set a goal to get out.
“I was working in a factory, making lots of money, but I was away from the family,” he explained. “And this has given me the opportunity. I spend as much time at meals with my family as I did traveling to and from work. I love my life. I love my family. I wanted to be here as much as possible.”
The change that set Fingerle’s business idea in motion occurred 10 years ago, before RiverRidge Farms’ establishment.
Fingerle’s business used to be a commercial flower green house.
“My wife and I when we first married 18-years ago, we actually had a commercial flower greenhouse and we very quickly realized it would have to get very large to work out,” he said. “So we got out of it, sold the off greenhouses, but I kept one of them and ... started experimenting and it snowballed from there.
“We started taking produce to the factory. The men at the factory started buying it and we thought we could actually get some viable business.”
In 2008, together with his wife, Diane, and nine children, Fingerle began to learn and grow in agriculture to produce organic goods throughout the year.
While the operation may be small, it’s capable of maintaining constant cash flow by utilizing high tunnel green houses to produce crops all four seasons of the year.
“By having fresh produce year around, it keeps customers coming not only for the tomatoes, the squash and the peppers in the summer time, but year around they’re able to find something fresh in northern Wabash County,” Fingerle said. “We love it.”
Also a key component of the farm’s success is its transparency with welcoming and encouraging customers to learn about the products their purchasing, according to Fingerle.
“To me, communication in any relationship is paramount whether it’s a marriage relationship, whether it’s an employer relationship or a customer relation, for them to get to know you,” he said. “There’s a little bumper sticker that’s kind of trite that says, ‘Know your farmer. Know your food.’ And it’s true.
“I hide nothing. When people come out here, they can see me working usually I’m barefooted in the summer time. We do a lot of a tours and I encourage my customers, ‘Go out walking in the green houses. Ask a lot of questions.’ … By doing that, they can better understand what we’re doing. … I get a lot of questions and a lot of opportunity to teach that way and I earn trust that way.
“As a Christian,” he continued, “I believe in the principle of do unto others as I would want them to do unto me, and so therefore basic honesty, telling them exactly how I see things is very paramount. It fosters openness and transparency that I think is very healthy.”
Customers Jim Rhoads and Julie Accetta concurred that they have continued buying from the Fingerle family because of the openness with the products.
“I choose organic products over conventional and I have an organic garden,” Rhoads said. “Fingerle and I have shared a lot of tips with gardening and it’s helped me a lot throughout the years, and I just know what they do. I know the products they use, I know the methods they use and, even though he’s not certified organic, it’s about as close you’re going to get to it without the stamp as feel is available in this area.”
Accetta learned about the Fingerles’ production by word of mouth throughout Wabash County.
“I started coming out to the farm it must have been January or February several years ago and it’s so nice to be able to get fresh greens in the middle of the winter,” she said.
RiverRidge Farms is a service to the Wabash County community, according to Accetta.
“To do what he does on such a scale in such a rural area to promote such healthy eating and healthy care of the environment, it’s phenomenal,” She said. “So he’s feeding us nutritionally with really great quality food in an area where we are not able to get that kind of thing in the winter months and he is a great steward of the land with his organic practices and fertilizing.”
Although the business may be small, it supports three families and supplies Manchester Community Schools with fresh fruits and vegetables.
In several ways, Fingerle has been a small business leader and educator in the agricultural community, according to Curt Campbell, Purdue Extension Office educator.
Fingerle continually studies biological and organic soil fertility in order to grow the healthiest and most nutrient-dense vegetables.
“Through Purdue Extension, he has gotten to be known quite well as the specialist as far the hoop houses,” Campbell said. “People from all over the state know who Nathan Fingerle is.”
Inside the RiverRidge Farm shop, customers can also purchase other local farms’ goods in addition to the Fingerles’.
“I have a little motto that I’ve come up with. ‘Keeping the small farms small,’” Fingerle said. “I’m not opposed to large-scale farming, but I only have an acre and a half. I have no opportunity to expand beyond that. So I looked at it and thought most times small-scale guys get larger and larger until they lose quality, until they lose efficiency, and so for me I wanted to focus on vegetables, doing them organically as possible, intensely as possible.
“We had a couple of other local families that were wanting to get into meat chickens, beef and pork, and they approached me and I said, ‘Yeah let’s try it.’ And it’s all snowballed from there.”
Fingerle’s sense of community also sparked the interest in opening his business to support other local producers.
“I believe in community and helping assist other people,” he said. “So what has happened is there’s a lot of small-scale producers … and it’s me aiding them and them aiding me, because I also make a commission off of everything I sell. It’s helping them expand their businesses within the local region.”
Most of all, the customers benefit.
“As we’ve grown our retail side of the store, we’ve realized what people are looking for,” Fingerle said. “They want local, which for most people that’s 50 miles from our farm or at least within in the state of Indiana.”
The Fingerle farm is a prime example of small farms making big waves in the community, Campbell continued.
“Too many times we’ve thought about Wabash County agriculture as only being cows, plows and sows and all of the big farmers,” he said, “whereas we have some small farmers that are doing just as much on a smaller acreage.”