Kevin and Linda Baird and enrolled in multiple EQIP contracts to help build their farm while preparing to hand the reins over to the next generation
By Brandon O'Connor, Public Affairs Specialist, USDA-NRCS, Indianapolis
Kevin and Linda Baird had a simple, albeit weighty, question for their sons Michael and Jared. Are you in or are you out?
After nearly 30 years of building their farm in Scottsburg, Indiana from a two-acre pumpkin patch into a flourishing fall travel destination, the Bairds were at a crossroads. Down one path was a further expansion of the farm with the construction of a new building to host a store and farmers’ market. The other choice was to start scaling the farm down and ease into retirement. Standing at the crossroads, the decision hinged almost entirely upon the answers their sons would give.
“Before we built this building, we said, 'OK guys are you in or out because we're going to spend the money to build this building if you guys want to be a part of it and if not, then we're going to scale it down,'” Linda recalled. “But they wanted to be a part of it.”
A painted roadside sign declaring this slice of heaven to be Cornucopia Farm lets you know you’re in the right place as you turn down the Bairds’ driveway. High tunnels full of ripening tomatoes and rows upon rows of potted mums line the right side of the road as the world outside the one the Bairds have created over the last three decades disappears.
Blue skies and sizzling summer heat still holding on as the calendar prepares to turn from August to September greet us as we say our hellos over the din of a lower mower and make our way into the farm store. This is the building the Bairds were hesitant to build without their sons’ commitments, but there it stands as a yellow and green testament to the generational impact of the farm.
Family photos decorate one wall inside the entrance as the building stands ready for the flood of visitors who will be coming through in the following months. Empty tables will soon be heaped with produce, farmhouse decorations are priced and hung and the café is prepared to be stocked and turned into a bustle of activity. The work never truly stops at Cornucopia Farm, as farming is a year-round obligation, but for now they are in a lull before the busy fall season begins. The corn maze has been planted, the pumpkins are ripening on the vine, the mums have been equipped with an automatic watering system to cut down on labor and the sunflowers are waiting for rain before reaching toward the sky and blooming.
Sitting in the building they decided as a family to construct, tears begin to fill Kevin’s eyes. The outside world might know it as Cornucopia Farm, but Kevin and Linda simply call it their dream and that was fully realized the moment their sons committed to continuing their legacy for at least another generation. Kevin is already the second generation to farm this land and at the thought of his sons continuing his family’s legacy, he can’t contain his emotions, his voice cracking as Linda takes up the story in his place.
He knows the draw of this land having made a similar decision as his sons nearly 30 years ago. As Linda tells it, his dad first moved to the county they call home in the 1950s with the dream of farming. Kevin’s father joined a family operation for a few years before buying what Kevin and Linda still call the “home farm” in Franklin Township, Indiana. There, he operated a small dairy and instilled a love of farming and the land in his son.
After they got married, Kevin and Linda moved around some before finding themselves in Tennessee on her parent’s farm with the plan to stay a year, see how it went and then make a decision for the future. Kevin couldn’t shake the lure of returning to the family farm where he grew up, though, and 13 months later they and their young son moved back to Indiana, but not before Linda had garnered one concession in the deal.
“He wanted to come back to Indiana, I was like, ‘OK, I'm willing to go if you'll raise pumpkins,’” Linda said. “He would do anything to get back to Indiana and he was true to his word, so we started raising pumpkins from that.”
Thus started Cornucopia Farm. That first season they grew two acres of pumpkins and two weeks before Halloween hadn’t sold a single one. So, they loaded up a wagon, parked it on the side of the road and sold just enough to make back their seed costs. Kevin admits most people would have given up after that first season, but that was 1992 and they have grown pumpkins every year since. The original field has turned into a 20-acre plot of pumpkins, gourds and other fall produce. The farm itself has also grown to include 350 acres divided evenly between corn and soybeans, with mazes of each mixed in for guests, as well as a mum growing operation that seems to expand by the year with more than 7,000 growing this year. Remaining acres are taken up with sunflowers, u-pick flowers and high tunnels full of tomatoes.
Growing the farm has been a labor of love for the Bairds even as they worked jobs off the farm to support their family and made sacrifices to make sure they never missed a sporting event as Michael and Jared grew up. Linda continues to work for the U.S. Postal Service and Kevin spent years working for the Indiana Department of Agriculture (ISDA) before retiring and working on the farm full-time.
Working for ISDA fit perfectly with Kevin and Linda’s goal to leave the farm better than they found it. The dedication to supporting the land was started by Kevin’s dad when, after closing the dairy farm in the late 1980’s, he became one of the first farmers in Indiana to enroll in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Using funds from USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) combined with technical advice from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Kevin’s dad turned farm ground abutting a creek bottom into a filter strip to help improve the water quality of the stream. While the land is no longer enrolled in CRP, Kevin and Linda continue to maintain the filter strip and keep the land out of production.
From day one of running their own farm, the Bairds have done so with conservation in mind, having no-tilled their corn and soybeans from the get-go. A few years in, they also started no-till planting the pumpkins and now even the sunflowers are planted without tillage. Following in his dad’s footsteps and building on the relationships he built while working off the farm, Kevin also enrolled the farm in NRCS programs to further implement conservation.
With help from NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides financial and technical assistance to implement conservation practices aimed at improving soil health and water quality, the Bairds began planting cover crops in between growing seasons. They also practice crop rotation, rotating pumpkins throughout the farm to allow fields to rest for at least four years and rotating between corn and soybeans annually throughout the rest of the farm
They plant green into the cover crops and for the pumpkins, especially, it has paid massive dividends with the cover crops suppressing the majority of the weeds. After the cover dies, it also provides a bed of refuse beneath the pumpkins keeping them mostly clean of dirt and reducing the labor required to clean them after harvest.
“Pumpkins, any cucurbit crops whether it's pumpkins or cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes or whatever, are really pretty hard on the soil,” Kevin said. “It takes a lot of nutrients to grow those. So, the cover crop helps hold those nutrients there so they're not down in a ditch somewhere. There's a lot of benefits.”
Michael and Jared also worked with NRCS and enrolled in an EQIP contract of their own to build one of the high tunnels where their tomatoes grow.
Along with the acres of farmland and two homesteads spread between the main base of Cornucopia Farm and the home farm previously owned by Kevin’s parents, the Bairds also own 120 acres of forest land. The woods were “pretty much a mess,” when they inherited the land, Kevin said. Invasive plants had grown throughout, and it needed to be restored to allow for future timber harvests. With an eye toward their sons’ futures and grandchildren, of which the first is currently on the way, the Bairds enrolled in EQIP to implement a forest stand improvement and brush management plan with help from an independent forester. They’ve also added to the woods by planting trees on unfarmed land through another CRP contract.
The forester completed his work two years ago and although it is a generational process, the woods have already started to come back to life. Telling the story of how the farm has transformed over the last 30 years, it is here where Kevin again starts to well up with tears and has to pause unable to conceal the emotion brought upon by his love for the land his parents and now him and his family call home.
In their matching neon orange Cornucopia Farm shirts, Kevin and Linda walk out of the building to explore what they have built. They have welcomed school visits for 25 years and have developed a farm family of visitors who return year after year. Michael and his wife Valerie recently moved back to the farm to help run it while Jared and his wife Kayla are frequent visitors from their home an hour and a half away. It is truly a family run operation with decisions made in family meetings and each with a role to play.
The farmhand on the mower continues his laps back and forth across the grass as Kevin plucks a few ripe tomatoes off their bushes and Linda tends to the mums. Across the street acres of pumpkins are ripening to various shades of yellow and orange with white and pick ones mixed in as the corn tassels and the cobs develop. It is a dream come true after decades of blood, sweat and tears and the Bairds are secure knowing that a third and soon fourth generation will continue tending this land.