Indiana farmer expands one acre of sweet corn to a booming, diversified business
It’s 5:30 a.m. in July, and the sun’s glow across the horizon starts to raise the temperature of the flat, rich land around Needham, Ind. This is Jeremy Weaver’s recipe for a perfect day as he heads out to fields of sweet corn.
For most people, picking sweet corn is not on their list of favorite things. But Weaver is almost antsy during the winter months as he counts down the days until he can plant his next crop. "I live for getting up early and picking sweet corn," he says with a candid smile.
When Weaver was 15, his father put him and his brother in charge of one acre of sweet corn. The goals: Keep the boys out of trouble and let them earn some money for college. That small business venture quickly turned into a much bigger dream.
Nearly 20 years later, that one acre has grown to more than 40 acres of sweet corn, along with five acres of green beans and smaller patches of tomatoes, pumpkins, zucchini and other produce.
For a little perspective, one acre of sweet corn yields about 18,000 ears. Multiply that by his more than 40 acres, and he’s producing enough sweet corn to provide an ear to nearly every person in Indianapolis. That’s a lot of sweet corn.
So how did Weaver grow his farm from scratch? He’s creative, hardworking and a natural at networking. Weaver’s diversified approach to farming and calculated risk-taking are just a few of the reasons he was named the 2014 Tomorrow’s Top Producer Horizon Award winner.
Family Ties. Weaver married into a farm family. He had only been dating his future wife, Christa, for a few months when her father, Kevin Carson, asked for help with harvest since her grandfather was in poor health. Being a farm kid and not wanting to disappoint, Weaver jumped right in. As Weaver says, he stepped in to help out and has never really left that role.
In 2009, Carson took Weaver on as a farm partner. Weaver rents his vegetable acres from Carson, and together they farm 2,400 acres, of which 450 acres are rented.
"I have grown to love the land that their family has owned for almost 200 years," he says. Carson and Weaver make a strong team, which might sound surprising since in-law relationships can be challenging. But they both run at turbo speed and are open to new ideas.
When Weaver was starting to expand his vegetable business, Carson provided support financially and as a mentor. "He has helped me tremendously in every aspect of my farming career," Weaver says of Carson. "He’s been my biggest champion."
Today, Weaver is responsible for all of the bookkeeping, and the two split marketing. Carson also works as a crop insurance agent for Farmer’s Mutual. During most of the year, they have two part-time employees and up to six during peak times.
Competition for land is fierce around their area, which is just south of Indianapolis. Since expanding row crops would be difficult, Weaver has developed a quality-over-quantity view of farming. His goal is to grow vertically instead of horizontally. "We focus on how to make the land we have really work for us," he says.
As the ag economy shifts down, Weaver is confident that his operation can handle a grain-price dip. He has spent the past few years building connections and developing specialized and creative market options.
"With the grain side of the farm, there is always a willing elevator to receive grain," Weaver says. "Whereas with the produce operation, there is a tiny window in which the crops have to find their market."
Market Maker. Weaver’s produce is sold at farm stands, farmers’ markets, through his personal website and a virtual farmer’s market—all under the Weaver’s Produce brand. While his bachelor’s degree is in history from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Weaver minored in marketing.
He has applied several of the branding techniques to his produce and built a cult-like following for his sweet corn, especially.
In the beginning, Weaver pounded on doors to peddle his produce. But, today, consumers want to know their farmer. The push for local food has provided a boon to Weaver’s business, especially during the past few years, he says.
As of 2013, consumers could buy Weaver’s sweet corn in the frozen section of supermarkets across the Hoosier state. He was one of the first growers to partner with and supply sweet corn to Husk—an Indiana sweet corn processing company.
Not only does Weaver provide high-quality sweet corn to Husk, but Nick Carter, company president, says Weaver aggregates product from other growers to fill contracts.
"We rely on his ability to innovate to help us further develop our supply chain," Carter says. "He is working on a production model that maximizes his profitability, as well as other farmers whom he will help train to grow product for us."
Husk’s processing facility is 30 miles away from Weaver’s farm, where corn is picked from the field, delivered to Husk and cut off the cob in less than six hours. "Having these markets allows me to mitigate the risk of losing product due to it sitting on the shelf," Weaver says.
After sweet corn, Weaver’s next favorite crop is pumpkins, which are double-cropped after wheat. Since wheat harvest can run late, Weaver and Carson started brainstorming other crops to grow ahead of the pumpkins. That led them to barley.
Always wanting to capture a good opportunity, Weaver began exploring markets for barley. He took a week-long course at North Dakota State University, where his wife and daughter accompanied him under the guise of a vacation to learn about the different barley varieties and how to build a malting system.
It didn’t take long before Weaver connected with the owners of Sun King Brewing, an Indianapolis-based craft brewery. Their goal is to make a true "Indiana-local" beer, and Weaver is able to supply them and home brewers with the barley. "Most in the craft brewing industry are willing to take chances, just like me," he says.
Weaver continually thinks about what he can do next, and his farm continues to grow in both quality and diversity, says Scott Gabbard, a Purdue University Extension educator in Shelby County. "Weaver creates new opportunities and capitalizes on them," he says. "Some people talk about being entrepreneurial; Weaver and his family live it."
While some farmers grumble about Indianapolis’ sprawling edges, Weaver is not only creating opportunities for others; he is showing others how farming can be embraced on the urban fringe, Gabbard explains.
Last year, Weaver’s Produce participated in a farm-to-fork food festival where a top-notch chef transformed a few dozen ears of Weaver’s sweet corn into chocolate custard.
"We’re not foodies by any stretch of the imagination," Weaver says. "But it was an honor to network with producers and chefs. We want to continue to take advantage of our proximity to Indianapolis."
Connecting Consumers. As for the future, Weaver hopes to continue to connect consumers with their food. In 2013, Weaver put up a high tunnel greenhouse to give his seeds a head start. He’d love for his farm to become a destination for families to pick their own produce and experience a real working farm. He aims to keep diversifying his farm to handle the volatile times ahead.
"It takes thinking outside of the box to make it in this day and age," Weaver says.
Weaver's Producer and Meadow Valley Farms
Operations: Since 1995, Jeremy Weaver has been growing and selling sweet corn. Today Weaver’s Produce includes sweet corn, pumpkins, straw, green beans and a variety of other fruits and vegetables.
Weaver is also a partner with his father-in-law, Kevin Carson, in Meadow Valley Farms—a row-crop operation that comprises 2,400 acres, of which
450 acres are rented.
Conservation and Technology: The Carsons bought the family farm more than 200 years ago, and they still have the original sheepskin deed to the land, signed by John Quincy Adams. Land that has been in the family for two centuries is a prize possession.
To help conserve their land, Weaver says they have converted most of their acres to no-till and are incorporating cover crops. Additionally, fertilizer is applied using variable-rate technology to help reduce waste.
Business Minds: Weaver and his wife, Christa, have a 2-year-old daughter, Ella. Christa owns a bridal and formalwear store in Shelbyville, Ind. The couple continually bounce business ideas off each other. Christa’s farm roots are a great asset, as she is quick to help plant, run a grain cart and drive the combine.
Leadership: Weaver is a natural networker and leader. He has served as president and a board member for his local Soil & Water Conservation District, president of the Shelby County Ag Promotion Committee, was a founding member of the Hoosier Harvest Market and is a member of the Boggstown Presbyterian Church.
A Cornucopia of Crops
Diversification is the name of the game for Jeremy Weaver of Needham, Ind. Between his two operations, Weaver’s Produce and Meadow Valley Farms, Weaver and his family grow the following crops in central Indiana:
- Row crops: corn, soybeans and winter wheat
- Vegetables and fruits: tomatoes, green beans, carrots, onions, potatoes, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers, celery, zucchini, beets, turnips, cabbage, eggplant, squash, pumpkins, Indian corn, gourds, strawberries, peaches, watermelon, cantaloupe
- Sweet corn
- Malting barley
Learn more about Tomorrow’s Top Producer Horizon Award and previous award recipients at www.TopProducer-Online.com/TTP.