Even as South Bend, Indiana has seen modest population growth in recent years, vacant lots are still scattered in parts of the city’s neighborhoods. Susan Greutman and her husband, Ryan, are trying to fill some of that space.
The Greutmans are the owners and operators of Sunchoke Farms, an urban farm located in the Near Northwest Neighborhood of the city. For many urban farmers, their biggest challenge can be finding enough space to grow their produce. That hasn’t necessarily been an issue for the Greutmans.
South Bend experienced a significant population loss after peaking in the early 1960s. This dip in population has been attributed to factories closing and the decline of heavy industry in the area. Much like other Midwest industrial cities, South Bend’s housing market was hit hard as manufacturing job losses and population decline added up over the years, resulting in large numbers of abandoned and vacant houses. More recently, former mayor and 2020 presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg led a program aimed at tackling urban blight by repairing or demolishing more than 1,000 houses that were vacant or deemed unsafe under guidelines set by the state. This created more empty lots within the city.
The Greutmans and their seven children currently live in a house that was constructed on a lot, which they say had been empty for 30 years before their home was built there. The city has been working to repurpose the empty lots left behind, and the Greutmans see themselves as being part of this renewal process. “I think it’s a story of hope,” says Susan Greutman. “You know, no matter what happens, we as a town, we as a people, we as a family, we can take these problems and we can get through them. And we can find ways to work together with our community, and to work hard and accomplish things that need to be done.”
After Ryan Greutman lost his job at a water treatment plant in 2017, he struggled to find meaningful full-time work. The Greutmans soon decided to scale up their urban garden and were able to rent properties near their home from friends so they could farm full time. The family had raised vegetables and a small flock of chickens in their yards for years and were able to build off of their urban homestead lifestyle. In the spring of 2018, the couple started developing plans to expand the operation, which now involves farming just less than an acre of land on two rented empty lots, their backyard, a section of a neighbor’s yard, and a small indoor vertical farm for microgreens throughout the year.
People often react with confusion when they learn that the Greutmans’ farm takes up just less than an acre of space. When the couple tells them the size of their farm, “They look at you like ‘how is that possible?’” Susan Greutman says. For some, the idea that such a small amount of land could produce enough to support a family of nine is unusual compared to industrial farming stereotypes.
Sunchoke Farms currently sells microgreens to seven local restaurants, and all of the farm’s food is sold within a five-mile radius of the family’s homestead. While the family has no immediate plans to expand into more land, they’re looking to further maximize the space they currently have, with the hope of nearly doubling the amount of produce they turn out every week.
The Greutmans allocate only a small area for certain crops they sell at their stand in nearby farmers’ markets and make sure to space out the timing of when seeds are planted for other crops. These actions are more deliberate and come from experiential knowledge they are gaining as they continue to build their business. As they’ve set up their farm, they’ve found ways to be more efficient, and learned what products sell better in different markets.