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Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

On-Demand Farming At Heartland Family Farm

Farmer Teresa Birtles reads Food & Wine and Gourmet magazines to keep an eye on which "it" ingredients to grow for her local chef customers.

teresa birtles with sheep

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

The sheep on Heartland Family Farm are guarded by Katie the donkey.

Heartland Family Farm sells at the Bloomington Community Farmers Market and it offers a CSA, but its main business is custom growing for local restaurants — from fine dining establishments to quick service joints.

Farmer To The Chefs

Farmer Teresa Birtles met one of her loyal chef customers Dave Tallent while he was shopping at her booth at the farmers market. They started talking, and then Birtles flipped the script on him.

“I asked him, ‘what would you like for me to grow?’ And I think that was a different angle for him, because he was used to coming to the market to buy whatever was available,” she says. She’s been providing food to Restaurant Tallent for ten years now.

Fostering this relationship has taken some work on her part, primarily in terms of what she plants when. Initially it was hard for her to anticipate in December — when she’s buying seeds — what a chef would want to plate up in August.

“So, when I start the season with a green bean, I don’t want to tell a chef the second week of June, ‘I’ve got ten pounds of green beans for you.’ And the next week I’ve got another ten pounds. And then, ‘Sorry, I’m out of beans for the next three weeks.’”

Location, Location, Location

It’s prime time for her green beans right now, so keep an eye out for them in local restaurants. She’s also harvesting zucchini, cabbage and Swiss chard.

This will be her second year farming on this 40-acre plot of land. It’s an old horse farm, so she says it’s never been treated with chemicals. (She uses organic methods in her growing, but she is not certified organic.)

Location was the primary reason for buying this land. On her previous farm, Birtles had a 23-mile drive to get into town. Now, when a chef calls in an order, she can jump in the car and arrive downtown in exactly 14 minutes.

If you grow something different, something out of the ordinary and you come to the backdoor of the kitchen and you call for your chef and he comes over and you show him this glorious thing that you’ve grown… They just light up like a Christmas tree.

“They could call Sysco, they could call Piazza, but instead it’s like, ‘I’m going to call my farmer. I bet she has it.’ So I really appreciate that,” she says.

Farming Homework

Farming is in her blood.

One of Birtles’ earliest memories was walking barefoot through her grandparents’ field picking potatoes. She’s grown food ever since, but she started farming commercially 16 years ago. She needed a way to support herself following a divorce.

“I just couldn’t fathom staying indoors all day. I can’t do that, but I can grow things.”

Inside her house, she has copies of Food & Wine and Gourmet magazines stacked on her coffee table. She does a lot of reading to keep up on food trends so she can grow the latest “it” ingredients. Pea shoots, for instance. When she started growing them, she was the only local source for pea shoots.

“If you grow something different, something out of the ordinary and you come to the backdoor of the kitchen and you call for your chef and he comes over and you show him this glorious thing that you’ve grown, I mean they just light up like a Christmas tree, they are so excited,” she says.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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