Growing new roots

Every summer, Johnson County residents traveling in rural Franklin knew they could count on farm-fresh sweet corn, juicy heirloom tomatoes and tables filled with other fruits and vegetables at the Stout’s Melody Acres roadside stand.

Next year, they’ll have to find a new place for their produce.

The longtime Franklin farm announced Monday it was ending its operations at the end of October. Stout’s Melody Acres will be moving from Johnson County to a location in western Michigan.

The move made financial sense for the Stout family, who can operate a more profitable farm in their new location than they could in Indiana.

But Randy Stout acknowledged that it has been extremely difficult leaving the land where his family has farmed for four generations.

“We hated leaving. That was the biggest hurdle we had to get over — breaking the emotional ties, and it took us eight months to do it,” he said. “But there were too many benefits to not go.”

Stout is the fourth generation of his family to run Melody Acres. His great-grandfather bought the farm in 1918, growing corn, oats and wheat. The family also milked shorthorn cattle and raised a few pigs and chickens.

By the time Stout and his wife, Linda, started working it, the family had transitioned to a monoculture operation — focusing on a single crop, either corn, wheat or soybeans. In an effort to enhance their income, they planted six acres of sweet corn and 25 tomato plants to sell produce at a roadside stand.

After Stout’s grandmother died last summer, the family learned that the cost of settling the estate and taking over payments on the farm would be right at the maximum that they could afford. 

“The inheritance we were going to get, we could have stayed here, but we’d have to borrow money,” Stout said. “But we would have been very limited. I’m 45, and by the time I spent 25 years paying off the place, to retire I’d have to sell it. That doesn’t do my kids any good.”

Researching alternatives, the Stouts found that farmland in Michigan was significantly cheaper — 20 percent of what land was going for in Indiana.

Property taxes are lower, and they can make a profit quicker than they could here. They were able to buy 150 acres, and can expand if needed.

Their new location is in Branch Township, Michigan. The farm is in between Traverse City and Grand Rapids, nearly on the banks of Lake Michigan, putting them in the middle of a thriving tourist destination.

The Stouts have been encouraged by the support for farmers markets in the area. They’ll have the opportunity to participate in markets Tuesday through Saturday each week, offering the chance for greater profit, Stout said.

They will not have a home farm stand, and will have to travel farther to sell their goods. The growing season will be shorter, but then they won’t have to deal with many 90-plus days in the summer.

Overall, the situation seems ideals for their goals of produce farming, Stout said.

“We have some sandy soil we’ll be working with that drains out better than what we’re working with here, so it all sounded very attractive for us,” he said.

The first year, they’re only planting on 10 acres so they can gauge the market and not over-extend themselves. While the farm grew everything from heirloom tomatoes to sweet and hot peppers to eggplant and melons, they’ll be focused more on hearty greens, such as kale and Swiss chard, as well as sweet corn, to begin with.

“It’ll take us two to three years to figure out what the demand is, and what we can grow. It’ll be a huge learning curve,” Stout said.

The final day of operation for Stout’s Melody Acres will be Oct. 31. Already, the family is selling the final pumpkins, mums and gourds, getting rid of everything they can.

Greenhouses have come down, and irrigation systems are being packed up.

Since going public with their decision, the Stouts have heard from longtime customers and friends wishing them well in their new venture.

They’ve also had a lot of people wondering what they’ll do for produce next summer. 

“There has been a shock,” Stout said. “They’ve been buying their corn and produce for more than 18 years. They’ve been accustomed to stopping in here. “