From Hog Farm to Peach Orchard -- Four Decades on the Harker Family Farm

Aug 31st, 2018
It's not just a name. Family remains at the center of Harker Family Farms & Orchard, located in Shelby County near Waldron, Indiana. Joe and Debbie Harker raised their family on the farm. Today all four kids – and some of the grandkids – are involved in the operation. Of their daughter living in North Carolina, Debbie said, "Even from a distance, she helps." From afar, she handles marketing and PR.

There's certainly plenty for the family to do on the farm, where they raise fruit trees, berries and vegetables. Starting early in the spring, Debbie said, "you hit the ground running, and it goes all summer."

And they've been running for a long time. Joe and Debbie have been farming at the current location since 1976. "We started when the kids were little," she said, "selling sweet corn out of the back door and at farmers' markets – in the early days of farmers' markets."

The Harkers were among the earliest participants in local farmers' markets.  "We started with farmers' markets before they really were a thing, in the ‘80s in Shelbyville," Debbie said. "At that time, it was mostly just gardeners who had a little more than they could use."

Back then, the sweet corn and other produce was a side-business to the Harkers' primary farm product: pork.  It was decades later that they decided to shift the farm's direction dramatically.  "We started in 2009 and set out a bunch of trees," Debbie said. "Every year since then we've set out more."

Fruit trees take a while to produce, though.  So it would be years before all that planting paid off. "2013 was the first year we had a good crop of peaches and some apples," she said.

They now raise more than 90 varieties of peaches and 70 varieties of apples.  "My husband thought there may be a niche for that," Debbie said.  It turns out, he was right.  The Harkers' wide variety of peaches gives them a longer season, too.  "Here in Indiana, people say they know you're not going to get a peach crop every year. But on a good year, we start getting peaches in early July and keep in to September."

Fortunately, apples are a more consistent crop in Indiana.  Among the 70 varieties that they grow, there are some that customers might not be familiar with.  Sansa, for example, is "a really good, sweet apple," Debbie said, and Zestar "has gotten to be really popular."  This year, she's especially looking forward to customers trying EverCrisp, a newer variety developed in the Midwest that ripens late and stores well.  "It isn't really common yet," Debbie said. "It's a good storing apple. It stays crisp through spring, crisp and juicy."

For nearly four decades, the Harkers have continued to evolve and embrace change as farmers.  Most recently, Jim & Debbie took the plunge into a new kind of online farmers market with Market Wagon.  "It's fun," Debbie said. "I can open up my computer and see that people have ordered a bunch of peaches today."  By contrast to the traditional farmers markets where Debbie has been setting up her booth for 30 years, she remarked of Market Wagon, "You know what you've sold. You know you're going to come home empty."

To see which of the 160+ varieties of peaches and apples are ripe on any given week, just visit the Harker's page on Market Wagon and have a look.