From the ground up/Farm to table

At Southern Crossroads Garden Center and Greenhouses, the term “community supported agriculture” is best explained as “having all the benefits of a garden without getting your hands dirty.”

The business, at 1270 E. County Road 450S, gives residents an opportunity to purchase a share of fresh, locally grown, organic produce available on a year-round basis.

Most Bartholomew County residents know the greenhouses west of Jonesville Road have been around for decades.

But few know what’s now being grown under the plastic is different.

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Southern Crossroads owner Eric Simo can still recall the first time when his parents took him to G&E Greenhouses in the late 1970s.

While Jerry and Pam Simo were examining bedding plants and flowers, their 5-year-old son discovered something different on George and Evelyn Abel’s property that interested him.

“I went to their pond and laughed hysterically as I was being chased by a goose,” Eric Simo said.

While G&E was considered a prominent greenhouse operation in Bartholomew County, a severe storm destroyed three of their greenhouses in 1993.

Four years later, owner George Abel passed away, followed by his wife in 1999. For 17 years, the remnants of their once-thriving business remained abandoned.

Nobody could have imagined the kindergartener chased by the goose would eventually not only resurrect the greenhouse business – but take it in an entirely different direction.

A passion for indoor gardening

After graduating from Columbus North in 1990, Eric Simo developed a passion for indoor growing while working at Wischmeier Nursery in Garden City. But eventually, he moved on to other interests.

Five years after launching his own landscaping business, Simo decided to revive that passion after learning the former G&E property was for sale in 2010.

While extremely tight credit restrictions during the recession prevented him from obtaining traditional bank financing, Simo utilized a low-interest small loan program for entrepreneurs at Human Services Inc. to acquire the property.

At first, Simo and his wife, Edith, offered perennial shrubs and trees much as G&E did through the business they named Southern Crossroads Garden Center and Greenhouses LLC. He also planned to continue his landscaping work.

But when the couple saw their two young children being tempted by the marketing of fast food and junk food, Eric Simo became more interested in what Emily, 8, and Evan, 7, were eating.

“I started doing research into GMO (genetically modified organisms) crops, and the more I looked into it, the more I felt we needed to do something,” Simo said.

It was also research that led Simo to “Growing Power,” a 22-year-old national nonprofit founded by retired professional basketball player and urban farming pioneer Will Allen to provide access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food.

When Simo learned that Allen’s 22-year-old organization advocates the development of Community Food Agriculture to help people grow, process, market and distribute healthy food in a sustainable manner, he was sold.

“We made almost a complete transition from what we originally intended,” Simo said.

Going heirloom and organic

The Simo family decided to use heirloom and organic seeds when Southern Crossroads began growing food in its two standing greenhouses, Simo said.

One greenhouse is used for germinating seeds, while the other is utilized for bringing the vegetables to full maturity.

While as one of Simo’s commercial customers in Columbus acknowledges it would be more convenient for him to obtain produce through more conventional means, Gethin Thomas, proprietor of the Henry Social Club, 423 Washington St., said utilizing Southern Crossroads makes good business sense.

“The product is coming out of the ground and directly to me, instead of sitting in a warehouse three or four weeks after it’s picked,” Thomas said. “This gives me a greater window to sell it.”

But most important to Thomas is that customers get a higher-quality dining experience.

“They know it’s good, but they don’t know why,” Thomas said. “However, as long as our guests can tell a difference and feel better about what they spent their money on, that’s what matters.”

Simo is also one of more than 60 vendors invited to participate in the Farmers Market in Carmel, the Hamilton County community with a median household income 113 percent above the state average.

At the current time, Simo’s target customers are successful professionals, mostly in their 30s or 40s, who have the education to understand the potential health consequences of eating fast food made from GMO crops.

But his goal is to become more competitive in price with conventional supermarkets as he expands his operation over time. He also said he wants to provide healthy eating alternatives to everyone.  

“More people are understanding the benefits of naturally grown produce,” Simo said. “I also like to feed people. I love to hear someone say ‘That was the best meal I’ve ever had.'”

Looking for more variety

Since customers such as Thomas also want to see a larger variety of vegetables grown locally than what’s available at most farmers markets, Simo is attempting to oblige them as time and resources allow.

By restoring a third greenhouse this year, Simo said he believes he will be able to expand his indoor growing space by 80 percent to a total of 4,500 square feet, he said.

While Southern Crossroads can provide year-round harvests, the 1993 collapse of the G&E greenhouses was a reminder that all farmers face risks, Simo said.

That lesson hit home hard last January, when a small wood-burning furnace in Simo’s germinating greenhouse unexpectedly went out in below-zero temperatures, wiping out a large variety of budding tomato plants.

But by utilizing a recently installed outside wood-burning heater and a series of pipes, as well as the interior heaters, Simo can now keep the temperatures in his greenhouses at a consistent 77 degrees.

In addition, he now runs plastic tubing carrying 185-degree water through pea gravel that cover the germinating tables.

He also has applied for a grant through the Bartholomew County Soil and Water Conservation District that would fund a high-tunnel, heated greenhouse.

High tunnels are structures with no foundations where plants are grown directly in the ground without extra heat or lights. Tunnels protect the plants from rain and other weather conditions and capture the sun’s natural heat and light.

“I know now I not only need a backup heating system but also a backup for the backup,” said Simo with a laugh.  

While most of his current 1,500 tomato plants should be ready for harvesting by the end of next month, Simo said he still feels bad about his loss in January.

He said he has developed a fatherly affection toward his plants.

“Oh, those babies were beautiful,” said Simo, who shook his head before shrugging. “But it was a learning experience — and I’m still learning.”

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In the company’s Community Supported Agriculture program, Southern Crossroads Garden Center and Greenhouses offers a basket each week filled with an assortment of fresh harvested organic produce.

Current offerings include: 40 different kinds of tomatoes, green beans, onions, cucumbers, wild mushrooms, spinach, potatoes, peppers, herbs, carrots and lettuce. Offerings are expected to expand in the future.

After paying a $35 startup fee, those enrolled in the program may choose to pick up their basket of produce or have it delivered for either a 20- or 25-week period. 

Prices range from $600 for produce picked up for 20 weeks to $875 for 25 weeks of deliveries.    

Information: [email protected]

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Community-supported agriculture (sometimes known as community-shared agriculture) is an alternative, locally based economic model of agriculture and food distribution.

A CSA also refers to a particular network or association of individuals who have pledged to support one or more local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of food production.

CSA members or subscribers pay at the onset of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest; once harvesting begins, they periodically receive shares of produce.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture