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Hoosier woman transforms into 'gourd lady' to market her farm
BY LINDA MCGURK
Indiana Correspondent

HOWARD, Ind. — The sandy soil of this town in west-central Indiana has long been known for its ability to produce sweet melons, but these days visitors don’t come to Howard primarily for its juicy cantaloupes.

They come to see Helen Thomas, also known as “The Sandlady,” and her unique gourd farm.

This time of the year, when the fields are frozen and her barns filled to the brim with gourds in all shapes and sizes, Helen stays busy filling orders for gourds that artists will turn into snowmen, penguins, Christmas ornaments and other last-minute Christmas gifts. But then again, “I’m always busy,” she said.

Helen and her husband, Ron, started selling vegetables on the side of the road in the 1970s. What set them apart from the rest was Helen’s knack for finding unique crops, like Indian corn and yellow watermelon.

She also noticed that curiously shaped and colored gourds sold well and gradually expanded her acreage, from one row of bushel and canteen gourds in 1985 to two acres of mixed gourds five years later. Ron was skeptical, at best.

“The worst part about it was that she planted gourds in the middle of my melon field,” he said with a playful grudge in his voice.

Today, the couple represents a growing trend of family farmers who make a living by selling niche agricultural products. Helen’s eclectic farm operation includes a museum with more than 500 gourds.

Every August she puts on a festival, when she offers classes on gourd art, and gourd lovers from as far away as Utah visit her farm.

As one of only a few major gourd producers in the country, she’s been featured in several local television programs and any number of newspaper articles. In Parke County, she’s been a household name for quite some time and is easily recognized during local festivals and shows, thanks to her trademark hat, which - predictably - is made out of a gourd.

But even though Helen worked hard to get to this point and may be better known than a lot of farmers who are just starting value-added agribusinesses, she had, until this year, never written a business plan.

“I knew how many wagonloads of gourds per acre I had, but I didn’t know how many I wanted,” Helen said.

That’s about to change, after she attended a 10-week marketing class taught by educators from Purdue Cooperative Extension Service earlier this year.

“It lays out the whole picture for you, the way it should be,” she said. “It makes you stop and think about your budget, and made me sit down and think about how many gourds per acre I wanted, what it would cost me, and how many people I had to hire to get to that point.”

The Purdue New Ventures Team assists farmers who want to start a value-added business or, like Helen, expand one that already exists.

The farmer brings the idea and the vision, and New Ventures provides the know-how on marketing, financing, taxation and other issues that are crucial for that idea to translate into a successful business venture.

“The individuals who have a business plan are more successful as entrepreneurs, because they’ve looked at the competition, prices and everything, and it works to their advantage,” said Alice Alderson, a New Ventures Team member in Parke County who works with Helen.

Initially, Helen only sold raw gourds, and that still provides the bulk of her business. But one day, she saw the shape of a snowman in a birdhouse gourd and decided to paint it. Selling painted gourds, although time consuming, became another value-added feature of her business.

“One year I painted 7,500 gourds. I thought I never wanted to see a gourd again,” she said with a laugh.

With a little help from Helen’s business plan, Sandlady’s Gourd Farm is poised for expansion. The next step is to set up an Internet store to enable her customers to order online. She’d also like to convert one of the outbuildings on the farm, which now serves as a workshop, to a seminar room, where she could hold presentations to visitors.

“Helen is an individual who has worked very hard and been very successful,” said Alderson and added: “As farming becomes more costly, farmers are looking at different ways to diversify. The only limit is your imagination.”

For more information on Sandlady’s Gourd Farm, visit www.sandlady. com or call 765-498-5428.

For more information about Purdue’s New Ventures program, visit www.agecon.purdue.edu/new ventures

12/20/2006