How to boost Missouri small farms

I just sent this letter to Lane McConnell at the Missouri Department of Agriculture, after learning from the local grapevine that MDA is potentially interested in moving more aggressively to support small farms and sustainable agriculture in Missouri. Below are my thoughts, which haven taken the time to write up, I might as well post here as well. Comments?

Dear Lane,

Ermin Call, my local hardware guru and farm advocate, informs me that you all are interested in generating some new proposals for ways MDA can help support small farms and sustainable agriculture. I’d like to be involved in that discussion if possible, and want to pass along a few ideas for you to consider.

The biggest barriers I see to small farms in Missouri are not marketing or consumer awareness, but regulatory. Vegetable producers are in pretty good shape, but meat and dairy is very difficult to achieve, especially for small, young, or startup farmers. So here’s some ideas:

1) Find ways to increase access to, or support existence of, smaller local meat processors that can handle small batches of animals from small farmers. Every small meat person I know bemoans the lack of processors who can handle a few animals at a time, and the distances they have to drive to achieve them. This could be achieved through regulatory changes or other initiatives (see below).

2) Consider implementing a mobile slaughterhouse system, similar to ones the USDA has been using on the West Coast. This involves a dedicated sanitary trailer with a dedicated inspector and butcher, which travels to any farm requesting service. With the widespread nature of Missouri farming, this sort of system would be far more efficient than many farmers making two round trips to faraway packers. It’s something MDA could run itself, or that it could support a coop or private business person in establishing. You can read more about this type of system at:

3) Consider changing dairy rules to allow more leeway for small or part-time direct-market dairies to operate. Right now I can’t sell any milk or cheese from my goats without investing in full-scale Grade A facilities that are beyond my means, and those of anyone else who is beginning or just wants to dairy part-time. It’s crazy that I can’t sell milk or cheese to my neighbors across the road without complying with the same regulations governing large-scale dairies supplying faraway bulk plants.

It’s true that raw milk has some leeway, but that just shows how backward the system is. Making yogurt and many cheeses raises milk past the pasteurization point, rendering it “safer” (to many folks), yet those are illegal for me to make or sell without a full commercial setup. Yet I can apparently market “risky” raw milk without concern. That’s crazy. Why can’t I make basic farmstead dairy products on-farm for direct sale to customers as long as the labeling clearly states that it’s not a fully state-inspected process and the customer ought to beware?

4) Related to all of the above, consider regulatory changes to allow more leeway for direct sales of farm products on-farm. Most food safety regulations are aimed at food products entering the national food chain, where the long shelf life and many middlemen make those regulations necessary. That’s not the case for small farms selling directly to the final consumer, especially if customers visit the farm to pick up their products.

There’s no reason meat can’t be butchered on-farm in a reasonably clean setting as long as customers come to the farm to pick it up, thus inspecting the facilities for themselves. This is already true for poultry by US & Missouri law and has not caused any problems; why can’t it be true for lamb, pork, goat, and others?

There’s no reason meat can’t be sold from customer processors if it’s clearly labeled “uninspected” with the name of the farm and the processor, and is sold from the farm of origin. We already distribute such meat under Share the Harvest, clearly considering such processors clean enough to give meat to poor people. Why can’t consumers have access to the same right? Read more about this proposal at:

There’s no reason dairy can’t be sold right off the farm, fresh within a day or so, to customers who prefer that choice. My cheese making process is clean and careful, and I would have every reason to be vigilant, as one mistake and I’m out of business.

5) So in general, my argument is that we don’t just need new marketing initiatives or grant programs, we also just need to be able to produce and sell products that people want. This country grants free markets to customers in so many ways, but takes an incredibly strict “nanny-state” approach to food that really isn’t warranted at the small farm, direct-market scale. Why not give us, and our customers, some freedom to make responsible choices about our farms and food, and see what happens?

Many of the changes described above would also act as small-business incubators in the long run. If I get the chance to practice producing and selling dairy products part-time while still running my vegetable operation, maybe I’ll gain the confidence and experience to expand into a larger business. How many potential small dairies never get off the ground because they can’t make the leap from home-scale production to fully commercialized full-scale businesses with the massive expenses and regulations those entail? If I can butcher and sell a few animals on-farm, maybe I’ll learn there’s a bigger market for them and expand to a business that does need a processor. But I’ll never get to practice those skills or explore those markets if the laws make it an all-or-nothing proposition.

If we want to encourage small farms and local foods, let’s give them the freedom to actually go into business and learn. That, to me, would support farming in Missouri far more than many of the well-meaning proposals already on the table. The market is already there; just let us actually serve it.

Thanks for reading my long-winded thoughts. I would greatly enjoy a chance to discuss these and other ideas about helping Missouri farms with you.

Eric Reuter
Chert Hollow Farm

Essential off-farm ingredients

Local eating is all well and good, but it has limits. I have no interest in arbitrarily drawing a line around myself and saying “this far but no further”. To us, food sources have a lot to do with the nature of the food. If it’s perishable, seasonal, and can be grown in Missouri, we’re not going to source it anywhere else or at non-seasonal times of year. If it’s unique to another area (olives, maple syrup), inherently stores well (oils, vinegars), is just plain a basic need (salt, spices), or otherwise necessary, we’ll try to get it from the highest quality and most ethical source we can.

We maintain a pretty detailed list of the kitchen items that we consider necessary for good cooking and proper use of all our year-round on-farm ingredients. I thought it might be interesting to share this, and compare to readers’ ideas of what constitutes “must-have” kitchen stocks. Visit the link above, take a look at our list, and post a note with your own priorities, or questions about ours.

Bird news – death and birth

We finally butchered our last extraneous rooster Monday. We had been holding onto two Ameraucana roosters as backups to each other, and they had gotten along just fine. Recently, however, they turned on each other with a vengeance, fighting and pecking constantly such that serious blood was being drawn. That pretty well sealed the fate of the non-dominant fellow, whom we separated from the others for a few days until we found time to take care of him.

If you share my sense of humor, you too will be amused by my butchering apron; a free gift from the Red Cross bearing the slogan “Give Blood”. Well, he did; we catch blood from butchering for use as fertilizer. Veganic farming this ain’t. Beautiful rooster, but just took his gender a bit too seriously for his own good. Lesson to farm animals; excess testosterone generally gets you killed, just like most of human history.

In other bird news, the following specimen showed up on the floor of our goat/goose shed recently:
I’m simply assuming that is in fact our first goose egg, as I think it would have killed any of our hens that tried to lay it (typical hen egg at right). This is a first for us. Anyone know how long you have to boil a goose egg?

Update since I first wrote and queued this: we have since recieved two more, and scrambled #1 for breakfast. Very large, thick yolk, and a distinct flavor from chicken. Very, very, tasty. According to Joanna’s research, these sell at markets around the country for $.75-1 each, which makes sense when you consider that organic eggs go for about $.15-.25 apiece and these are about three times the size. Plus the novelty and different flavor.
They have a nest set up in the corner of the shed, right next to the goat’s hay rack, and have been defending the rack from the poor goats. I’m working on a separate goose shed right now to give them a place of their own; more on that soon.

Southern menu plan

So this coming Sunday, we’re hosting an esteemed local food writer and his family for lunch. They want to explore the farm, and I want to demonstrate good farm-based Southern cooking in mid-winter. Here’s my proposed menu, for perusal, comment, and critique:

Oven-fried chicken (our chicken, breaded with our fresh-ground cornmeal)

Hoppin’ John (blackeyed peas cooked with spices and our onion, garlic, meat/bacon, dried green peppers, greens, & tomatoes, topped with our cheddar cheese) served over Missouri rice
Cornbread (our fresh-ground heirloom cornmeal, our yogurt & eggs) with local honey and our jams/jellies

Fried okra and tomatoes (our frozen okra & fresh Mercuri tomatoes, breaded with our cornmeal)

Sorghum-pecan pie (Missouri sorghum & pecans, crust of Missouri wheat flour)

Possible second meringue pie

The only significant item that isn’t sourced on-farm or locally are the blackeyed peas, and that’s largely because we had a significant crop failure last year due to deer and weather. We were eating our own peas and beans through early winter, and fully intend to have more stocks for next winter.

We don’t have any more fresh greens, more’s the pity, or I’d certainly serve up a helping of garlic-sauteed mustard, collards, and kale to complement the rest. Still, this ought to be a fun meal. Comments or suggestions?

The growing season has begun

Last week was the official start of the 2009 growing season. We seeded some very early lettuces, as a gamble on decent weather and some early sales. This was also a chance to test our soil blocker, a very nifty little device I need to write more about. Basically, it creates individual cubes of soil into which seeds are sown, using far less soil than larger flats or planting trays and allowing for quicker and easier transplanting. We’ll see how these go.

Above you see the first week’s growth. Today we also seeded 6 flats of onions, which take 6-8 weeks to grow large enough to be transplanted outdoors, and will then continue to grow slowly until sale during the summer. Keep these lead times in mind when you buy this spring and summer; farmers have been working at this far longer than is sometimes remembered.

In any case, it’s both exciting and daunting to have plantings underway. It really starts the clock ticking on the other non-produce projects we have ongoing, such as fencing, construction, logging, and more. Before we’re ready, the season for those things will be done and we’ll be growing full time.

USDA farm census results

Results from the USDA’s 2007 Agricultural Census were released recently, showing some fascinating trends, many of which are encouraging for supporters of small farms and local foods. For example:

Nearly 300,000 new farms have begun operation since the last census in 2002. Compared to all farms nationwide, these new farms tend to have more diversified production, fewer acres, lower sales and younger operators who also work off-farm.

These are all factors related to the growth in consumer support for local foods. Farms don’t have to be huge to be successful. That last line pretty well describes the new model of farming for a lot of people. There are a lot more young people choosing to run diversified direct-market farms than dual-crop commodity farms.

Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farms with sales of less than $2,500 increased by 74,000.

This could mean several things. Many of these may just be “hobby farms”, which detractors claim aren’t real because their operators have other businesses or don’t intend to do it full-time. But hey, a business is a business. $2,500 is still sales of something likely food-related, and totaled equals a significant new source of food, income, and consumer choice that didn’t exist before. I would also suspect that many of those are startup farms working to grow. Lots of the “young, diverse farmers” can’t afford to jump right in full-time, so they work off farm and slowly grow their business. That’s exactly what we’ve done. I’d love to track those 74,000 and see how many grew into full-time farms a few years down the road.

Finally, the census noted “a net increase of 75,810 farms”. That’s spectacular news after generations of farm numbers falling, due to our government’s misguided agricultural policies that promoted the “get big or get out” mentality. We’re finally seeing farming shift back to a smaller model that employs more people, generates more diverse products, and is less dependent on subsidies and interference. That has a lot of good ramifications for rural economies, safe food supplies, and public health. Now let’s see what 4 or more years of an increasingly impressive Vilsack influence can achieve.

Finally, it was interesting to note the Columbia Tribune’s recent take on the Ag census and its relation to Boone County. Reporter Jodie Jackson discussed all sorts of data, and repeated the common fear that “You’ve got nobody coming in to take their (older farmers) place”, yet somehow managed to completely leave out any discussion of the booming Columbia Farmers Market or the 20+ farms from Boone County that sell there (along with all the other regional farms). Not to mention other farmers markets in the county and the various farms that direct-market on site or through other methods than markets. It was a bizarre article to read, but really drove home the point I’ve made before that the agricultural establishment, in Missouri and nationwide, just doesn’t consider vegetables and direct-marketing “farming”.

What We Eat: February II

2/7 /09-2/13/09: I was playing around with dried beans this week, testing the locally grown kidneys from Root Cellar against bulk organic beans from Clovers. Joanna felt the Clovers beans actually had a better flavor; I wasn’t sure. It’s fair to say the Clovers beans looked better, if consistency in appearance matters; the local beans had some shrivelled or otherwise odd-looking specimens. But once they got into a dish, we couldn’t tell the difference and both worked quite well.

Saturday: Caldereta (Filipino goat stew; slow-braised goat in an adobo sauce with our tomatoes) over rice with side of adobo vegetables (our green beans and leafy greens sauted in an adobo sauce).

Sunday: Tomato soup (our tomatoes, onions, garlic, dried parsley) with frittatta (our eggs, dried peppers & tomatoes, potatoes; Goatsbeard cheese).

Monday: Chili (Missouri kidney & black beans, our onion, garlic, tomatoes, corn; bulk spices) with cornbread (our cornmeal, eggs, yogurt; leaveners & local honey)

Tuesday: Black beans (Missouri black beans; our onion & garlic;) over rice with salsa (our Mercuri tomatoes, onion, garlic, corn; bulk organic spices)

Wednesday: Leftover chili (from Monday), homemade couscous (bulk organic couscous, capers; our onion, dried tomatoes; Goatbeard feta), homemade applesauce (preserved from fall).

Thursday: Classic meat-vegetable soup. This batch came out so well a recipe will be forthcoming. Cubes of our goat meat and our pearl onions simmered for hours in our chicken broth, then additions of our garlic, potatoes, green beans, and tomatoes. Nothing else but salt, pepper, juniper berries, and bay leaves.

Friday: Creamy tomato soup (our tomatoes, purchased cream cheese), homemade tortillas (Missouri wheat flour) topped with our dried tomatoes & peppers and shredded cheese. Dessert of Joanna’s delicious squash cake (our winter squash, eggs, and other stuff) with a cream cheese frosting (hence the cream cheese in the soup).

Best cheddar yet

Over the summer, we made and waxed a series of 2lb rounds of cheddar from our goats’ milk, and set it them the cellar to age. Over the winter, we’ve been opening and testing them, with varying levels of success. None have been bad, all have had a decent sharp flavor, but most were too dry and had a crumbly texture that I don’t like. I want my cheddar firm but sliceable, creamy rather than crumbly. We opened the last round recently, and THIS is what cheddar should taste like. Just the right texture, excellent flavor, the whole deal.

How did I achieve this? I have no idea. Joanna utterly failed to force me to keep good enough records of my cheese-making processes to know what I did differently on this batch from others. She’ll just have to do a better job next year.

Home cheese-making is pretty easy, with a modest investment in some equipment and starters. You don’t even need your own animals, as long as you have access to raw milk or even milk from an independent dairy. You just need milk that hasn’t been ultra-pasteurized and ultra-homogenized; the “chalk water” from a chain store isn’t going to cut it. Look at it this way: if it comes in a glass bottle, you can probably make cheese from it.

More on sustainable logging

Following up on yesterday’s post about our logging methods, I want to show two more photos to illustrate differences in technique and result. Around here, when most land is cleared, it’s with a bulldozer. Before the recession put an end to the rampant development around Columbia, you could easily see acres of healthy forest being bulldozed down, pushed into giant piles, and burned, even the healthiest and best trees.

I knew a woodcutter who had an agreement with some developers, in which he could go in at the end of a workday and keep whatever firewood he could cut and salvage from their bulldozer piles by morning. He was able to pull out so much excellent oak, hickory, maple, and other woods that would otherwise have been completely wasted, all to make that new strip mall or string of houses go up just a little bit faster. This sort of waste bothers me very deeply; it’s just wrong.

As an example of this, consider this recent work near us. This large tract of pasture was recently sold at auction, raising our fears of development. Soon after sale, the bulldozers showed up, taking down the old grown-over fences and scraping everything clear and into a massive pile. I assume this will be burned; it’s packed in there so tight you couldn’t do anything else with it.

Here’s what our piles of green cedar look like. The branches are trimmed and neatly stacked, ready to be chipped into the mulch that is an integral part of our land management (mulching our aisles and paths greatly reduces the need for mowing and keeps our exposure to ticks and other nasties down). We can’t chip everything; some of the dead branches and some of the smaller green branches just don’t work well in our small chipper, and we have to burn those. But I figure we burn at most 10-20% of the tree, and all the rest is fully used on-farm.

Now, let’s be fair. Our methods take far longer. What’s taken us part of the winter could have been done in two days with a bulldozer. Burning all the branches and brush is fast compared to prepping and chipping them. It’s just not always practical to save and reuse everything; I understand that. But I just have a real problem with the assumption in today’s culture that fast and cheap are the only values under consideration. I’d like to know what it would have cost in time and labor to take that big pile of cedar in the top photo and run it through a big, utility company type chipper, then sell or use it somewhere. Think of all the people buying cedar mulch at garden centers that was trucked in from somewhere, while so much material right in their backyard is being burned instead of used. It’s just wasteful.

Maybe our approach to this wouldn’t work everywhere, but we’re damned proud that on this farm, at least, very little goes to waste. I hope that visitors and customers who see our mulched paths, farm-grown fenceposts, and cedar lumber outbuildings will agree.

Orchard clearing progress

We’ve been slowly pushing back the cedars in the future orchard/fruit field behind the house, and recently reached a milestone, breaking through the north end of the cedars to the small pasture beyond. Above, you see two paired photos from September ’08 and Feb ’09. These are almost the exact same orientation and location; compare the two large stumps at lower right to convince yourself, and don’t be fooled by the changing location of fresh straw. We’ve found that it’s very easy for these views to look the same, with the ever-present wall of cedars no matter how many we’ve cut, so breaking through to the top at upper left was a very exciting moment when progress finally became clear.

This work takes a while because we insist on doing it sustainably, using most of the tree. We chip most of the green material and branches, which means spending time trimming them to fit in our chipper. We use the smaller logs for posts and permanent bed liners, and have the larger ones milled for lumber. This would be much, much faster with a bulldozer and a massive burn pile, but that’s such a waste. This way we generate all sorts of valuable on-farm products (I think the lumber alone pays for the time) and leave the soil intact. Look at that lower photo; the ground would not look like that if we were bulldozing these trees. As it is, we’ll be putting in the first berry plantings this year and starting fruit trees in 2010, having preserved our topsoil and its nutrients.