Back when I was a kid growing up in the poor area of St. Clair County, not far from Osceola, Missouri, no matter how much you tried, you would not find anything there one might call “cutting edge.” However, today, at least one farm is at the forefront of an international movement of the sustainable, local food variety.
In the 1990s, before eating local and organic foods had become the impressive movement it is today, Robbins Hail began growing produce on their Bear Creek farm near Osceola for the local farmers market. Back then she and her husband, Jim, had to work off-farm to pay for their land. But it was the garden and growing healthy food that Robbins loved most. As soon as she could, she left her teaching job to grow produce full time. Eventually Jim joined Robbins in their growing enterprise.
Today, after more than a decade of production, and having expanded to growing 14 acres of certified organic, heirloom produce, Robbins and Jim are turning over much of the day-to-day operation of Bear Creek Farms to their son, Lonnie, and his wife Jeanna. A third generation—their son, Logan, and their daughter, Mykala, who are both in high school—enthusiastically works with their parents and grandparents each summer and on weekends, truly sharing the family’s dedication to progressive farming.
Growing for Market
Robbins is the greenhouse expert. “I love planting seed and seeing what comes up!” she says. Each year she starts 10,000 tomato plants; 7,000 for their fields and 3,000 for plant sales. She also starts a few thousand kale, cabbage and other vegetable plants in the greenhouse for the growing fields. A former intern, Austin Jones, prompted the Hails to begin an orchard of heirloom apples and pears, so they are in the process of planting 500 heirloom fruit trees, as well.
Nearly all their plants are grown on plastic with drip irrigation, to avoid endless weeding. Seedlings are planted using an ingenious waterwheel transplanter, which pokes a hole in the plastic, pours in water, drops in a seedling plant and firms the soil. It’s pulled behind a small tractor, and while one person drives, another person sits on the back of the planter, dropping individual plants into the hopper. “It’s back-breaking work,” Logan groans proudly, as he’s often the one riding on the back of the machine. Mykala agrees as she takes her turn there, as well. (What’s remarkable is how willing and dedicated the kids are to helping the family in every aspect of the farm.)
Marketing: The Biggest Challenge
According to Jim Hail, marketing is the biggest challenge for most farmers. “It’s one thing to be fired up about growing something, but not everyone knows how to take the next step to market the harvest. Without good marketing, there is no profit,” he says bluntly. Jim and Robbins have done an excellent job of bridging the gap between the farm and the customer. Twice a week they take their delivery truck, stuffed with fresh produce and plants, to the Brookside Farmers Market in Kansas City. In addition to the farmers market, Bear Creek Farms has been making deliveries to Whole Foods in Kansas City for the past 6 years.
The farm has been certified organic for many years. Jim and Robbins are members and officers of the Missouri Organic Association (MOA), which helps farmers with the organic certification process through annual conferences and other individualized services to farmers. They also work closely with Agri-Missouri, which helps promote farm products across the state and beyond.
The farm has to be inspected every year in order to keep its organic certification. Every part of the operation must be not only organic, but documented as to where all organic fertilizers, supplements and seeds originate. Because the farm grows only certified non-GMO, heirloom cultivars, those must be carefully monitored and documented, as well. (An example of the extent to which they must monitor sources: They cannot use composted cow manure from another farm, no matter how many years the compost has rotted, unless they can determine the source of any corn, hay or grain crops the cattle might have been fed). No hay, grains, seed or other things can be brought onto the farm unless they are documented as being organic, non-GMO certified.
More Volume, Less Variety
Over the past decade, Robbins has trialed over 3,500 cultivars of heirloom tomatoes to find the cultivars that taste best and satisfy their customers most. Her zeal for growing extends to all of their produce, as well. Robbins simply likes to grow things, which is what caused her to start the business in the first place. But when asked what changes Lonnie and Jeanna would be making as they take the lead in the business, Lonnie says, “We need to offer more volume and less variety in what we grow. There’s a limit to the amount of cultivars due to the space it takes for market.”
Lonnie gives the example that Whole Foods only wants three or four cultivars of lettuce. Earlier, the farm was growing 25 cultivars of potatoes, but Whole Foods only wanted four or five cultivars because that’s what their customers wanted, so the farm has to grow what the market requires.
When asked if they felt a degree in agriculture was more important than a passion for growing things, the family agrees that a degree could teach the mechanics of growing, but if a farmer didn’t love growing things, then it would simply be a business. “You have to love what you are doing, otherwise your only payback is the money in the bank, and that may not be enough satisfaction to keep you going,” Jim says.
What’s the future of Bear Creek Farms, and where will it be in 10 years? Lonnie and Jeanna agree that the direction they are moving is for the farm to completely be a wholesale producer.
“Places like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and even large supermarkets that offer organic produce are cutting into sales at farmers markets. Along with that, there are farmers markets in nearly every neighborhood in Kansas City, which means fewer people come to the market where we’ve been selling for years. The profit for us will be in selling wholesale to those stores rather than directly to the consumer.”
Jim said he thought that trend is regrettable because the relationships they have with their customers aren’t easy to give up. “Your customers become your friends,” Robbins explains. “You see them every week; they come to feel you are part of their family and they like to know who is producing the food they put on their tables. We’ve become ‘our farmer’ to a whole lot of people.”
Getting Your Hands Dirty
Bear Creek Farms hires three or four additional people besides the family each season. They’ve hosted apprentices from a variety of sources over the years as part of their workforce. Even the produce buyer for the Kansas City Whole Foods worked as an intern on the farm for a season to learn what it takes to grow the produce the store buys. Bear Creek worked with the Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF), as well as the Growing Growers project through University of Missouri. They feel strongly that if someone thinks they want to go into organic farming for a living, it’s a good idea to try out the work on another person's farm first, to see if their interest is strong enough to make it a life choice.
When presented with the scenario of a 22 year old with a passion for growing vegetables and herbs, but no land or knowledge about how to get started, here is what the Hails would recommend:
Get involved in an apprentice program to see how deep your interests go; work on different kinds of farms for a couple of seasons to see which kinds of growing are most appealing to you. If your interest and desire are still there, scope out the local markets.
Next, choose a location and get a loan for land. Two acres is about all one person can tend by hand without machinery, and Jim and Robbins feel banks are more willing to loan money to a young person for a small piece of land if it can be demonstrated there is a profitable outlet for what the acreage produces. Additionally, businesses such as Whole Foods and others, have loan programs offering start-up help for new growers.
When asked how growing produce compares to raising cattle, which Jim does as well, he responds, “Ten acres of organic produce will about equal the income from 1,000 acres of grass and cattle. You can gross $10,000 an acre from growing organic produce, but the cost of cover cropping, soil additives and the travel distance to markets cut into that income, so your net profit is less,” he explains.
At a time in our history when young people still follow the century-long trend to leave rural America for cities; when family farms are becoming a thing of the past, giving way to large, corporate farming, it is exciting to see three generations of people so devoted to growing healthy produce together. Jim sums it up best when he says, “Farming isn’t just growing crops, it gives me joy. I love what I do.”
Everyone in the family agrees.
“I wouldn’t ever want to do anything else,” says Robbins. “This is the best life I can imagine. What we do isn’t just a business, it’s a lifestyle. Even if we weren’t growing for market, we would still be growing organically with a dedication to heirloom varieties.”
Jim Long writes from Long Creek Herb Farm in the Missouri Ozarks.