The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2010 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Kellie Kotraba
Rusty Lee plucked a peanut from the tangles of dusty foliage and dirt-laden roots that lay on a wooden trailer bed in the middle of his shop.
"They’re not ready to eat yet," he said, cracking one open to reveal a pale pink nut. It had a cool, moist crunch with the faintest trace of the usual peanut taste. A rainy forecast had prompted him to finish the peanut harvest indoors and postpone the soybean harvest, but he still had sweet potatoes to wash and other work to do.
The growing demand for local food means growing business for Lee Farms, LLC, in Truxton, Mo. With a diversified vegetable operation and a broad customer base, Lee’s day planner, which he keeps in the bib pocket of his overalls, stays full. So does his Facebook page.
"I told [my wife] one time, ‘I want to be Old McDonald,’" Lee said. "He had a little bit of everything."
Although the Old McDonald mentality goes against the traditional farming efficiency model of growing high volume with low variety, it works for Lee. He devotes 20 of his 75 acres to growing vegetables, including tomatoes, zucchini, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, butternut squash, green beans, eggplant, okra and pumpkins.
Two golden ears of popcorn, a new addition to the farm, stuck out among the papers scattered across the dashboard of Lee’s white Ford truck.
"Everybody carries a little popcorn around on their dash," he said with a wry smile, his Georgia drawl rich and cheerful. "We added those to our CSA boxes this year."
Lee’s Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, started in 2008 and has 141 members. Before starting the CSA, he sold wholesale tomatoes. He switched to the CSA model when his business partner moved, but he had already started diversifying his crops.
Customers of Lee’s CSA receive a box of food once a week for 20 weeks, usually from June to October. They can purchase a full share box for $595 — 400 pounds of vegetables at $1.50 per pound. Lee also offers a half-share box for $395.
"It’s really, really high-quality food," said Kathleen Stomps, one of Lee’s CSA customers in St. Louis. Stomps said her family only has room for a small garden, so they can’t grow a wide variety. The family has not visited Lee Farms, but they like knowing the source of their food.
Customers at the Town and Country Whole Foods Market in St. Louis also like knowing where their food comes from. The organic grocer has made room for Lee’s conventional produce as consumers question which is better: eating locally or eating organically.
Or, as Lee said, "Is it better to have organic lettuce from California, or conventional from Rusty?"
Yibby McClosky, Produce Team Leader, said she sees an equal amount of movement toward both, and people who buy organic food sometimes buy (non-organic) local when they know the farmer. Lee visits Town and Country Whole Foods Market to meet customers and talk about his farm.
"Ninety-nine of 100 times, when we outline what we do and how we raise our crops, people are satisfied," Lee said. Part of the satisfaction comes from understanding his sparing use of pesticides and herbicides.
"If a bug tries to take a bite, okay, but if they start getting hoggish, I’ll lose my crop," he said. Instead of spraying pesticides to prevent problems, Lee sprays to address problems.
The use of plasticulture minimizes the need for herbicides, Lee said. In this method, the plastic mulch creates a weed barrier that influences soil moisture and temperature. The sprawling rows of black plastic are an uncommon site in mid-Missouri — Lee said people drive by slowly to look, and planes have circled overhead.
McClosky said customers recognize Lee’s knowledge and ask him for advice.
"He’s really charming, and customers love him," McClosky said.
Lee’s knowledge has inspired others, like Clint Elmore, an agronomy major at Missouri State University in Springfield. A friend introduced Elmore to Lee two summers ago, and Lee introduced him to life as a CSA farmer.
"He kind of took me under his wing that first summer," Elmore said.
After one summer working for Lee, Elmore returned as an intern to study the effectiveness of black plasticulture versus white. He plans to start a CSA farm after he graduates.
About 40 percent of Lee’s farming revenue comes from the CSA, and 20 percent from Whole Foods Market. The rest comes from Ole Tyme Produce Inc., a distributor in St. Louis.
Although 90% of the food Ole Tyme distributes comes from out-of-state, Joan Daleo, president, recognizes the growing demand for local food. She said the company is trying to create a "marriage" of local restaurants and local farmers like Lee.
Lee also supplies food to the Old North Grocery Co-op.
Kara Lubischer, community development specialist with MU Extension, said Lee provides the quality and credibility the co-op needs. The co-op is part of a movement to revitalize Old North St. Louis, which is considered a food desert because the people living there do not have easy access to the food they need.
For Lee, farming is a calling.
"I think growing food is what I’m supposed to do," he said.