Classroom in the Field

November 9, 2010 10:14 AM
Classroom in the Field

Missouri farmer Rusty Lee’s overalls are drenched with dew. His Pioneer cap is pulled low to block out the early morning sun and his molasses-like drawl smacks of Georgia roots.

It doesn’t take long for the college students gathered before him to lose any first-impression stereotypes. Lee and his wife, Teresa, returned to her family farm near Truxton, Mo., armed with advanced agricultural economics and engineering degrees. The vegetables and meat they produce are at the center of a local food movement in central Missouri. Lee Farms is a name that comes up repeatedly as the students follow the path of food from farm to fork.

The University of Missouri, with support from Farm Journal, takes journalism students to the field each fall for a class dedicated to the memory of our late editor Sonja Hillgren. Sonja believed there is no substitute for meeting a source on his or her home turf, and she encouraged those with an interest in telling the truth through the written word. This year’s theme was “Thinking outside the Barn: A Journey through Food Systems.”

Lee Farms exemplifies the use of limited acres to grow and deliver fresh food with sustainable methods. “We are not organic, although we employ many of those practices. We are local suppliers, and that resonates with customers,” Lee says. The Lees use a variety of methods to get food into the hands of consumers, including a subscription-based community-supported agriculture system.

Making connections. Benne’s Best Meat, near St. Charles, Mo., uses the farm as a point of sale for pasture-raised poultry and beef. Here, the students see the benefits and challenges of farming near a suburban area. Just east of Washington, Mo., they visit Todd Geisert Farms, a pasture pork operation that gains market advantage through a contract with Niman Ranch.

Geisert blanches at the mention of “The Other White Meat.” “This is red meat raised to taste like the pork you remember,” he says. A stop at Sappington Farmers’ Market in St. Louis
reveals Geisert’s thick, red pork chops displayed in the meat case.

Boxes of Lee Farms sweet potatoes await distribution at Ole Tyme Produce Inc., a three-generation supplier in the St. Louis warehouse district known as Produce Row. Company president Joan Daleo says the appetite for local foods has grown considerably in the past five years. Chefs, schools and hospitals are hungry for foods that taste good and stay fresh longer.

“We are starting to adopt a European model,” Daleo says, sacrificing selection for quality products available in season. She estimates that local products—which generally means within the state’s borders, but can include bordering states— make up 10% of current sales. “We pick up at Rusty Lee’s farm three times a week,” she says. “His produce typically goes from farm to plate within 48 hours.”

A few blocks away, an inner-city neighborhood called Old North St. Louis was once considered to be a “food desert.” Residents traveled up to an hour just to purchase food.

Today, they have a community-owned grocery store that stocks produce from a neighborhood garden and other local sources, including Lee Farms. One trade-off is that local foods can be more expensive since they typically don’t have the same economy of scale.

On the bus, the students spiritedly discuss how the local model fits with traditional agriculture and the need to feed a growing global population. Sonja would have loved the debate.

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