Heritage breeds perfect for small-farm
revival in Missouri’s River Hills

American capitalism drives surging, multi-enterprise farmers’ market where the experts of agriculture interact with the post-modern quests of suburbia.

By Kelly Klober

October 18, 2007: The River Hills region of Eastern Missouri is made up of the rolling lands that border the most fabled of streams, the Mississippi. It’s Mark Twain country, and it’s also one of the last bastions of that farming rarity—the mixed stock farmer. It was the buckle on the Hog Belt and once funneled everything from fancy table eggs to fresh produce in great variety into the St. Louis marketplace.

Mr. Clemens’ writings endure, but the loss of market outlets was and continues to be a real threat to the rich farming traditions of the region. Even the best of farmers cannot endure without markets that fairly reward their good efforts.

Tucked gently away into this region is the little village of Silex, Missouri, some 70 miles northwest of St. Louis. Research leading up to its centennial year of 1986 revealed an interesting bit of marketing lore.

It seems that on Saturdays into the 1930s the city fathers would gate off Main Street into stock pens so butcher stock could be loaded onto the Short Line. Eggs and cream were bartered for essentials, and horses and mules were traded on one end of town. Inspired by this in its search of a community-service project, the Silex 4-H Flyers club decided to recreate the traditions of a Saturday Market Day.

That first market day some 17 years ago has gradually evolved to become the River Hills Farmers’ Markets. Still on Saturday mornings in Silex (as well as Thursday mornings, during the growing season, at the county seat of Troy) some of the market’s 85 cooperators gather to sell the production of their farms. Both markets have regional fruit and vegetable varieties, but the Silex market once again features the livestock pens of long ago along Main Street.

“Farming the sprawl”

On a given Saturday morning in Silex you can buy Amish baked goods, green beans and tomatoes, table eggs and hatching eggs, baby chicks, peafowl, goats and sheep, and nearly every other furred and feathered farm creature imaginable. The market’s growth has countered a decades-long decline in market outlets for the region. Even better, this type of direct, interactive market also makes it possible to do what the locals call “farm the sprawl” now reaching out from the St. Louis area.

The River Hills market at Silex has become a place where owners of “farmettes,” members of ethnic communities, suburbanites and others can meet with, buy and learn from veteran farmers. Some would call this “agritainment,” but although it is fun, it’s much more and much better. Here, farmers are getting paid for what they know as well as what they grow.

With the growing interest in food sustainability and a more deeply connected lifestyle, those seeking a greater control over their table and larder have often been hard pressed to find a place where they are understood and their needs are met. At one of these Saturday-morning markets, a young 4-H’er can get advice on a poultry project, a backyard raiser can buy a couple of laying hens or a handful of baby chicks, and rare and heirloom breeds of livestock are showcased before appreciative consumers as ever-greater farm diversity is encouraged and rewarded.

This broad-based offering makes it possible for the River Hills group to have a farmers’ market year that extends from mid-March through mid-November. Contacts made there often lead to selling opportunities for the rest of the year, too.

Simple market rules

Market officers try to maintain as simple an operating structure as possible. “Loose as a bucket of ashes” is the term favored by market officers Paul Harter of Mexico, Missouri, and Nathan Price of Foley, Missouri. These youthful, part-time farmers and their wives represent an exciting trend running counter to the rapid graying of America’s farming population.

They’ve designed market policies to assure the comfort and security of the livestock and their honest representation. Cooping must be spacious, with shade and water provided (there is a water tap on the grounds), all creatures must be healthy and sound, and they must be truthfully represented as to their age and breeding background. Mishandling or misrepresentation can result in expulsion of a seller from the market and officers regularly walk the grounds, reviewing each offering.

A newsletter including market rules is distributed several times each year and also includes instructions on how to handle and transport new purchases. Birds and animals are actually at the market for a shorter time than if they were at an auction or stockyard, and all transactions are face-to-face with the producer/owner. Market members are also on hand to assist beginners with their selections if such help is desired.

No other marketing system has the transparency of a farmers’ market nor does it offer greater rewards to a farmer/grower. It calls for an investment in time and a degree of interaction with buyers that is a departure for many farm folk. On a given Saturday a vendor may sex young rabbits for someone buying a pet, help a 4-H’er select birds for the county fair, answer questions about breeds of laying hen, sell some whole-hog pork sausage, and even buy the foundation for a new poultry or small-stock venture of his or her own.

Direct contact is beneficial

A trio of geese or a box of baby chicks isn’t a typical farmers’ market purchase like a pound of onions or a watermelon, but the procedures in place at this market are actually quite conducive to such transactions. The sales aren’t as rushed as at an auction, and unlike having to make orders from a catalog—the way much poultry is sold new—the buyer has much more control over and input into the purchase. He or she can see the birds or stock prior to the transaction and buy as few or as many as are actually desired. There are no minimum purchases and often there are birds of several ages from which to select.

Watching a veteran farmer hold a young rabbit or baby duck in calloused hands for a youngster to touch and pet for the first time is a very special thing.

Yes, the market has some aspects of a trip to a petting zoo or a farm museum, but that is just another part of its appeal. Watching a veteran farmer hold a young rabbit or baby duck in calloused hands for a youngster to touch and pet for the first time is a very special thing.

Throughout the year the market conducts a number of special events that combine regular marketing activities with educational and small-farm advocacy themes. Each September the group holds a Fall Poultry Fest and each spring a Family Farm Show. The latter, to be held on the third Saturday of April in 2008, drew 53 vendors and 650 customers, in 2007, to a rural town of less than 300 people.

The presence of livestock and poultry in numbers at this farmers’ market makes it distinctive in more than appearance. It is a “preservation” market conserving the mixed-stock farming traditions of the region: the food crops and heirloom livestock and poultry species that have long had a presence there. Many of the breeds and varieties regularly bought and sold at this market are known to most people only through magazine articles about rare breeds.

Living, breathing heritage

The pork from Mulefoot and Tamworth hogs, Jacobs sheep, Welsummer and Maran chickens, Buff geese, Royal Palm turkeys, and many more heritage varieties are among the staples at this market. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities have both participated in the market group activities.

Prior to the River Hills markets, this region had lost livestock marketing outlets at all levels from local sale barns and buying stations to such major regional players as the National City Stockyards. In Missouri it is no longer possible to set a case of eggs or coop of chickens on a loading dock and walk away with a check. Only by becoming entrepreneurs and operators of their own markets could these folks hope to continue in the tradition of small, independent producers.

Ironically, it’s only by taking up those breeds fitting to the classic style of regional production that they can continue. Industrialized agriculture, with its bean-counter mentality, seeks a uniformity of end-product that has reduced market choices to watery milk and pale pork, squarish tomatoes that taste no better than their shipping box, and eggs in any color and size you want as long as they’re white and medium.

For roughly three quarters of a century, production agriculture has tried to operate as a machine shop with commodity “ore” coming in one end and “machined” food product coming out the other. The idea at its extreme seems to be to replace “farm-to-plate” with “Petri-dish-to-food-tube.” Regional cuisine—whether it be a legendary Texas “white” dinner, New England shore dinner or a traditional Midwestern meal, where we drink iced tea with everything, including Christmas dinner—now finds virtually its only full market expression at the local farmers’ market.

At the Silex market, rabbit fryers are bought by a “foodie” with a passion for French cuisine, Arab folk seek an intact young male goat or specific color of fowl to be central in meals of great significance, and local shoppers just wanting "real fryin’ chickens" find what they need.

If you need to know how to keep the varmints out of the hen house, come to Silex. And come to buy pigeons for a pie or to begin a white-dove release business, for ducks that quack and ducks that don’t, a goose for roasting, or a big red rooster to crow up the sun at your house.

The farmers and stock raisers of the River Hills are beginning to be recognized as the farming connection at the crossroads between rural and urban Missouri. They bring the farmyard to town, and at the end of the day farmers off the farm and shoppers at the small-town market come away with a better understanding of one other.

I can recall one of the first truly successful days in the market’s early development. The crowd was large and talkative, geese were calling, lambs were bleating and roosters were crowing—all creating a stir that the little country town had rarely seen in recent years.

It was part caravan-stop from Biblical times, part market-bazaar from the Middle Ages, and part trip-to-the-General-Mercantile from the golden age of American agricultural prosperity. As I stood there just taking in the sights and sounds and, yes, even the smells, I was asked, “What do you call all of this?”

“Capitalism,” I replied.

It’s loud, brassy, patches-on-its-knees and dirt-on-its-hands American capitalism as it truly should be.

Kelly Klober has written about small farm themes for more than 30 years. He operates a micro-hatchery with his wife Phyllis and has hands-on experience with every major livestock species.