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