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
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
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
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
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
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’
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
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
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.