When Fred and Serena Stuart sit down to a meal at their Gerald farm, they can often name the exact acre of land that each item on their plates comes from. They grow the vast majority themselves, and other goods are sourced from farmer friends and markets where they have a relationship with the grower and know exactly how the food was raised.

For them, this knowledge is essential in trying to eat and live as humanely and environmentally friendly as they can. 

A movement to farm more sustainably, to leave the dirt richer in nutrients than it was before growing food, is increasing in popularity across the country and in the Show-Me State. At women-owned farms in Beaufort, Gerald and New Haven, the practices of ages past are made new again in hopes to change the way farmers, the land, the produce and the consumers interact.

At Sam Wiseman’s Sunflower Savannah operation in Beaufort, the focus is on preserving disappearing food sources — species of animals and plants that are in danger of going extinct. Wiseman explained that having several different species of food and animals is essential to prevent disease from wiping out all of one food source.

“I’ve always been drawn to the older way of doing farming,” she said. “But when I found out that all our food hinges on one or two varieties of things, it just didn’t make sense to me. It’s like what happened in Ireland. They were growing one kind of potato when the potato blight came in, and millions of people starved. So it made sense to me to start trying to save different varieties.”

As she transitioned from growing and selling only cut flowers, Wiseman visited seed banks around the country to collect heirloom species of vegetables, particularly tomatoes, of which she grows over 40 varieties. She soon branched into livestock, starting with Cayuga ducks, which The Livestock Conservancy categorized as threatened in 2008. The Sunflower Savannah farm now has around 45 of the ducks, as well as 30 to 50 St. Croix sheep, around 50 chickens, four dogs and three cats. 

The sheep manure is the only fertilizer Wiseman uses on her gardens, and she used recycled and repurposed material for the gardens’ beds and other infrastructure. She’s gotten shelves from a fast food restaurant going out of business and fencing from friends. One of her favorite recycled pieces is several pieces of tarp that were saved from the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis. 

The 22 acres along Highway 185 that Wiseman farms had been an integrated nursery for five years when the Wisemans bought it in 2000. Sam Wiseman started Sunflower Savannah as a cut-flower business from the bushes that were already in place on the farm, and she was among the first farmers to join the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market. She’s enjoyed learning from other farms committed to growing organic and certified naturally grown products like she does, but she said she also likes having varieties that no one else can offer. Her most recent endeavor is krones, a starchy vegetable similar to a Jerusalem artichoke that she said no one besides her is growing in Missouri. 

The mission aligns well with Wiseman’s and also with the Stuarts’, whose farm overlooks the Bourbeuse River. The 130-acre farm, which specializes in raising cattle, hogs and chicken, is the land Fred Stuart grew up on. When he married Serena, both had been vegetarians but were drawn to finding humane ways to raise animals for consumption. They liked the idea of long lives with open spaces, sunshine and naturally nutritious food, Serena Stuart said. 

“I think a lot of people are fed up with the way the animals are treated, as it’s coming to light how much cows, chickens, pigs are confined and not treated well,” Serena Stuart said. “People always ask, ‘How can you name your pigs and cows and later eat them?’ And it’s like, ‘I wouldn’t feel any less sad about it if they didn’t have a name, so why not give them a little bit of respect and dignity?’ We’re taking care of the animals who are taking care of us — feeding us and our friends and family with good, healthy food.”

Serena Stuart has built up the farm’s clientele to about 200 regular families who support their methods. The Stuarts rotate cattle to new pastures every day or two, broilers twice a day, layers every two to three days and hogs every three to four months. They grow cows about four years before butchering. Stuart said the customers say the quality of the meat, both in terms of taste and in terms of health benefits, makes it worth the wait. 

“We have people who say they can’t buy meat anywhere else because it doesn’t taste the same,” she said. “I think more people are going to start looking for pasture-raised food, especially as more health concerns start coming up. A lot of people don’t think there’s a difference between what we produce and what’s in a store, but then they try it, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know this could taste like that.’ ”

To make up the difference in profits from longer grow times, both the Wisemans and the Stuarts have received grant funding from Slow Food, an international nonprofit with a St. Louis area chapter that aims “to promote good, clean and fair food.” 

According to several studies, that mission is becoming more popular around the world. The International Food Information Council reported in 2019 that of 1,012 Americans surveyed, 54 percent said it’s “at least somewhat important that the products they buy be produced in an environmentally sustainable way.” 

The shifting values are making an impact financially, too. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic food in the U.S. totaled $50.1 billion in 2020, up 4.6 percent from the previous year, more than double the 2 percent growth of the general market growth. And a 2017 Census of Agriculture special study from the USDA found a 17 percent increase in the number of certified farms in the U.S. between 2016 and 2019, as well as a 31 percent increase in sales over that same time. 

Wiseman and Stuart both said the increased market has led to some farming operations “greenwashing,” or marketing products to sound more sustainable and organically grown than they actually are. Both said the best way to avoid this, particularly when shopping at farmers markets, is to know who your farmer is and ask them questions about how they produce their goods. Wiseman said many will even be willing to let you take a tour of their farm to see for yourself.

“If you’re at the market and someone has something that’s out of season, ask them how they grew it,” Serena Stuart said. “If someone has tomatoes in April, I would ask them what their practices are that made growing tomatoes in April possible. If you’re talking to a beef farmer, ask them what they feed their cows in the winter time. If they advertise that their cows are grass fed, but they get a protein tub in the winter, well, that’s full of grain.” 

Serena Stuart said another key to avoiding greenwashed products is to support and keep supporting the local farmers you trust. 

“If you buy better quality clothes, they last longer. If you buy better quality meat, it’ll satisfy you faster. … So you might spend more on pasture meat, but you’re eating less of it and getting the best quality you can,” she said. She also said higher prices on locally grown organic produce allows farmers to remain self-employed, purchase health insurance, build retirement savings and more. 

The share the Stuarts receive of their products’ revenue is much higher than conventional farmers. The National Farmers Union’s Farmer Share project, which is online at nfu.org/farmers-share, reports the amount of income farmers get from various food items, and the average is 14.3 cents per dollar that consumers spend. The rest goes to marketing, processing, wholesaling, distribution and retailing. For contrast, the Stuarts’ revenue is shared only with their butcher.

“A lot of people care about the welfare of the animals, but when it comes to the welfare of the people raising them and harvesting them, it doesn’t seem to matter,” Serena Stuart said. “That’s hard for me, but our customers get it. And having someone who really appreciates what you’re providing for them means a lot.”

Coyles’ co-op aims to make sustainable food convenient 

Despite the benefits they see in supporting local sustainable farmers, Sam Wiseman and Serena Stuart admit there is more convenience associated with a grocery store. This is a gap that New Haven farmers Charissa and Joe Coyle are trying to bridge with Avant Gardens, an online co-operative where vetted local farmers can upload what products they have in stock online, and consumers can select from all the products available and pick them all up at the same time and location. 

The service is made possible through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a membership-based program where consumers pay one fee at the onset of the growing season for a share of the harvest, which is provided by several member-area farms. Pickups are currently offered weekly in Washington, New Haven, Rosebud and Hermann. 

“Initially, our interest was just in growing our own food,” Charissa Coyle said. “We did a farmers market in downtown New Haven for about five years, and then it closed. As a result, we started looking at how this could work in small communities where it’s hard to keep a farmers market because you don’t have enough people or enough vendors. That’s when we developed the idea of a cooperative CSA.”

The service, which offers fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and baked goods, currently has around 30 subscribers. The max it can accept is 60. 

Before Coyle adds a farmer to the co-op, she tours their farm and tastes their food. She grows several varieties herself of fruits, vegetables and herbs; produces pork, beef and dairy; and maintains 12 hives of bees for honey, and she said she can taste when something has preservatives or synthetic chemicals. 

“Different people care about different things,” she said. “Some people want no chemicals sprayed on their food. Some people don’t care so much about that, but they don’t want to eat meat if the animal has been confined or in any way stressed, and they don’t care if it was fed organic grain or grass or what. But if you’re buying directly from the farmer, you can ask them those questions. That’s why I like CSAs like this, because you know everybody.”

Coyle produces her own contributions to the CSA on about 40 acres of land she grew up on. Her childhood house, which her parents still live in, overlooks her pastures. She collects their manure to compost and use on her vegetable garden.

“With everything we do, we want to make the land better off,” she said. “We want everything to be improving the land, not degrading.”