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Agriculture community remains vital, but different, as it evolves in St. Charles County

By: Brian Flinchpaugh


Competitors at the St. Charles County Fair

Turkeytwo clucked and tried to stay cool in the 100-degree July heat of the animal barn. She was not registering much surprise after being named grand champion “female broad-breasted white turkey” at the St. Charles County Fair in Wentzville.

Truthfully, the whole affair was a mixed blessing for Turkeytwo, who likely would be getting the short end of the deal with her fate most likely sealed – or baked, roasted or maybe even smoked – were it not for her owner’s genuine affection.

Greyson Harlin-Sailors looked at his mother and pleaded Turkeytwo’s case. “We need to keep her,” he said.

Greyson Harlin-Sailors and Turkeytwo at the St. Charles County Fair

It was the first time Harlin-Sailors, age 8 and a 4-H club member, had entered an animal for judging. Perhaps he grasped but did not quite accept the foul point of raising “meat” birds – they tend to become entreés more than pets.

While Turkeytwo’s future is a bit vague, she may not be the last animal Harlin-Sailors brings to the fair, even though he lives not on a farm but in an O’Fallon subdivision.

“Animals are his favorite thing,” said Kasey Harlin, his mother. They worked with a local farmer to raise Turkeytwo.

“Yes, I love it,” Harlin-Sailors said, when asked if he liked raising animals. His mother said it’s “the cuteness.”

A suburban 8-year-old raising farm animals isn’t unique at the annual fair, which dates back to when much of the county was farmland. That land now sprouts more single-family houses than corn and soybeans, but local kids are becoming 4-H and Future Farmers of America members. Local 4-H club membership is at almost 500, said Dana Joerling, a youth specialist with the University of Missouri Extension Service in St. Charles County.

“We’ve had a shift toward smaller animals [rabbits and chickens] because we have fewer farms and places to keep larger animals [hogs and cattle],” she said. Whether those suburban kids will become farmers remains unknown. At best, it may lead to more educated consumers and a broadened interest in rural life.

“You can’t say enough about a kid who wants to raise chickens in a subdivision and realizes that eggs don’t come from the store,” said Nathan Dunkmann, watching his four boys having their chickens judged. “Anytime you expose a kid to any of that, I thinks it’s a plus for the industry as a whole.”

It’s an obvious sign as to how the nature of agriculture in St. Charles County continues to evolve, as suburban families find themselves bumped up against rural neighbors. It also may be a sign that agriculture is not about to be plowed under.

Even though rural landscape continues to make way for subdivisions, agriculture remains strong in places like Orchard Farm, Augusta and outside Wentzville, St. Paul, Flint Hill and Josephville.

But it’s a different kind of agriculture.

Farms declining but not disappearing

There are still a lot of farms in St. Charles County. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 census lists 566 farms in the county, amounting to 158,146 acres, with an average farm size of 279 acres – numbers that hadn’t changed appreciably from the previous census in 2007. The next census is due this year.

In 1969, the census listed 1,385 farms in the county, amounting to 276,693 acres.  The average farm size was 199.7 acres.

For the farmers that remain, change is inevitable if they are to remain economically viable.

“You can’t make money by just being a farmer,” said St. Charles County Councilmember Joe Cronin, whose district includes farmland north of O’Fallon to the Lincoln County line, and who also farms.

There still are large soybean and crop fields in the county, particularly in the flat floodplain with rich soil in the Orchard Farm area, in the eastern portion of the county. But raising grain requires large tracts of land and expensive equipment, Cronin said.  Farmers have had to diversify – raising produce and livestock for sale, working another job, starting up “agritainment” attractions such as pumpkin patches or hayrides, renting out land for duck-hunting clubs, or the current rage – setting up outdoor wedding and reception venues.

Another ongoing trend is the growth of “sustainable” agriculture involving smaller pieces of land. This can involve growing vegetables and raising free-range chickens, cattle and pigs humanely in pastures, without using antibiotics or growth stimulants. The products often are sold directly to the public or restaurants, or at farmers markets.

Ron and Jolene Benne at their St. Charles County farm

An island amid a sea of houses

Ron and Jolene Benne have spent their married life farming – and they have lived through all the fashionable farming trends. They still make a living from a piece of land that is an island in a sea of subdivisions. But it isn’t an easy life.

Their 127-acre farm is near Hwy. 94, not too far from its intersection with Interstate 64.

South Breeze Road, a two-lane artery off Hwy. 94, runs by an assisted living facility and subdivision homes, then quickly turns into a half-mile of gravel road. It leads to a classic farmscape – a collection of outside buildings for animals, a farmhouse that dates back to the 1860s, a weathered red barn and a one-room retail building that once may have been slave quarters.

The land here has been cultivated for seven generations by Jolene’s family. Ron grew up on a farm near New Melle. When they married in 1974, they moved to a converted mobile home on the South Breeze Road farm.

Ron began a hog operation and worked a day job in construction, but he eventually found they couldn’t make much money selling livestock on the commodity market.

“Jolene and I finally realized, these hogs are going to put us in the poor house,” he said, sitting with his wife at their kitchen table in late July. “We decided to go into a venture.”

The venture was an outgrowth of the then-fledgling sustainable farm movement. Jolene told Ron she wanted him to go with her that winter to universities across the country to learn about it. “So we became our own entity, raising our own product and selling it ourselves for the price we had to have,” Jolene said.

A restaurateur became interested, and soon a number of restaurants became customers, including Five Bistro in St. Louis and Yia Yia’s in Chesterfield. The Bennes also opened their business to the public. Customers appreciated the natural and environmental way the Bennes raised their animals. Their meat is processed at USDA-certified plants. Customers also liked the food. “The flavor,” Ron explained. “We did well, very well.”

These days, their business, Benne’s Best Meat, is still doing well. It’s open from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday and Wednesday through Friday. On Saturday, it’s open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. They are closed Tuesdays and Sundays.

The farm-to-table movement has matured in recent years, the Bennes said. Some restaurants have dropped out. What’s considered “local” now may be out 50 miles or more. The competition is keener.

“Things have changed and they have changed considerably,” Jolene said. “It’s getting a little more difficult.”

The Bennes are in their late 60s and they do most of the farm work – herding animals, watering and planting, marketing and running a business, hauling chickens to an Amish slaughterhouse in Illinois, and lifting and loading frozen chickens. They have limited health insurance, but Ron said, “We just don’t go the doctor.”

That can be a problem. Ron said he, Jolene and Zach, a young helper, were sorting calves this spring. “One cow was standing, she’s looking at me. I looked at those two and said, ‘Stay – the cow is going to charge.’” The animal weighed about 600 pounds.

Ron said he was prepared to sidestep the animal as she put her head down, but he forgot there was a hay ring right behind him. “So I got pretty creamed. I hit the deck and I got up and the wind is halfway knocked out of me. I stood up saying, ‘Oh my God.’

“Zach looks at Jolene and says, ‘I can’t believe we’re not hauling him out of here in an ambulance.’” But Ron shook it off. Farming isn’t a job – it’s their life.

“We will never completely stop,” Jolene said. But they may not be preparing for an eighth generation on the land.

They have two sons – Don, who works in information technology, and Kyle, who has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. “They’re professionals. We made the mistake of sending them to college,” Ron said.

For now, the day-to-day work continues. The Bennes concede that they have perhaps slowed down a bit. Jolene said they haven’t kept up with marketing their business. They decided not to work the weekly City of St. Charles Farmers Market  anymore because they were busy with other things, and new county health requirements meant their meat would have to be stored in a large, expensive freezer.

“It was a good time to quit,” she said. Asked if the idea of a sustainable farm is a viable option for someone starting out who wants to farm, they both said yes but added, “It wouldn’t be easy.”

Jolene said land like their farm can’t be bought anymore. “If you have land like this, I think it would be viable if you wanted to work your tails off and you had some marketing skills,” she said. Having a spouse work an outside full-time job also may be a requirement now.

“If I were 25 years old, I’d have to question it a lot,” Ron said. “I can’t say I wouldn’t. I’d have to develop a very extensive plan.”

They have a good life, remain active in church and have lots of friends. “But our friends don’t understand us,” Ron said. “I get lonely,” Jolene said. Many of those friends haven’t lived their experience, and those that did have sold out or moved on. The sense of community isn’t the same.

“We just had this conversation: ‘When was the last time I sat down with a group a group of farmers and we talked about the crops, or we talked about the hogs, or we talked about the cattle?’ It’s been years,” Ron said.

He said their friends are “fascinated” by them, but they “don’t get” them.

“They look at you and say, ‘Why don’t you retire? How long are you going to keep doing this?’ I tell people it was what I was made to do,” Ron said.

But Jolene said, “What we remember as kids, I’m not so sure [that type of farm] is out there as much as it was.”

A new sense of community

Still, the popularity of the county fair is evidence of interest in agriculture in St. Charles County.

“I think we’ve kept a steady pace. Kids definitely are still interested, they are still bringing animals, they are still bringing projects for the exhibition hall,” said Kate Boschert, a member of the County Fair Board.

Kate was a suburban kid. “I came from North County with absolutely no agricultural knowledge whatsoever,” she said. “I went to Orchard Farm High School, where the high school was in a corn field, so it was a culture shock for me.”

She learned a little about agriculture but there was a big motivation to learn more. “I married a farmer,” Kate said.  “It’s a whole other world. It’s not a job – it’s a lifestyle.”

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