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To most Missouri farmers, making a living off of 1½ acres might seem impossible, but Chert Hollow Farm’s diversity, sustainability and relative independence make up for what it lacks in size.
This season, Eric and Joanna Reuter will sow more than 200 types of produce on their land, located near Finger Lakes State Park about 12 miles north of Columbia. The growing enterprise supplies hard-to-find varieties of organic vegetables to Columbia businesses and consumers.
The Reuters moved from Vermont to Columbia and started the farm four years ago. They have backgrounds in geology, and their farm reflects the calculated approach of a scientist. Neatly built raised beds form a terrace on a slope leading from their home, flanked by a large homemade cedar tool shed.
The farm’s motto, “Sustainability is our bedrock principle,” is realized through minimal use of machinery such as tractors and no use of petroleum-derived pesticides and fertilizers.
“The Mayas, the Romans and the ancient Chinese grew every vegetable we eat today, and they did it without DuPont,” Eric Reuter said, referencing the prolific supplier of agricultural chemicals.
What their old-fashioned, low-impact and low-overhead model means for the Reuters is long hours of physical labor.
“We try to take one day a week off in the winter and about one day a month in the summer,” Eric Reuter, 30, said. All the physical work keeps them active and healthy, which they see as an investment in long-term health.
Additionally, having minimal dependence on petroleum-based products offers the Reuters independence from unpredictable input costs that often change year to year.
“We’re almost completely insulated from changes in oil prices,” Reuter said. “If the Saudis turn off the tap, we won’t have to worry so much.”
In spring 2009, Chert Hollow Farm achieved USDA organic certification, which attached an official stamp of quality to their product. Organic certification also means the Reuters follow strict food safety guidelines to retain and honor the certification.
Although they stay afloat, the income earned as a small farmer is still dwarfed by a salaried office job. The Reuters have been growing their business steadily since its inception four years ago and plan to continue expanding in the future. They even have some part-time help for this season; a few friends will work four hours a week to lend a hand on the farm.
“We are growing, but we’re not where we want to be as business income,” Reuter said. “Will we get there? We’ll see.”
The two market their produce to a decided niche that crosses demographic lines, a group Reuter described as “people who see buying produce like they see buying a car, who want quality and are willing to pay for it.”
At present, Reuter said, the farm achieves between 20 and 30 percent of its income from restaurants in Columbia including Sycamore, Uprise Bakery and Café Berlin. The rest of the farm’s produce is sold at the Columbia Farmers Market.
Selling high-end produce isn’t the full extent of the Reuters’ ambitions. The farm’s Web site, cherthollowfarm.com, offers insight into the philosophy and practice of sustainable farming as they see it. The Chert Hollow Farm – Food For Thought blog — cherthollowfarm.blogspot.com — exists as a forum for the Reuters to throw in their two cents on cooking and agricultural policy issues or to share day-to-day stories from the farm.
(Reuter has served on the board of the Sustainable Farms and Communities, an organization that promotes the Columbia Farmers Market and education on locally grown food.)
Chert Hollow Farm welcomes another level of transparency by offering tours of the farm. Individual or group farm tours can be arranged by phone or e-mail and cost $8 per person, Reuter said. “People can come to our farm and see our methods for themselves.”