Feature

In this October 2020 TF magazine

FEATURES

Inviting opportunity
Agritourism offers another way to add value to the farm - Photo Gallery
by Kerri Lotven

Answering the call
MFA Volunteer Fire Grant program helps equip first responders in rural communities - Photo Gallery
by Allison Jenkins


Rural revitalization
Is your community growing or shrinking smart? Photo Gallery 
by Nancy Jorgensen

The grass isn’t always greenest in Missouri
Manage risk with insurance products to protect forages, livestock

Blake Thomas, MFA Crop Insurance Agent

Q&A with MFA
Learn more about your cooperative leaders
An interview with Doyle Oehl, MFA Board Member

Take half, leave half
Upcoming grazing schools help cattle producers improve farms from the grass up
by Landry Jones, MFA Conservation Grazing Specialist

Cover crops add flexibility to grazing
Extend your season, produce high-quality forage, protect the land
by Dr. Jim White, MFA Director of Nutrition

Seed treatments advance beyond the basics
New options provide more choices, better protection than ever before
by Kevin Moore, MFA Agronomist

Pawpaw law comes to fruition
Student campaign raises recognition of Missouri’s own tropical treat
by Allison Jenkins

DEPARTMENTS & OPINION

Country Corner
Agriculture ranks No. 1 in public opinion
by Allison Jenkins

UpFront/Blog
Crop residue decisions affect soil life
Dr. Deanna Smith is CropLife Ambassador of the Year
Centennial celebrations for MFA cooperatives

Markets
Corn: Large production may limit late-season prices
Soybeans: Lower acreage could mean tighter supplies
Cattle: COVID-19 disruptions drive beef prices
Wheat: Reduced global crops may boost U.S. exports

Recipes
Going Dutch - As printed via Flip Book

Marketplace
BUY, sell, trade - As printed via Flip Book

Viewpoint
We evolve but honor our founding principles
by Ernie Verslues, MFA President and CEO

Closing Thought for October TF 2020
Each month our photographer and poet team up for a unique last page for the magazine.

FLIPBOOK
Click below to view the magazine as printed in a digital Flip book format.

Click to view the magazine as printed via a flip book

Read more: In this October 2020 TF magazine

  • Created on .
  • Hits: 438

Rural revitalization



Small towns and rural communities are continually looking for ways to strengthen their economies, provide better quality of life and build on local assets. Agriculture forms the foundation in many of these communities, and farm profitability has declined over the past few years, presenting even more challenges. But we found three towns—Allerton, Iowa, and Chillicothe and Maryville, Mo.—that are not only holding their own but also finding ways to thrive.

Twelve years ago, the people of Allerton, Iowa, population 550, restored what is now the Old Time Soda Fountain.

“Once the town decided the soda fountain was worth saving, everyone got behind it,” said Lorena Blount, a retired English teacher. The restoration is just one example of how Allerton residents have worked togeth­er to improve quality of life, as measured by an Iowa State University research project.

It took a few years for volunteers to restore the former drug store and malt shop building, which features a 1952 soda fountain fronted by a classic red counter, padded round stools and a few tables.

Since it opened in 2008, volunteers young and old have served customers every summer Saturday night. The place was hopping until this year, when it remained closed because of COVID-19 concerns. The Blounts and other volunteers are committed to reopening when the pandemic subsides.

“Something about the space encourages sociability,” Lorena said.

She and her husband, Ross, began working with commu­nities as Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa decades ago. Ross, a retired minister and farmer, rents out his cropland these days but continues to raise cattle and hay and is a member of MFA Agri Services in Corydon. He’s also pres­ident of the board of directors of the non-profit Old Time Soda Fountain. Supporters contributed more than $40,000 and countless hours of elbow grease to restore the building. A retired druggist filled the shelves with his collection of old medicines, and an Allerton school alumnus donated an automated red-and-white awning for the storefront.

When Allerton schools closed in 1966, students trans­ferred to Corydon, six miles away, and many young people have moved away to find jobs. But Allerton roots run deep.

“Allerton school alumni have been generous in donating as a monument to their youth, when they hung out at the soda fountain,” Lorena said. Last year, eight students from Corydon High School volunteered to work at the fountain alongside the usual older cadre.

This isn’t the only example of how Allerton citizens—cur­rent and former—keep the town going. In the 1980s, locals dismantled a large building in Ames, free for the taking, and reassembled it in Allerton. The Centennial Building now hosts events for up to 400 people. Lorena co-directs a community play that draws 1,000 people at three perfor­mances each spring.

Allerton is shrinking smart

David Peters, who has authored research on 99 towns in Iowa, cites Allerton as an example of a small town that’s “shrinking smart.”

“Allerton’s population dropped by over 15% in the last decade,” said Peters, a University of Missouri graduate and associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University. “However, it also experienced a large rise in quality of life over the same period.”

In his role as an Extension rural sociologist at Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Peters works with colleagues to survey one town in each Iowa county every five years. They ask residents to rate their hometown’s quality of jobs, medical ser­vices, schools, housing, government, and child and senior services—subjective issues compared to wage and employment data that economists usually gather.

“We were surprised to discover that a strong social infrastructure, rather than economic or physical factors, determines whether resi­dents report greater quality of life,” Peters said.

As he explained, some thriving towns in the study are growing be­cause of natural amenities such as lakes, rivers or woods, or because they’re near large cities. Other places, like Allerton, are shrinking in population, but residents are committed to building quality of life. The Blounts call it “social capital.”

“The good thing about social infrastructure is that it’s inexpensive to create,” Peters said. “For example, the odds of recruiting a manu­facturer are pretty slim. By contrast, investing in social infrastructure almost always pays a dividend, making your town more attractive to new residents and businesses.”

Ross Blount agrees with that conclusion, pointing to Allerton Mayor Doug Downs, who serves with young people on the town council and welcomes everyone to voice their opinions. The same is true with Fire Chief Greg Fortune, who drew in young volunteers to bring new life to the fire department.

“I like what Dr. Peters says,” Ross added. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to build quality of life. In Allerton, it has also required a balance of young and older volunteers.”

Allerton isn’t perfect, Downs admits. “We have some old houses and buildings that need to be torn down,” he said. “But we make everyone feel welcome.”

Chillicothe builds strong foundations

With about 9,700 residents, Chillicothe, Mo., has grown by more than 2% since the 2010 census. It’s larger than Allerton, but it’s still a small town in Andrew McCrea’s book.

A farmer, agricultural leader, speaker, broadcaster and author, McCrea published “The Total Town Makeover” in 2019. In the book, he portrays Chillicothe as a place that succeeds in part by raising funds through foundations.

“Chillicothe is known as the birthplace of sliced bread,” McCrea said, referring to Chillicothe Baking Company, the first baker in the world to sell sliced bread to the public. “Perhaps the next best things to sliced bread are Chillicothe’s family foundations.”

McCrea, who raises cattle and row crops in Maysville, Mo., and serves on his local MFA Agri Services board, has spent much of his broadcasting and speaking career visiting rural communities across the United States. He lists steps that towns like Chillicothe often take to succeed:

  • Endowments or foundations provide seed money for projects.
  • Leaders pull together in one direction.
  • Leaders communicate short-term and long-term goals to the community.
  • Leaders build momentum through social media and other efforts that reach out to people who have moved away.
  • Townspeople commit to building a positive culture, includ­ing such simple gestures as smiling more.

Ed Turner, a Chillicothe real estate appraiser, serves as presi­dent of the Chillicothe Industrial Development Corporation and other boards. He remembers attending a 1989 meeting of local bankers, lawyers and accountants where the idea of forming foundations to keep wealth in the community began to blossom.

The leaders decided the community needed a YMCA.

“We went to the national YMCA for help, and they said towns of our size are not usually successful,” Turner said. “They suggested we start as a storefront and use churches, parks and school facilities to host activities.”

Chillicothe surprised the national Y staff by raising $150,000 for the storefront in six weeks. Within two years, five foun­dations formed to support building the Y’s own facilities, and Turner ran a campaign that raised $3 million.

Today, the local YMCA’s 6,000 members enjoy two gyms with weights, exercise machines and a walking track. The Y also built a swimming pool, a football and soccer complex, and branches in two nearby towns.

“The Y was a springboard,” Turner said. “People could see what philanthropy could do for a community.”

Today, McCrea reports, 19 family foundations and trusts support Chillicothe, and additional foundations fund the community, hospital and schools. Farmers, who often have wealth tied up in land, were among those forming family foundations. Federal law re­quires foundations to spend 5% of their assets each year or risk being taxed. “Do the math, and that’s a sizable amount of money that goes back into the community every year,” McCrea said.

In addition to the Y, the community built a 24-lane bowling alley, an 18-hole golf course and the Litton Agri-Science Learning Center. Turner said Chilli­cothe has also revitalized its downtown, attracted a large solar farm and other in­dustries, and commissioned 26 murals that draw in tourists. Sales tax receipts grew by 9% in the first four months of the latest fiscal year, he added.

“A lot of communities have the same opportunities as Chilli­cothe,” Turner said. “But if you don’t have everyone pulling the same wagon, it won’t happen. You have to fight people who say ‘We used to do it this way.’ You need what I call The Big Mo— momentum—and you need to bring young people into leader­ship positions.”

Maryville stands its ground

Many successful towns in McCrea’s The Total Town Makeover benefit from being trading centers for surrounding rural communities and farmers. The author says Maryville, Mo., population 12,000, is one example, describing the town as “a hub for economic activity in northwestern Missouri.”

While Maryville’s population declined slightly in recent years, leaders are working to continue to attract business from the region.

“Surrounding counties and communities are an important part of our economic viability,” said Josh McKim, executive director with Nodaway County Economic Development Corporation, which created a revolving fund to move projects forward throughout northwestern Missouri.

Tenaska recently installed a 100-turbine wind farm near Maryville and contributes $15,000 a year to the community. Another wind farm also cropped up in the area. Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Corporation’s Maryville plant continues to grow, McKim said.

“Over the last five years, we’ve had nearly $150 million in commer­cial and public investment beyond the two wind projects, which totaled $600 million,” he said. “We have to invest, and we’ve got to take risks. If we don’t, what’s the point? Small towns won’t be here in a hundred years without those investments.”

Maryville has seen its ups and downs. Some big box stores left town, but McKim says that local retail has seen a resurgence as a result. One such entrepreneur is Stephanie Campbell, who in 2016 opened Blue Willow Boutique, a women’s clothing store, on Main Street across from the historic Nodaway County Courthouse. The Kansas City native relocated to Maryville with her fiancé, Kent Yount, and says she wanted to do more than just reside in the community. She wanted to invest in it.

“Maryville is an awesome place with great people, but we needed more places to shop,” Campbell said. “The downtown is the heart of any community, and Maryville deserves to have a great downtown. Everything else succeeds when the heart is strong.”

Business has far surpassed her expec­tations, Campbell said, and she has since acquired adjacent space to expand her retail shop and storage and opened a second Blue Willow location in nearby St. Joseph. She and Yount, along with other partners, also plan to open a craft brewery on the Maryville square. They’ve purchased a vacant corner building and are in the pro­cess of renovating it into a taphouse with second-story apartments.

“I firmly believe in this community and the potential for small businesses like ours to succeed,” Campbell said. “We can’t compete with the big-box stores, but we can do what they can’t do, and that’s have a relationship. My small business friends and I all invest in this community—schools and ball teams and kids. All of those things are important for a strong, healthy town.”

Compared to other rural places, Maryville has a young population, McKim said, with a median age of 24. Northwest Missouri State University, which has more than 7,000 students, also boosts Maryville’s economy.

“We have actively engaged with young professionals and university students when planning for the future,” McKim says. “We’re doing well with our sales tax and unemployment numbers. Our goal is to see population growth in the region. Hopefully we’re doing things right.”

Coping with COVID-19

The economies of Allerton, Chillicothe and Maryville seem to be stable, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the agricultural downturn.

Darin Crackenberger, manager of MFA Agri Services of Chillicothe, re­ports that MFA business is steady. “We placed tables in front of checkouts to encourage social distancing,” he said, “and in some cases we bring items out to people who park out front.”

Jared Grimes, assistant manager at MFA Agri Services of Maryville, add­ed that Missouri MFA stores were shut down for 30 days at the beginning of the pandemic, but were then deemed essential businesses and sales mostly returned to normal. “We’ve changed our daily habits, keeping social distance and wiping down surfaces frequently,” he said.

Iowa State’s David Peters confirms that so far, rural places have been more fortunate than urban areas.

“Most of the towns in our study have been largely unaffected by COVID,” Peters said. “Few wear masks, and most think the pandemic will bypass their town. I pray they are right, because if COVID-19 comes, it will hit them hard as most have many older residents. The larger economic impact—a downturn in international trade and commodity prices—would also hit agriculture hard.”

Stephanie Campbell, owner of Blue Willow Boutique in downtown Maryville, said that while the pandemic has hurt many small businesses, it has also caused many consumers to shop closer to home.

“I think you’re seeing a kind of renaissance across the country,” she said. “Especially with the pandemic, people are returning to who they know, like and trust. They want to see us all still be here when this is over.”

  • Created on .
  • Hits: 1916

Answering the call

When firefighters are summoned to emergencies in rural Missouri, chances are the crews responding are vol­unteers. They’re not getting paid for putting themselves in harm’s way to save people and property. They simply want to serve their communities.

Funding is usually sparse. Equipment may be lacking. Infrastructure is often inadequate. But these volunteer fire departments are a critical lifeline for rural residents who rely on their services in times of trouble.

“We’re the first line of defense,” said Mike Prigge, fire chief for the Vichy Volunteer Fire Protection Association. “We answer 80 to 100 calls every year, everything from vehicle wrecks to structural fires, flood rescues to brush fires. We’ve even responded to plane crashes because we are the closest fire department to the Rolla National Airport, which is just down the road from our station.”

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, Missouri has 775 registered fire departments, and nearly 85% are volunteer or mostly volunteer. These entities are largely dependent on donations, not tax dollars, to run their operations. In the Vichy district, community dinners throughout the year provide about half of its annual bud­get. The rest comes from annual dues paid by residents served by the district, which spreads in a six-mile radius.

“It seems there’s never enough funding for a fire department, but in rural areas, that’s really, truly the case,” said Gail Hagans, educational program coordi­nator for the University of Missouri Extension Fire and Rescue Training Institute (FRTI). “When there isn’t a municipality to pay the bills, even the smallest amount of funding can make a big difference.”

That’s why the MFA Charitable Founda­tion has partnered with the FRTI to offer grants that can be used to equip volunteer fire departments with the training and resources they need to save lives and protect property. Launched last year, this first-of-its-kind program awarded more than $30,000 to 19 fire and rescue entities across the state. MFA’s foundation contributed $26,000 with a donation of $5,000 more from CoBank, a national cooperative bank serving MFA and other member-owned organizations across rural America.

For 2020, the MFA Charitable Founda­tion board of trustees approved $25,000 for the grant program, and CoBank provided an additional $10,000. Each award recip­ient must provide a 50% match for their requested funding. The award maximum is $2,000 and minimum is $500. 

“This program puts structure to MFA’s longstanding commitment of support for fire departments that serve our rural areas,” said Ernie Verslues, MFA Incorporated CEO. “For years, the foun­dation received individual requests and struggled with allocating funds to those departments with the greatest need. The fire and rescue professionals in this organization have an in-depth understanding of the operations and these rural departments and how the funds can be dis­persed to help them better serve their communities.”

In its first year, the grant program received 77 applications, far more than anticipated. The 2019 requests totaled nearly $316,000, well exceeding the grant pool and demonstrating the need, Hagans said.

“Firefighting gear is specialized, so it’s expensive,” she said. “On our grant applications last year, we saw some volunteer fire department budgets that were only $3,000 or $4,000 a year. When it comes to buying what they may need, whether it’s a pair of gloves or a flashlight or a radio or any number of things, these grants will truly impact how they can operate.”

To put the costs into perspective, a pair of structural firefighting gloves can run $75 to $100. It takes more than $2,000 to outfit one firefighter with turnout gear—personal protective equipment that in­cludes a coat, pants, boots, hood, helmet and gloves—and each member of the department needs a complete set. A basic SCBA unit (self-contained breathing appara­tus) with a single mask and cylinder can set a fire department back more than $5,000.

Under last year’s grant program, the Vichy Volunteer Fire Protection Association received a $2,000 award for turnout gear. Matching the grant for a total of $4,000, the department was able to buy two sets of much-needed PPE, each adding up to about $2,100.

“There’s never enough money to go around to pay all the bills, so the MFA grant was a big help,” said Bonnie Prigge, the association’s board president. “Those dollars were used wisely to help benefit and protect our community. We were able to get funding about 10 years ago for new turnout gear, but they only have a 10-year lifespan, and it’s time to start replacing them. Now we have two new sets, and only 15 more to go!”

For 2020, the application period runs from Oct. 1 through Nov. 30, with award notifications expected after Feb. 1, 2021. Depending on the availability of funds, the goal is to provide grants to at least one recipient in each of the nine Fire Mutual Aid Regions in Missouri. Each agency must be registered with the Missouri Division of Fire Safety, Hagans pointed out.

District directors from the Firefighters Association of Mis­souri (FFAM) and MU FRTI regional coordinators will review applications from their jurisdictions and score them accord­ingly, with final review by a committee comprised of FRTI and FFAM members, the Missouri Division of Fire Safety and MFA Incorporated to determine awardees.

“It’s a great program, something that is absolutely needed by fire departments such as ours,” said Chief Prigge, who’s been a Vichy firefighter since the association was formed in 1977. “We’re an all-volunteer organization. We serve because we have a sense of wanting to help people and give back to the commu­nity, and we really appreciate the support we get in return.”

For more information on how to apply for funding, visit on­line at mfa.ag/volunteerfiregrant or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

  • Created on .
  • Hits: 417

Inviting opportunity

The definition of agritourism is almost as limitless as your imagination. Hosting farm weddings, fishing expeditions, beekeeping adventures, and yes, even goat yoga all fall under this giant umbrella. According to the USDA Economic Research Service and the Census of Agriculture, farm agritourism revenue more than tripled from 2002 to 2017. With seemingly constant market instability, more farmers are looking into this sector to add value to their operations and offer the public an invitation to experience life on the farm.

This year, when vacations and other celebrations have been put on hold, agritourism offers an outlet to get outside, put worries aside and make memories at a safe distance.

“This is probably the busiest year we’ve ever had,” said John White, who runs a U-pick farm with his wife, Linda, in Bates City, Mo.

“I guess if you can’t go to a bar, a U-pick is the next best thing,” Linda joked.

John and Linda moved 21 years ago to their current loca­tion just about a mile off of Interstate 70.

“Before that, it was just a bean field,” Linda said. “John planted a couple of strawberry patches for us and then just didn’t stop.”

John admits he may have gotten a little carried away. The couple originally purchased five acres of land and added another five when it became available. On those 10 acres, the couple grows almost every type of produce suitable for Missouri. Their season begins in April with asparagus. In mid-May, the strawberries begin to ripen, then the black­berries, and then blueberries.

“Blueberries and blackberries are basically at the same time for a while,” John said. “Then we have peaches and pears and apples and plums.”

When people think of U-pick farms, berries and apples often come to mind—green beans and onions typically don’t. But John and Linda’s Fruit and Berry Farm also offers a variety of garden vege­tables and flowers for picking. Pumpkins round out their season in October.

“We have a little something for everyone,” John said. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It’s definitely more work.”

When John started two strawberry patches all those years ago, he said U-pick options weren’t as prevalent.

“There were a few up north and around Kansas City that did apples or strawberries,” John said. “But there weren’t any here locally. I grew up on a dairy farm near Bogard, Mo., and we used to do the farmer’s markets with my dad, who also had orchards and vegetables. As we got older, taking produce to the market became too much. Just packing and unpacking everything is a tremendous amount of work. At the time, I’d also taken a job with an over-the-road shipping company and started working weekends.”

The couple were still six or seven years away from retirement. As John looked into the future, he wanted a way to augment their retirement income. The U-pick business has done exactly that. A few years ago, the couple put a new roof on the house and painted the exterior with the money saved from previous seasons.

“It’s always something,” John said. “For instance, the brakes went out on my truck yesterday. This gives me extra, so I don’t have to cut into our retirement funds. The money that we make here wouldn’t be enough to live off of, but it does give me a supplement, and that’s the real reason we did this.”

While 10 acres may not seem like a lot to any traditional farmer, per-acre margins on John and Linda’s U-pick are significantly higher than corn or soybeans might be.

“I’ve been away from traditional farming for so long that I’m not sure what an acre of soybeans or corn is worth anymore,” John said. “My best estimate is what we make per acre here is probably five times that, but you can’t do what we do on hundreds of acres. It’s all hand labor.”

Likewise, planting takes careful planning.

“I started planting trees the first year,” John said. “A peach tree takes two to three years to get established and fruit. Even then, it will only produce a couple of peaches in the beginning. An apple tree takes four or five years to produce fruit, and every year we lose trees due to weather and diseases.”

One year, the farm lost 100 peach trees to excessive rains. Such losses have the potential to be catastrophic.

“We constantly have to plant and replant,” John said. “Because if you don’t stay on top of it, you risk getting behind and may not have anything for four or five years.”

Planning is just one of the challenges that goes along with operating a U-pick farm. The sheer amount of labor is another. The strawberry patch has to be weeded year-round, not just when the plants are producing. Blackberry brambles must be sheared. Spraying must be carefully timed and communicated to ensure customer safety. And, often, at the end of the day, good fruit is left on the ground.

Nevertheless, sometimes unique challenges present unique solutions.

“We typically don’t have much waste,” John said. “People pretty well pick everything, but I’ll go through and gather the apples that fall to the ground or may have been culled because of a little spot. I’ll wash them up, and we’ll make sweet apple cider.”

In the corner of the garage, next to the produce table, sits an old juicer John inherited from his father.

“The juice is really good,” Linda emphasized. “We’ve had people go to their car, take a sip, drink the whole jar and come back for more. Plus, the kids love it. They love throwing the apples in the juicer.”

Just a short 30-minute drive from Kansas City, the small U-pick farm gets visitors from all over the world. John and Linda recollected the countries from memory—Turkey, China, Russia, India, Vietnam, Bosnia, the Philippines.

“It’s amazing how many people from different countries come out here,” John said. “A lot are just visiting or are now local to Kansas City, and they will bring their friends and come out to pick.”

Many people have told Linda and John that this year marks the first time they’ve ever visited a U-pick farm. Mallory Montgomery of Blue Springs, Mo., is one of those first-timers. During the pandemic, she’s been working from home part-time and visited the farm in late summer with her children, Ava, who will be 7 years old in October, and Daniel, 3.

“We were looking for things to do outside,” said Mallory, as she and the kids wandered the manicured grounds. “It keeps them connected to nature. Our days are much more open now, since I’m working less and we’re all at home. We’ve been mean­ing to do something like this, but my son was still pretty little last season. This year he’s much more independent.”

The three started in the blueberry patch. Ava dutifully tasted one blueberry and put the rest in her bucket. Daniel “tasted” every blueberry he picked.

“We’re going to have to add another pound to our tab,” Mal­lory said.

That’s part of it, John said, smiling as the kids brought their buckets to the cash register, set up in the garage. At this junc­ture in their lives, the couple plan on running the farm for the foreseeable future.

“We’re just going to keep doing this until we can’t anymore,” Linda said.

ROADSIDE RETAIL

About 30 minutes north, Rasa Orchards’ market just outside Lexington, Mo., also attracts people from far and wide. The family has operated a direct-to-retail option for customers for nearly 60 years, but the open-air storefront along Highway 24 has served as the face of the multi-generational operation since the late 1980s.

The larger story, however, is just a little further down the gravel drive, where the Rasa packing house sits obscured by apple trees. As the drive opens up, it is obvious the scale of the operation goes beyond this small roadside market.

“We run about 2,000 to 2,500 bushels of apples through here a day,” said Norman Rasa, who owns and operates the orchard with his brothers, Bob and Edgar. Their wives and many of their children and grandchildren are also involved.

Today’s three-brother partnership actually goes back two generations to their grandfather, August Rasa, Sr.

“My grandfather planted four acres of apple trees,” Norman said. “After that we just continued to buy land as it became available.”

Since that time, the orchards have steadily grown to encom­pass 170 acres of trees, including five acres of peaches. Much of that expansion can be attributed to Norman and his brothers, but each generation has made its own mark on the business.

“Robert Rasa, Sr., was a very knowledgeable grafter,” Ruby Rasa said, speaking of her husband, Edgar’s, father. “You had to be back then. He actually perfected a Jonathan strain. Stark Bros. Nursery was interested, and the rights to this Jonathan strain were sold to them. The name of the tree is Jon-A-Red, a late-season Jonathan.”

Spark Bros. is a well-known name in the tree business. Locat­ed in Louisiana, Mo., the 200-year-old nursery ships trees and other plants nationwide.

At the warehouse, packing season typically starts in August and runs for roughly three months. When the apples begin to ripen, they are hand-picked and placed in large plastic bins in the orchards. Those bins are transported to the warehouse, where they are lowered into the processing line for a wash, buff and wax before they are sorted by size and packaged by hand.

It’s fast-paced, hectic work. At times, the machine jams or goes too fast for new staff to keep up. Norman, positioned at the helm of the processing line, oversees its operation, closely monitoring a computer. Occasionally, he shuts it down to allow the seasonal workers to catch up.

“Normally, we have about 50-60 employees,” said Susan Rasa, Norman’s wife, who also helps run daily operations. “But we’ve had a shortage this year. Some of our employees that typically come back every year are older and didn’t want to risk possible COVID exposure, even though we have safety measures in place.”

Rasa Orchards sells to Walmart, which distributes the apples across its retail network.

“A lot of our apples go to stores here in Missouri but also to Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, just to name a few,” Norman said. “We actually have a freight advantage being locat­ed here because we can be in any big major city in about eight to 10 hours. The thing about the Missouri apples is they’re one of the first fresh apples on the market every year.”

This wholesale operation amounts to 95% of Rasa’s business, Norman said, while the retail market makes up the other 5%. Statistically, this checks out for a lot of farmers who decide to add an agritourism component. According to the USDA Eco­nomic Research Service, agritourism revenue is still relatively small when compared with total farm revenue, accounting for only 5.6% of farm-related income in 2017, the last year census data was recorded.

Ruby operates the market most days. She unequivocally con­siders their retail storefront to be agritourism. Many people stop as they’re driving through or find the farm on the internet and purposely make a trip. Like John and Linda’s, Rasa is a relatively short drive from Kansas City.

“We have regular customers that come from as far as Iowa,” Ruby said, as she rang out another person at the register in mid-August. It was nearing the end of peach season, and this time of year, Rasa’s customers can’t seem to get enough of the fleshy fruit, often inquiring which variety she recommends.

“The best peach is a ripe peach,” is Ruby’s consistent re­sponse, but she knows everyone has different preferences. She asks about use—if they’re making pies or jams, or if they like freestone or clingstone varieties better, explaining the difference if necessary.

“I have come down every week for the last five, and I take peaches home to people,” said Lisa Lohman of Kansas City, who has been an avid customer of the small retail market for many years. “We do this every year. We’ll freeze the peaches and use them throughout the year for everything—pies, cobblers, ice cream, smoothies.”

Lisa is only one example of the market’s loyal customer base, Ruby said.

“She comes in and buys for her neighbors,” Ruby said. “That’s what helps us more than anything else—customers like this.”

Jim and Sharon Thomas are next in line. Now retired teachers, they consider themselves regulars.

“We’re all the way from Lexington,” Jim joked, “but we’re here at least once a week.”

In the brief gap between customers, Ruby brings out more peaches from the refrigerator and straightens the shelves.

“I’ll tell you one last story,” Ruby said. “I came up here in ’68 from my home in Arkansas to pick apples, and I married my boss.” She referred to her husband, Edgar, now 84, who had driven by earlier on a tractor.

“We’ve been married 51 years,” she added.

When asked if he ever considered retiring, she laughed. “He’s a farmer to the core. He doesn’t know how to. They really don’t. It’s in their veins.”

A-MAIZE-ING ADVENTURES

In mid-September, Larry and Evelyn Hampton were just begin­ning to ramp up their season. The couple runs Hampton Corn Maze in Marshfield, Mo., on their former dairy farm.

Twelve years ago, after many years in the dairy business, Larry and Evelyn realized they had hit a dead end.

“We started milking in 1976,” Larry said. “And we made pretty good money milking until 1980. We bought this farm that year, and the roof caved in. You couldn’t generate enough ‘ducks’ to feed the ‘deducts.’”

In 1982, with two young children at home and the farm crisis in full swing, Evelyn went to work at a local factory and Larry kept milking. In ’92, the couple added greenhouses and a pumpkin patch to further supplement their dairy income.

But in 2006, when their pumpkin crop failed for the third year in a row, it was time to head in a different direction and rework the business again.

“We couldn’t open that year because we had nothing,” Evelyn said. “One day, I told Larry we were going to look at some corn mazes.”

The couple visited several mazes in the area, and in Verona, Mo., they found an experience worth duplicating. That maze wasn’t just a path through a field. It had a design and a pur­pose, Larry said.

“You learned something there,” Evelyn added. “We got lost for over an hour. We actually ended up teaming up with a family with kids to answer the trivia questions they had throughout the maze. We had so much fun, we decided that’s the kind of thing we wanted to do here.”

In 2007, the couple opened Hampton’s Corn Maze with the theme “Angels on Earth.” Most of their themes are family friend­ly or Biblical in nature.

The maze encompasses 8.1 acres of the Hamptons’ 158-acre farm. The experience starts with a half-mile hayride to the field. Fire rings are also available for reservation, and visitors are encouraged to bring flashlights if they are interested in com­pleting the maze after dark. There are 10 numbered stops in the maze—five in the first half, and five in the second half. At each stop, participants answer a trivia question. Incorrect answers lead you down the wrong path.

Larry and Evelyn work with The MAiZE, the largest maze consulting company in the world, based out of Utah. The com­pany partners with “agritainment farms” to develop the maze designs, provide business support and cut the mazes for more than 260 farms worldwide.

“They have three to four people who come here from Utah every year in the early summer after the corn has been planted,” Evelyn said. “They’ll have two colors of flags and graph paper with our maze pattern. They put the flags down and mark their place. The next guy comes along with a can of paint to mark the walking path. When that’s done, they have a backpack sprayer with herbicide in it, like the kind we would normally use to spray fencerows, but it sprays two rows at once. And they do not walk. They run.”

For this year’s corn maze, Larry planted DeKalb DKC70- 27RIB, a 120-day corn that has excellent late-season appearance and standability, which is important for the maze. He purchases the seed and fertilizer for the field from MFA Agri Services in Marshfield.

“We don’t pray for pretty ears of corn like a grain farmer,” Larry said. “We pray for pretty stalks. And we want it to stay green for as long as possible, which is why we plant it in June. I want good, tall corn that’s going to stand. When the combine comes in here, if I can get 100 bushels per acre with the paths cut out, it almost pays for corn seed and my fertilizer. Yield is an added bonus.”

The year after their first corn maze, Larry and Evelyn got out of the dairy business.

“When we started the maze, the writing was already on the wall,” Larry said. “We were still milking about 40 Holsteins at that time. I loved dairying, and it really bothered me for about two years after we quit. It’s how both of our kids learned to work.”

“We both cried as they loaded up the cattle,” Evelyn added. “But through this, we’ve learned that we are people persons. With the greenhouses, it’s really busy until Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, then it’s pretty quiet. When nobody’s here, I miss it. I love the people who come here. That’s what I thrive off of.”

The maze is open to the public every weekend through Oct. 31 this year. Groups and individuals can visit by appoint­ment on weekdays.

“If I have to start up the tractor to take two people to the corn maze, I’ll take them,” Larry said. “I probably don’t make any money doing that, but I made two people happy.”

Their customers have been good to them, Evelyn said. She keeps a scrapbook full of the previous years’ flyers, cards, thank you notes and children’s drawings the couple has received over the years.

“We may not have what a lot of people have,” Larry said. “But the life we have is worth billions.”

  • Created on .
  • Hits: 1483

About Today's Farmer magazine

Today's Farmer is published 9 times annually. Printed issues arrive monthly except combined issues for June/July, August/September and December/January. Subscriptions are available only in the United States.

If you would like to begin or renew a print subscription, CLICK HERE and go to our shop. We are proud to offer the subscription for only $15 per year.

 ©2020 MFA Incorporated.


Connect with us.