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Family lives love of farming

Family-operated farmettes are an increasing trend

October 17, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Photo by: Jacob Hamilton

Dirt was his first love. As a boy, John Corn tilled his grandparents’ garden in Fulton, and images from those days remain ingrained in his mind. He remembers his grandfather at his side as they harvested the rows of vegetables. He can still hear the crunch of his grandmother’s radish and butter sandwiches or taste the sunflower and pumpkin seeds she shelled by hand.

Memories like these floated through his head at an auction in November 2009 when he and his wife, Sandy Gummersheimer, bid on and won a 16-acre plot of farm land on Moreau Road. For $2,000 an acre, the newly acquired Mighty Acorn Farms, located just 15 minutes northwest of their home near downtown Columbia, gave the family a chance to plant roots and become part-time growers.

Working the land might be in his blood, but it isn’t his day job. John is a home inspector in Columbia, and Sandy works as an MU adviser. Because the couple earns the majority of their income from sources other than farming, their land is considered a farmette.

As part of a growing trend, small, family-operated farmettes are an increasing part of the $5 billion generated by agriculture sales in Missouri. The most recent statistics, released by the USDA and MU’s Institute of Public Policy in 2007, report that 23 percent of the state’s farms sit on less than 50 acres, and 36 percent of those are classified as farmettes.

John believes the movement is linked to the popularity of urban farming and the increasing demand for locally sourced produce. New government-sponsored programs, such as grants for small farmers and the use of food stamps at the Columbia Farmers’ Market, mean more Columbians can buy produce grown less than 50 miles from their homes.

For the past four years, John and Sandy have tried to bring local flavors to residents. The couple has cultivated 2 of their 16 acres. The family grows its produce without pesticides or chemicals, which they say maintains soil fertility and produces the best crops.

Taste, John says, is paramount; he believes it’s the factor that will keep their customers coming back for more. His love of good food is one of the things that led him back to farming, he says. “There are farmers who become foodies and foodies who become farmers. I was the latter.”

There is no magic formula for how he and Sandy juggle the day-to-day craziness of jobs, family obligations and farming. But one thing is certain: Friday afternoon is harvest time. Their ritual is simple. They pick produce until the sun begins to set, then load up the truck to bring the produce home for a quick wash before the next day’s market.

Each day they spend on the farm, Sandy and John learn something new about the land and themselves. Both are looking forward to seeing their small operation grow in the changing world of farming.

Sandy and daughter Ashley Pierce harvest arugula at Mighty Acorn Farms. The peppery aroma of the plants becomes more powerful with each pluck of the small, leafy stems. The irrigation system’s water tank, which John designed and built, stands watch in the background. In the four years since they purchased the farmette, John and Sandy have continued to add features, including a greenhouse and electric fence to keep out deer. Photo by Jacob Hamilton

John and his family grow a variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs. After each Friday harvest, they take the produce home to rinse it for the next morning’s Columbia Farmers’ Market. The 2 acres they cultivate is part of a larger, 16-acre plot they purchased in 2009. Photo by Jacob Hamilton

Every Saturday at 7 a.m. John sets up his tent at the Columbia Farmers’ Market in the parking lot of the Activity and Recreation Center. Although trips to the market are a necessary part of the business, John enjoys the ritual of selling his produce and relating with customers. Excluding one week, he has been there every weekend since the start of the outdoor market season in May. John is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Columbia Farmers’ Market. Photo by Jacob Hamilton

Their love of food and cooking inspired John and Sandy to start farming. The couple enjoys planning meals and experimenting with recipes that revolve around their freshly picked produce. Regular meals include pizza, garbanzo bean chili and tomatillo tostadas. Photo by Jacob Hamilton

John and Sandy share and barter their crops with other local producers. These new additions to their table, such as wine made by family friend Heinrich Grohe of St. James, serve as a sampling of products from other small farmers. Photo by Jacob Hamilton

The family grows produce year-round thanks to a hoop house, which John assembled himself. Though similar to a greenhouse, a hoop house has walls that can roll up or down to shield produce from the changing elements. This allows John and Sandy to start planting when snow is still piled high outside. Photo by Jacob Hamilton

Twilight signals the end of another long Friday afternoon of picking produce. Sandy and John prefer to pick the crops less than 12 hours before transporting them to the Columbia Farmers’ Market. As they harvest their fruits and vegetables, they have the satisfaction of knowing their hard work and constant balancing act is worth the effort and stress. Photo by Jacob Hamilton
Photographs by Jacob Hamilton

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