Bounty by the County

The stateís winemakers and food producers arenít exactly key playersin the global economy. A Mizzou professor aims to change all that.

Fifty years ago, Missouri farms grew or raised 40 different crops and livestock, and it was easy to buy food produced locally, she points out. But post-war industrialization sparked economies of scale and put the kibosh on agricultural diversity. Today there are fewer than twenty products raised on most of the state's farms. Gone are ducks and potatoes, peaches and strawberries. Less than 1 percent of Missouri farmers tend these foods.

The first signs of rebellion against mass-food production came in 1971, when a 27-year-old fledgling chef named Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Waters vowed to feature only seasonal ingredients on her menu — and to get those ingredients locally whenever possible. Today Chez Panisse is highly regarded, and the "local foods" movement is finally gaining traction with home cooks as well. They can shop at growing numbers of farmers' markets or buy into a Community-Supported Agriculture network and get weekly deliveries of whatever local farmers are harvesting.

Despite a burgeoning demand for local foods, Missouri farmers will tell you it is tough being the little guy.

Jennifer Silverberg
Beth Barham is on a first-name basis with vendors 
at a farmers’ market in Columbia, where she picks up 
fennel and other locally grown veggies every Saturday 
Jennifer Silverberg
Beth Barham is on a first-name basis with vendors at a farmers’ market in Columbia, where she picks up fennel and other locally grown veggies every Saturday morning.

State health regulations, for one, favor large food purveyors, says Tricia Freund Wagner, a former Steelville farmer who was thwarted by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services when she built a canning kitchen to make jams and salsas. "The regulations were set up for restaurants, which are cooking everything under the sun, including meat," Wagner recalls. "So the health department wanted me to put in a grease trap, which was totally ridiculous."

Farmers and chefs keep opposite schedules, making it tricky to find and keep regular customers. It takes years to break even, adds Octavia Scharenborg, a six-year grower of hydroponic (greenhouse) lettuces in Jackson. "I do the marketing, the delivering, the planting, the harvesting, the bookkeeping and the bill-paying," she says. "There wouldn't be enough to go around otherwise."

But Barham envisions small local foods producers like Scharenborg selling their goods in St. Louis — and as far away as Stockholm — if they band together regionally. That's what she aims to do with the Missouri Regional Cuisines Project.

"The idea," Barham says, "is local foods — on steroids."

The gentleman is at least six-foot-five, lanky and red-faced. He's got a booming Southern accent and gestures with every phrase. "Hello, I'm Jerry Smith, the world-famous winemaker," he bellows from behind a stainless-steel contraption with six spouts. "This is what all the big guys in the world have," he says. "And so do we, but we're small guys."

Smith, co-owner of River Ridge Winery in Commerce, and his general manager, Keller Ford, are just finishing hand-corking more than 1,000 bottles of wine. It's a Thursday in early June, nearly six o'clock — almost time to uncork a bottle, in fact. "I've had roughly one bottle of wine every night for 35, 36 years," the vintner boasts.

Smith grew up on a cattle farm in a dry county in central Arkansas and flew fighter jets in the U.S. Navy. But growing grapes is what he aimed to do most of his adult life. In 1980 he planted his first vines on a plot of land next to a riverbed way down in tiny Commerce, Missouri. Fourteen years later he and his wife, Joannie, opened River Ridge Winery for business, offering sweet and dry wines, including a European-style Chardonnay and the state grape, Norton. They only make 5,000 bottles a year and aspire to no more — exactly the size of producer the Missouri Regional Cuisines Project aims to make "world-famous."

Missouri once could boast of its wine-making prowess: From the mid-1800s to 1920, only New York bottled more. Today, however, the Show Me State ranks only in the top fifteen, and most Missouri wines are consumed within state borders.

When Beth Barham looked at those statistics four years ago, it occurred to her that agriculture officials could tap into GIS (Geographical Information System) data, determine the state's different terroirs and recruit winemakers, "rather than just sitting around waiting for somebody with land who might want to make grapes to call up."

The idea, Barham says, is to see what types of vines flourish in a terroir — then perfect them, en masse. She explains further: "Let's map the state, let's find out where there are certain slopes, and enough sun, and certain trees nearby to let air circulate. Then find out who the landowners are in those areas. Get them together. See if you can get them interested in putting some grapes there. Tell them the economics of it, how long it'll take to make money. Then teach them the horticulture."

Barham imagines regional cuisines sprouting up in each terroir to pair with its wines. "Just like when you go to Burgundy, there's a whole cuisine, and certain cheeses, that over the years they've found match perfectly." Before long — as in Porto, and Chianti, and all over Provence — the tourism dollars would come flooding in.

The Mississippi River Hills present the best incubator for the project, maintains Barham. Already at least six wineries make Norton and Chardonel, the two wines vying for the state's first appellation. Some have opened on-site restaurants featuring local foods to complement the winery experience. (One vintner is building a day spa. Another boasts of a tiger sanctuary. A third features a 35-foot-high natural cave.) Still another vineyard plans to open in the eco-region later this year.

« Previous Page
Next Page »