Two local farms want your vote!

Double Star Farms and Rendleman Orchards are in the Cultivating Change Grant Competition, which will award $85,000 in grants to local farm operations in four categories. They are certifications, marketing, infrastructure and capacity building.

Michael Gehman is passionate about helping small to mid-sized farms grow sustainable businesses. His businesses, known collectively as Double Star Farm near Benton, actually are two businesses that work together to help him and about a dozen other farms stay sustainable.

Double Star Farms is Gehman’s farm operation. They grow a few crops during the winter months, but he says production is in full swing during the summer. The farm also is home to a wholesale operation called Farmstead Foods. This side of the business partners with other small farms to sell produce to a variety of restaurants, stores, schools, food trucks and community-supported agriculture in the St. Louis area and Southern Illinois.

Gehman grew up on what he calls a “regular” farm, and worked on the farm for three years as an adult. He did not really want to make that life a career. So, he went to work for a landscaping company and spent five years as a supervisor. Although he was paid well and saved money, it was not his dream.

“I am a visionary by nature,” Gehman said. “I thought, why not try my hand at something different?”

He got married and started a small vegetable farm in 2008, selling his produce at farmers’ markets. He lost money, and looked for a place to find direction.

“What stuck out to me is how difficult it is to find a marketplace,” Gehman said. “I threw a lot away and gave a lot away — about half of what I produced.”

He found that a lot of the vendors at the markets were retirees. They did not measure their time in their prices. While that makes a decent extra income, it does not provide a livable income for a young family like the Gehmans.

For example, a farm that earns $2,000 to $3,000 a week at a farmers’ market can be cut to $1,000 if it rains.

“The farmers’ market needs to be the icing, depending on where you are at in life," Gehman said. "It is like a bonus, but you need to find some kind of safety net.” 

The experience led him to create Farmstead Foods, a wholesale business that works with Ole Tyme Produce in St. Louis to distribute locally grown food. To make up for his size, he enlisted other local farms to join him in selling produce.

Gehman does not just sell produce from other farmers. He also works with their customers, many of whom are chefs, to guide farms to grow the items most in demand by local restaurants.

Gehman believes two things happened about that time that really helped his business. People started paying more attention to where their food comes from. He also had the opportunity to supply produce to cafeterias at St. Louis University and Washington University.

“Saint Louis University and Washington University are the on the cutting edge of college dining service. They set aside a percentage of their budget to get local foods,” Gehman said.

Today, Double Star Farms includes three farm sites. Farmstead Foods partners with around a dozen farms, depending on the season, and has a packing facility, three coolers and a freezer.

Last year, Cultivating Change gave the farm a grant to help achieve USDA certification.

This year, Double Star farms are seeking a total of $20,000 in grants to purchase equipment and supplies for the packing operation in order to meet new federal requirements. Their goal is to wash twice the volume of produce without increasing their labor force or work time.

Rendleman Orchards is a six-generation centennial family farm in Union County that produces fruit and vegetables and operates stores at the farm and in Cape Girardeau.

Rendleman Orchards is seeking a grant to help with the orchard’s global food safety recertification. Becoming GFS certified annually allows the family to continue its farm at its existing size with its current business model, providing the highest quality fruits and vegetables possible throughout the Midwest. They are seeking a total of $24,500 in grants from Cultivating Change.

Both farms had to meet significant new changes in the certification process as a result of the Food Safety and Modernization Act, which went into effect this month.

Gehman said the top five farms at the end of voting will receive grants from $10,000 to $2,000. Farms that registered by Dec. 15, 2018, as Greener Fields Together local farms also are entered in a second grant program. Recipients for those grants will be chosen by a panel review.

To vote, log on to www.cultivatingchange.org and click on the corresponding button. Voting is open through Jan. 31. Winners will be announced in February.

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Marilyn Halstead is a reporter covering Williamson County.

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