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Springfield, MO

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Jym Wilson | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Jason Hirtz

Owner & Farmer, Box Turtle Farm LLC

Posted online

What does your farm produce and what’s the scope of the operation?
I’ve been farming since 2007. We moved to southwest Missouri from the St. Louis area 10 years ago and relocated our farm here. Most of our production is in 16,000 square feet of high tunnel space, which are unheated greenhouses. We’re a certified organic vegetable farm. We specialize in salad greens. We grow each year around 10,000 pounds of baby salad greens. I say “we” a lot, but primarily it’s me. My wife is home with our children, and I run this with about 20 hours weekly of hired help seasonally, which is unusual for a vegetable farm.

Why did you get into this business?
I like the tangible outcomes of food production. I just felt drawn to it. I was working down the street from a farmers market, and it didn’t really seem like a viable career path until I got to be friends with some of the farmers and realized it’s not a hobby for them. They’re doing this full time. Through those friendships, I started working on a farm. Then in 2008, I was laid off in that Great Recession. I was an automotive mechanic and then I worked my way up to management. There were no jobs available. The farm was part of the plan, but it really launched me into it immediately and I haven’t stopped since.

Where do you sell your salad greens?
About half of our sales are to MaMa Jean’s. We supply salad and a few other things for Millsap Farms’ CSA, and we do a few restaurants. Our main restaurant is Farmers Gastropub – they are our oldest restaurant account – and then we sell to The Finley in Ozark and Highland Springs Country Club. Just 3% of the largest farms make up almost half of the U.S. production and that’s continuing to trend upward, but still nearly 90% of farms are small, with under $350,000 in annual gross income. What’s behind the interest in the small-farm movement? Most of the food production in the U.S. is corn and soy, which isn’t actually going to feed people. A lot of those farms that are under $350,000, in southwest Missouri there’s a lot of people that have cattle as a part-time enterprise and they’re reflected in that. In my little corner of organic vegetable production, I think a little bit of it is a naivete that we can get into it as just a large vegetable garden and not realize the expansive infrastructure that we’ll need. But it is something that you can start part time and build into. There are a lot of farmers that are going into this, and I’ve seen that climb throughout the 15 years that I’ve been doing it. A lot of people like the idea of working for themselves, something they can do by themselves. There’s been other back-to-the-land movements. I don’t know if that’s necessarily what we’re seeing or not, but for some people it’s just a calling. Most farms struggle in the first five years. It gets easier, but it’s never easier enough that you can just phone it in. I’ve seen a lot of farms fail just in the 10 years that I’ve been in Springfield. But it can be a sustainable path.

Passing that five-year mark yourself, do you help other farmers? What are the top 
challenges?
There’s technical aspects that I’ll help troubleshoot. With salad production, from the end of February until October, I’m planting three crops a week. You gain a lot of experience in doing that. If I was a tomato farmer, I might plant tomatoes once or twice a year. Whereas I’ve planted thousands of salad crops. There’s also some things that I’ve done like our packaging. There was a lot of troubleshooting that went into that to make that package work. The standard package that a lot of farmers go to is a clamshell package. There’s two ounces of plastic in that package. That’s 15 times more plastic than what’s in our bag, most of which is never going to get recycled. That packaging would decrease our net profits by about 10%. It’s a really small detail that we’ve worked out, but for farmers starting out, I can save them that time that it took us. It saves time, can increase their bottom line and reduce plastic waste.

Do you have plans for expansion?
The labor market in farming has always been in crisis mode. In this region, every farmer I know has a labor crisis and we don’t have a pool of trained people to compete for. And training employees with the risk of them leaving is high. I’m pretty comfortable where we’re at now. I think there’s always going to be a slow expansion just as skills and practices evolve. I would like to find an assistant manager, but then again, there’s no trained people to pull from. If we found that right person, we could expand. I’ve been expanding every year for 10 years, so it’s nice to level off. Most of the future expansion is going to be through skills, techniques, better soil.

Jason Hirtz can be reached at boxturtlefarm@live.com.

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