For the past couple of years there has been something a little different on the rolling hill ground just west of Farmington, Mo. What was just another nondescript pasture for the past two growing seasons has been dotted with wooden stakes and the exotic hue of vegetables—and a lot of them, some 130 acres of tomatoes, squash, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini and pumpkins.
It’s not hard to spot the man responsible for managing this ambitious project. He’s the one with the license plates that read “Tomato 1,” and he’s on the phone giving direction to the hired hands in the vegetable fields. But Stephen Carter brushes off any notion that he’s a trailblazer. He’s just doing what his family has always done—just a little farther north.
Carter learned the vegetable growing business in Arkansas. “My daddy grew vegetables, and my granddaddy,” he said. “Back in that day, two to three acres was a big-time tomato operation, but now there are just a few of us left.”
Like the rest of production agriculture, technology, distribution and market changes have caused consolidation in the vegetable-growing business. Costs for inputs, labor and regulation compliance have been increasing, pressuring the bottom line.
“These days you need more volume to survive,” said Carter. “You can look at sales receipts from my dad’s old record books. The tomatoes sell for about the same price. But now we fertilize and protect the crop more efficiently. We produce more tonnage.”
Carter’s home base is Crossett, Ark., where he operates his own produce farm. The produce being grown near Farmington is part of Missouri Vegetable, a working relationship between Carter and Proffer Produce, a family-owned, full-line wholesale produce company located at Park Hills, Mo., just up the road from the vegetable farm. Carter follows the season from south to north, managing both sites.
Growing produce is intensive by every measure. It requires a great amount of capital per acre to plant and tremendous logistics to grow and harvest. Scaling up doesn’t mean larger equipment, it means more hand labor, which is another challenge in itself.
MFA’s Farmington Agri Services supplies much of what Carter needs for the growing year. A farming operation that is working outside of the general practices of the local geography can be a challenge for ag retailers.
John Cunningham of the Farmington MFA Agri Services said watching 130 acres of vegetables go into production made for some interesting conversation for the locals. He added that for him, it’s been rewarding to see “new” agriculture come into the region, evolving from old pasture to locally grown produce. It proves that alternative agriculture systems work if the right know-how and partnerships form.
“We’ve put on fertilizer, lime and cover crops for Stephen,” said Cunningham.
“I guess it all started when they were looking to convert old pasture to crop ground for the vegetables. We put on the lime, and that was the beginning of a good relationship. When Stephen found out we could get the special-order crop protection products needed to grow vegetables, he put my cell number in his phone’s memory. He’s not afraid to use it. And, for us, it’s been an interesting job to keep up with the unique crops they’re growing out there.”
From Carter’s perspective, relationships are critical in the vegetable business. On the supplier side, he said that Farmington’s MFA Agri Services has been very responsive.
“It’s an adjustment for MFA,” said Carter. “We require different types of fertilizer and different blends, but they’ve delivered. Without them being close by, I’m not sure what I would have done.”
The most important relationship for vegetable growers is on the sales side, however. Fresh produce isn’t storable. Growers must find buyers for their production before it’s planted. There are still auctions, but not as much produce moves through them compared to when there were many more growers.
And, distributors have to worry about more than just consumer demand. Food safety is paramount in the marketplace.
“I’m a grower,” said Carter. “The way I know what to plant is by what the Proffers tell me they can sell. The vegetable business is different compared to what it used to be. It used to be that if you could run equipment, you were a farmer. Now there are more steps involved. There is more regulation. Employees need to be trained. There are food audits. Our customers are being regulated, so they want to see that their growers are regulating themselves.”
While it has become second nature to Carter, the vegetable season can be confusing to the traditional row cropper. Carter describes the growing season like this:
“In January, we get the greenhouses and seed houses ready. In early February, we plant our Arkansas tomatoes. In March, we go to the greenhouse with those plants, and into the field in April. Peppers for Arkansas are seeded by February and go into fields in April. And once the crops are in the field in Arkansas, it’s just right to plant the Missouri crops. So we’ll plant Missouri in May and as soon as that’s done, we’re back down in Arkansas to harvest tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers,” said Carter. He uses trusted field hands and cellular irrigation technology to help overcome some challenges of remote farm management when he is away from either location.
The produce market puts great value on consumer food trends. There is an increasing demand for local produce. The grow-local movement has pushed from a trend-setting subset of the food world to major players across the market chain. In 2010, Wal-Mart famously announced that the company would be buying more locally produced fruits and vegetables to sell through its grocery chain. Wal-Mart is the nation’s leading food retailer. When its buyers make such pronouncements, suppliers listen.
Carter said Wal-Mart’s move to source produce locally has been important for projects like Missouri Vegetable. Indeed Wal-Mart reported that in 2011 the company increased locally sourced produce some 97 percent, which represented about 10 percent of its produce purchasing.
For Wal-Mart, produce grown and sold in the same state is considered local. The day after your Today’s Farmer team stood with Stephen Carter among plants heavy with grape tomatoes, we went to a Wal-Mart in central Missouri and purchased grape tomatoes. The label said the tomatoes originated in Park Hills, Mo., home of Proffer Produce and the efforts of Stephen Carter’s harvest from those 220 acres near Farmington.
World wide marketing trends are one thing. But to hear Carter talk about what is growing on the farm, how he likes the smell of green peppers as they ripen and the sheer volume of produces harvested from an acre of Midwestern land—that’s the stuff that every farmer can appreciate.
“Farming is something that is in you or not,” he said. “There is something about planting a seed. When I’m growing vegetables, the seed comes on a UPS truck. Fifty acres worth comes in a box you can hold in your hands. From that box, we start plants in a 30x100-foot greenhouse. And from that greenhouse, the plants move to nine more greenhouses to grow. From there we put them in the field and by the time harvest comes around, we haul it out in 18-wheelers. All that started in a little box. That never fails to amaze me.”