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Slow Spotlight: YellowTree Farm

January 22nd, 2013 | No Comments | Posted in Farmers, Featured, Slow Spotlight

By Andrew Mark Veety

There are two sides to the story that is our annual Biodiversity Farmer and Producer Micro-Grants. The easiest to appreciate are the success stories, and the changes that accompany them. Things like an ever more diverse bounty of vibrant greens and lettuces, filling baskets at our farmers markets throughout the growing season. An award winning chef serves up a dish punctuated with a slender, needle like radish that looks a bit like okra yet is both tender and meaty like a fresh picked green bean. A Sunday supper of roasted chicken shared with friends that is flavorful not because of what it was injected with during processing, but because it wandered about, eating the grass, clovers and bugs that it found beneath its feet.

The flip side of our grant program is the idea that to achieve these changes, to contribute to the outcomes described above, risk and financial investments are assumed by farmers and producers undertaking them. Indeed, for every success story there is the potential for a crop to be lost to drought, to discover that animals do not thrive or do not appeal to consumers, that a well conceived project does not turn out as planned. A cornerstone of our grant program is to distribute this risk, with the hope that by spreading out investments, positive outcomes end up outnumbering the negative ones in the long run.

There may be no better example of both aspects of our grant program than Slow Food St. Louis’s long term relationship with Yellowtree Farm and its owner, Justin Leszcz, recipient of 3 grants.

Yellowtree Farm’s first grant was an investment in heirloom seeds, which formed the foundation of Leszcz’s farm as it exists today; 150 varieties of vegetables that end up at the Schlafly Farmers Market, filling CSA bags, at restaurants like Niche, Farmhaus and Blood and Sand, and thanks to seed saving, Leszcz’s fields as one growing season turns to the next.

A second approved grant was to raise a rare breed of squabbing pigeon for distribution to local chefs. Over the course of raising his pigeons, Leszcz discovered that that value of a pigeon for breeding exceeded their processed value to his farm several times over. After two years, a handful of locals have taken Leszcz’s breeders and raised their own flocks, increasing the overall population of a bird that does not get heritage protection in the process.

Yellowtree Farm’s most recent grant was to build a mobile chicken processing unit to help local producers manage the cost of slaughtering and packaging their birds in a USDA approved environment. Processing has always been costly for small farmers, resulting in high prices for consumers and tighter margins for business owners. The ultimate goal was to help bring down the cost of production, potentially lowering prices for the consumer while increasing the profits these producers can glean from each bird through the reduction of travel time (the nearest USDA approved processing plant was several hours away) and by allowing farms to harvest smaller numbers of birds at one time. At the same time as Leszcz was assembling the equipment for his processing unit, a local processor began serving local farmers at a price and convenience level that placed the commercial viability of a mobile processing unit into question. Faced with this, Leszcz has channeled his efforts and what is left of the grant money into new opportunities, most notable being a locally milled flour project, derived from Yellowtree Farm’s own soft and hard wheat that Leszcz hopes to sell to local bakeries and to create value-added products like pancake and jonnycake mixes.

Three grants, three different outcomes that not only helped Leszcz build his business, but to grow it, sometimes in ways that he could not have imagined at the onset. At the same time, our food community is better off because of his tireless efforts to try new things. And in the end, Slow Food St. Louis can’t ask for a better return than that.

YellowTree Farm is a biointensive farm located in Fenton, Missouri, specializing in the sale of produce to local restaurants and breweries; including Niche, Blood & Sand, Farmhaus, Perennial Artesian Ales, and servicing the public though participation in farmers markets and community supported agriculture. YellowTree Farm grows a wide selection of unique items, emphasizing on old time heirloom vegetables and foraged mushrooms and wild edibles.

The Slow Spotlight is a series of regular blog posts exploring the story of our food. The series reports on local farms, “slow” food products/businesses, and the preservation (or creation) of food traditions with occasional coverage of relevant organizations, issues, and events. Thank you to Chipotle Mexican Grill for a $5000 sponsorship of the 2012 Biodiversity Grant Program.

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