Posted On: 08/05/2016
It started with a pork chop: thick, bone in, simply seasoned and pan seared. Greens, whipped potatoes, roasted garlic sauce, whatever the accompanying side didn’t matter. It sounds odd, but the chop tasted like pork – like how meat from a naturally raised animal should taste. The chop’s melting succulence and dense texture carried me beyond physical hunger into the realm of licentious appetite. I ate like a proverbial pig.
This was probably 2009, when Local Harvest Cafe still served dinner. It was the first time I took notice of what I had considered a flavorless, insipid meat that demanded a long stay in the smokehouse, a rub of spice or a slather of sauce to divert the palate. None of that was necessary for this chop from Todd Geisert Farms near Washington. It became my go-to meal. Since then, I’ve wanted to meet the man whose name is synonymous with some of the best pork in the region.
It’s a short jaunt off the straight, four-lane Highway 100 in Washington to the Old Highway 100 with two wide lanes and enough twists and curves to lure sports cars and motorcycles out on nice weekends. Pulling into the gravel driveway of Todd Geisert Farms on a hot, sunny morning, I was struck by how iconic everything looked. From the grain bins and hopper tanks to the old tractors and barn with the faded red galvanized roof – if not quite Mayberry, the whole setup seemed frozen somewhere in the 1950s. The farm even has a drive-up produce stand and meat cooler where customers can grab what they want and pay on the honor system, slipping money into a lockbox.
Not much has changed on the farm since 1916, when Ben F. Geisert started raising hogs on land that was in the family since 1887. Eventually, horse-drawn wagons gave way to tractors and pickups, but the core operation (raising pigs by hand) has remained consistent for the past 100 years. What has changed is everything outside the farm – from the proliferation of large-scale commercial farming and the vertical integration of production at all levels to narrower markets and even narrower profit margins for small farmers. It’s the fifth-generation Geisert who’s responsible for propelling the family business into this new landscape, changing the way Geisert pork is sold rather than raised.
When I pulled up, Todd Geisert was waiting for me outside at a rickety picnic table, scrolling through his iPhone and proving two adages: Farmers never get a day off, and today’s farmer must be connected to be competitive (even if that means conducting business over the phone while literally standing in the field). He was outfitted in cargo shorts, a short-sleeved Geisert Farms work shirt and muddy work boots that made my Nikes seem downright ridiculous – clearly belonging to a city slicker out for a day at the farm. “They’ll be fine,” Geisert said matter-of-factly. “The ground’s dry enough.”
At 5 feet 7 inches, the 47-year-old farmer is a solidly built barrel of a man with a bushy, reddish beard and piercing green eyes peering out beneath an ever-present Geisert Farms cap. He has the ruddy complexion of a man who works outside and speaks with the clipped, quick delivery of someone wanting to get on with it. “Well, let’s go,” he said. The swine were hungry, time was money, and weather dictated everything in this business.
The natural smell of manure was the first thing I noticed in the field, not overwhelming, but there. Geisert was quick to point out that the smell from his farm is far less noticeable than large operations where hogs are kept indoors. If you’ve been anywhere near a large, commercial hog operation, the retching smell of waste from thousands of animals confined in spaces as small as 7 square feet hits you well before the plant is visible. You can really only smell Geisert’s pigs in the field. Raising them outdoors allows the sun to do its job of breaking down waste, Geisert explained. “It’s how we keep the stink down.”
The second thing I noticed was the surprising visual beauty of hundreds of pigs roaming freely on acres of land. They wallowed in mud, grazed on a grassy hillside, lay in the shade and rooted around for whatever pigs root around for. “They can go out and be a pig (here),” Geisert said. As if on cue, a herd of piglets ran squealing through the calf-high grass, their ears and tails flapping like a pack of puppies.
We trekked to a group of cozy, 7-by-8-foot portable wooden A-frame huts where huge sows farrow, or give birth, to litters of piglets. “They keep the mamas happy,” Geisert said. The structures, built by three generations of Geiserts, play a crucial role in providing safe, warm shelter until the piglets are weaned. Over the years, he’s maintained and patched the huts with pieces of damaged billboards he gets free from a local sign company. For the bigger hog houses, Geisert cut old fuel tanks in half.
Rotation and portability are key to the operation. Each season, Geisert explained, the huts are put on skids and moved to an area where crops were harvested the previous season. Nothing is wasted; as the pigs roam, they eat anything left over after harvest, aerating the soil and fertilizing the next crop with their waste. And so the cycle continues every six months, about the time it takes to raise a 300-pound hog from birth to market. It’s a self-sustaining system, right down to the solar-powered irrigation he installed for the crops.
Geisert filled a bucket with grain from a feed shed while a crowd of very sizeable gilts (young pregnant females less than 9 months old) congregated, grunting in hungry anticipation. In addition to foraging, they get a mixture of soybeans and corn grown on the farm – without any antibiotics or growth hormones typically used by large commercial operations. Geisert raises four breeds of heritage hogs: Berkshire, Duroc, Hampshire and Chester White. Pasture raising makes the final product juicier and deeper in color. “(It’s) what all the chefs want,” he said.
Geisert never names his swine, but he did describe them in human development terms. Those gilts were the pregnant teens. Piglets were like kids, always running around. Sows were the mamas, mature pigs who had birthed at least one litter. The papas were the boars, breeders good for about two litters a year. With approximately 100 to 150 sows, Geisert can count on 1,000 to 1,500 market hogs each year. “The mamas and papas are my moneymakers,” he said. And the fat field sows were like old ladies, always nosing into your business. Those he sells to Jimmy Dean.
Geisert was born into a family of entrepreneurs, spanning from his great-great-grandfather, Ben F. Geisert, who started the practice of rotating crops and pigs after studying agriculture and animal husbandry at University of Missouri, to his 20-year-old son, Ben J. Geisert, who started his own Moonshine Valley Farms, raising rabbits and ducks. “It’s what we grew up doing,” Geisert said. “I don’t like sitting still very much.” In high school, he started a welding and fabrication business he ran for 10 years because he liked building things and fixing people’s problems. “My philosophy is that the worst thing I can do is not try, because it’s not going to work if you don’t try.”
It’s a philosophy that helped Geisert change the scope of the farm in 2008. When his father, D. John Geisert, ran the farm, most of its hogs were sold to Niman Ranch, a national network of family-run livestock farms. When dad retired around 2007, Geisert saw an opportunity to capitalize on the growing restaurant trend of procuring local meat and produce. He started labeling pork products under the Geisert name, doubling the selection to more than 60 products, with more in development. While not vertically integrated, Geisert keeps all aspects of the operation close by, relying on a handful of butchers and processors in the surrounding area. Now Niman Ranch gets about 300 to 400 of the 1,000 hogs sent for butchering, with remaining hogs going to local restaurants and Geisert-labeled retail products.
He also began growing more produce. Starting with fewer than 150 tomato plants, mostly for the drive-up stand, he now has more than 5,000. He added more vegetables to the rotation and started supplying more than 40 St. Louis-area restaurants and nearly as many retail markets from Edwardsville to Columbia, Missouri. Geisert makes most of those deliveries himself in a truck with his smiling face plastered on the side.
Wednesdays are delivery days for St. Louis. I met Geisert at Peacemaker Lobster & Crab, chef-owner Kevin Nashan’s Benton Park restaurant, where they serve a killer link sandwich made from Geisert pork butt, ground in-house. While Geisert rapidly unloaded and schlepped the order from truck to cooler, I asked Peacemaker chef de cuisine John Messbarger why he’d go through all the trouble and expense of working with a local farmer for just one menu item.
“There’s more loss with commodity pork (from a big food distributor),” he explained. “We don’t have to clean (Geisert’s pork) much because of the high quality. It’s more expensive, but there’s less waste.” Peacemaker goes through five butts a week, about 60 pounds, to make its sausages, and almost as much produce – red and green tomatoes and bibb lettuce, all grown in soil fertilized by those pigs last season.
Over at The Mud House Coffee & Kitchen on Cherokee Street, I learned the kitchen used to get pork shoulder from a large supplier but found Geisert’s a better product for confit. “His is a whole next level of taste and texture,” sous chef Pat Grosch said. Mud House goes through about 50 pounds of Geisert potato-bacon sausage a week for its thick, heavy gravy served over scratch-made biscuits. “We like what he’s doing, and he’s really friendly to work with,” Grosch said.
Across the street at Midwest Pasta, pasta maker David Burmeister echoed what I’d heard from everyone else. “Geisert’s a straight-up guy with lots of ideas, who’s easy to work with,” he said. Burmeister collaborated with Geisert on a ravioli test product filled with tomato-basil-mozzarella brat meat to sell at Geisert’s new market.
His cell phone rang with what sounded like grunting pigs. “This is Todd,” he answered with his quick cadence and rural inflection. We were walking around the gleaming Farm to You Market and Distribution Center, a 10,000-square-foot grocery store, deli, cafe and wholesale food hub he opened with his wife, Katie Geisert, in April.
The new venture fits Geisert’s energy level, incarnating a grand idea to transform how food gets from the farm to, well, you. “We’re working in collaboration with other farmers and purveyors to get a better distribution network so that we can take a product line to restaurants and grocery stores that complements the small guy, whether it’s a drug-free, pasture-raised protein or an organic elderberry drink or a different ice cream than everybody is used to,” he had explained in a burst when we arrived.
It was the longest sentence Geisert offered during our conversations, and his mission statement was crystal clear. Given how many banks Geisert told me turned down investing in the venture, he had obviously delivered countless similar spiels in the past couple years (A bank in neighboring Union finally loaned him the capital, proving again that whether in food or money, it pays to stay local.).
As he hung up, a couple of locals walked by. “How ya guys doing? Out causing trouble?” he quipped. Geisert is a one-man marketing machine with seemingly endless endurance, like a shark needing to constantly swim. Another man he knew was mulling over a freezer case. “Whatcha looking for, chief?” he asked. “Keep looking and you’ll get hungry.”
The freezer case, like the shelves, cooler and racks, was fully stocked. Produce, meats, cheeses, condiments, beer, wine, spirits, eggs and frozen goods were all produced within 200 miles of the store. Ultimately, Geisert told me, he wants a portfolio big enough to cover the state, or multiple states, with product and distribution.
I was exhausted just thinking about it. I asked what keeps him going, and he laughed, then stalled. It’s hard for someone in constant motion to pause and reflect. “I guess my responsibility to make everything happen,” he said. “Livestock has to be fed every day. I have people that rely on me.”
Geisert knows most farmers don’t want to talk to people much or sell themselves; they want to work their farms their way. Someone like Geisert – a farmer, entrepreneur, marketer, networker and deliveryman – is a rarity. Now with the added responsibility of opening new markets for other farmers’ and vendors’ products, he’s evolved the family business into yet another phase. Farm to You Market represents the future of Geisert’s career and will help give his heritage farm, along with many others, a future.
Must be a lot of pressure, I commented. “Yep.”
Geisert Farms 4851 Old Highway 100, Washington, 314.791.6942, toadspigs.com
Farm to You Market 5025 Old Highway 100, Washington, 844.682.2266 (1-84-Got Bacon), farmtoyoumarket.com
Lucky’s Market luckysmarket.com
Local Harvest localharvestgrocery.com
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