Pillar of Sustainability: Small family farmer Ron Benne roughs it in suburbia

Thirty-five miles northwest of St. Louis, livestock farmer Ron Benne outwits foxes, coyotes, raccoons and skunks, though another predator is proving tough to keep at bay: suburbia. As St. Louis has sprawled (the city’s population famously atrophied 59 percent between 1950 and 2000), St. Charles County, seat of Benne’s 127-acre farm in Weldon Spring, has burgeoned. Statisticians have long trumpeted St. Charles as one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, and its development is currently the most rapid in the state. Once you cross over the Daniel Boone Bridge, the urban-expansionist namesake of St. Charles’ legendary woodsman, you’re just about two miles from Benne’s homestead; exit stacked Interstate 64, head north on dizzy Highway 94 and then turn right where you see a corrugated plastic sign advertising “EGGS.” Benne, who has lived in St. Charles County all of his life, remembers when Highway 94 detoured graciously around natural springs. Now those waterways located mere yards from his barn are buried under four lanes of commuter-friendly concrete. Landscaped entrance medians for two subdivisions stand in the rough half-mile between Benne’s gravel driveway and the highway. Two. “I’m an oddity around here,” said Benne, thickly wrinkled at age 59. “We have changed from being what was here to being strangers. We’re strangers in our own home. It’s odd for this farm to be here, isn’t it?” Tilting his head and smiling wryly, he added, “A lot of people come by and say it’s ‘neat.’” SWEETNESS AND LIGHT Benne farms with his wife, Jolene (née Hoffman). The couple met on the occasion of a family wedding at which Jolene sang a solo for the bride and groom. Thirty-seven years later, the Bennes have two college-educated sons who’ve pledged – one expressly, the other in so many words – to take over the family farm, owned by Jolene’s German ancestors since 1801. Mini hills and vales make the backdrop of the Bennes’ daily life picturesque. Free-range chickens form shifting feathered ornaments on the grass. A small huddle of cows bellows for hand-ground feed beside a broad red barn. Happy hogs enjoy the sunshine. Long before sustainable agriculture was even a term – much less a trend – Jolene’s family farmed this way. Over the past decade, humane practices have become the bread and butter of the Bennes’ survival. Consumer interest in local, sustainable agriculture has grown steadily. Direct sales from the Bennes’ farm account for 50 percent of their bottom line. Another indicator of demand: The membership of Slow Food St. Louis has more than doubled in the last year. And putting its money where its mouth is, Slow Food gave the Bennes a microgrant this year to raise two heritage breeds of turkeys. Both appear on the endangered list of The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy; this was Slow Food’s only stipulation. “You can’t just be another guy at the market who shows up with green beans,” said Slow Food co-leader Bill Burge. “People either want our meat because it doesn’t have any antibiotics or because it’s local,” said Jolene, whose home décor expresses affection for farm life through rooster salt shakers and a collection of miniature pig figurines. “Or some people come because of factory farming – it’s an animal welfare issue.” Jolene typically never says much more than politeness requires. Yet at times the petite powerhouse can favor candor. “You’re going to lose some animals once in a while,” she said. “It’s not all sweetness and light. And that’s just a fact of life.” DIRECT MARKETING In the interest of full disclosure, the Web site for Benne’s Best Meat confesses to a stint on the commodity hog market. “They felt they had to adopt such methods in order to compete,” the Bennes write of themselves. Yet at full tilt, they had 80 sows and 10 indoor-outdoor farrowing stalls – in other words, the operation was a far cry from a megafarm. The Bennes’ transition back to more sustainable practices took place 10 years ago. “It’s not how we liked doing it, and we couldn’t sustain ourselves on a small farm,” Jolene said. “You get those boiler houses [for chickens] and your contract is with a big conglomerate, and they tell you what to do. And then you have a cookie-cutter product. It’s not your product. And it’s not environmentally sound.” Since 2002, Ron has been able to make ends meet without working a second job, something most small family farmers cannot do. “People’s attitudes were changing about where their food was coming from,” he said, explaining why he felt confident enough to bet the farm on sustainable agriculture. “We saw an opportunity because of our location.” Ironically, three large chain supermarkets within a six-mile radius of Benne’s farm even draw neighbors who live a stone’s throw away. Yet proximity to St. Louis allows Ron Benne to sell to several independent restaurants – sales that make up half of his income. And thanks to a series of seminars he attended on direct marketing, Benne has managed to drum up business in the county. A handwritten sign on the door of an informal storefront – the “meat cabin” – reads “Please honk car horn loud and hard.” When customers pull up, Jolene interrupts her chores to sell eggs, meat and a smattering of produce from their garden. Every other week during the growing season, she attends The St. Charles Lions Club Farmers’ Market – though more as a way to put the farm on countians’ radar than to earn revenue. Another mainstay of the Bennes’ direct-marketing campaign is the Web site localharvest.org. “If people want to find this kind of thing, we’re there,” Ron said. And who knows? Maybe the small “EGGS” sign along Highway 94 bags a few sales, too. “Your job is to figure out how to get that price that you need,” Ron said. “Is it worth it to anybody? We know we’ve got an advantage because we are small and we are doing things differently.” CITY BOY Benne’s Best Meat has caught the attention of several area restaurants. And Ron will tell you that making deliveries in the city is his favorite part of the week. “When do you gotta get that shirt back? Is it right out of the box?” Chef and veteran restaurateur Eddie Neill likes to gibe Benne when he drops off hogs and chickens to The Dubliner downtown. And Benne likes to joke back. “I’ve been wearing this shirt since I was in high school, Ed. I’m the same size I ever was.” Benne connected with Neill, an early proponent of farm-to-table dining in St. Louis, shortly after restructuring his business plan a decade ago. Independent restaurants and small farms are subject to similar vagaries of economics, which has meant that Benne’s city delivery route shifts. Lately, he’s been making regular stops at Five, Terrene and The Dubliner in St. Louis; Winslow’s Home in University City; and Yia Yia’s Euro Bistro in Chesterfield. Benne has never had much luck with cold calls and doesn’t make them anymore. “Buying local works for some chefs, not for others,” he said. “If they’re committed, they find me.” Parked in front of The Dubliner on Washington Avenue, Benne’s cooler truck dwarfs the cars and even towers above the SUVs. Benne isn’t in the habit of locking its doors. He calls the white Ford his “Cadillac,” a misnomer that became even wittier when, during a delivery trip on a hot day, Benne nonchalantly reported it doesn’t have A/C. Nor does his home. It’s uncomfortable to move between a climate-controlled room and the heat all day, he explained. Driving through the city, Benne doesn’t hurry. Or honk. Or hustle through yellow lights. He needs downtime. Benne, a native of New Melle, started installing septic pipe at the age of 15 and has worked some kind of manual labor job ever since. As the oldest of four farm boys, he shouldered a lot of family responsibility, especially after multiple sclerosis left his father completely disabled at the age of 39. The degeneration had begun years earlier. “I remember one time when I was a very young boy, we went to feed the livestock in the morning,” Benne said. “Dad was walking ahead of me, so I passed him and said, ‘You can’t get me.’ He took off running after me, and the next thing I knew, I heard this thud on the ground. He had fallen.” It took years for Benne to admit his anger and identify its trigger. “I’d always thought my childhood was pretty normal. All farm boys worked and lived at home – but what they didn’t have to do is take on the responsibility I did.” ALL OR NOTHING Benne’s sons are in their late-20s now and work 9-to-5 jobs in professional fields. Benne has never pressured them to become farmers, though he hopes they will. So does Kamalendu B. Paul, professor of agriculture and environmental sciences at Lincoln University in Jefferson City. As part of his professorship, Paul oversees the Missouri Small Family Farm Program, which assists small farmers in 16 counties with anything from taking soil samples to getting a loan. Any kind of farm can contribute to the food supply, Paul said, though when it comes to rounding out a community, the farmer’s intent and lifestyle matter. “Someone living in a city could purchase several acres of land and use the land for occasional farming, raising a few beef cattle or for weekend recreations,” he said. “These are also called hobby farms. The number of this type of farm is on the rise. These farms generally do not strengthen a community.” Family farms do. And, Paul added, it is “generally believed that small farmers are better stewards of the land; that they till soil in harmony with nature, and contribute to improved soil, air and water quality.” At this point, it’s hard for Ron Benne to know exactly what, if anything, will be left for his sons to steward. Jolene’s aging mother currently holds the property’s deed. The infamous inheritance tax may be as high as $5 million. Ron is optimistic he’ll only owe $1 million and can arrange to pay the IRS in increments. The real estate development around him has inflated his farm’s value, according to the most recent appraisal, to between $9.5 million and $12.7 million. Yes, that’s a lot of zeros to him, too. Still, he’s confident that estate planning will save the day. Beyond that, he’s doing what he can to make the farm a more profitable business so that his sons have sufficient incentive to quit their day jobs. When Ron says he “only” plans to work until he’s 80 – even when the people moving into the retirement community directly west of his farm are as young as 62 – this is why. “A lot of farms have been sold over the years. The kids have lost interest in farming because of the economic problems. It’s hard work and the pay is very low,” Ron said. Jolene explained that their sons share the same hesitancy. “The boys grew up when we were trying to make the commodity market work. Ron had a job off the farm and I was doing what I could do here, and it was a struggle,” she said. The economic infirmity dogging the country has kept developers away from Benne’s farm recently, but eventually they’ll be back. The St. Charles County government projects that the local population will increase to 457,446 by 2020, requiring 46,604 additional housing units. The land use prospectus calls for this additional residential land – plus the land for the commercial, governmental and industrial infrastructure needed to support suburban growth – to come from a single sliver of the chart: undeveloped and low density residential. That’s the category into which the Bennes’ farm falls. Part of the farm Ron Benne grew up on in New Melle has already been sold by his two living brothers for cash, the appeal of which one understands. Ron and Jolene say it’s all or nothing. They will either keep all 127 acres or sell all 127 acres. Of course, they’d rather keep the farm – though not at any price. The concrete road that sprouts off Highway 94 and leads past those two subdivisions up to the edge of the Benne farm has a pleasant enough name: South Breeze Drive. But it could wipe the Bennes out. “The preliminaries are on the map of the city,” Ron said. “South Breeze Drive comes all the way through. And if they put a road through here and cut this place into pieces, it’ll be impossible to do livestock in here, because I’ll have to get cattle across roadways. [Laughs.] And it’ll be impossible.” Conservation easement wouldn’t solve the problem. “The reason why we backed away from that is that they couldn’t guarantee that they could stop some government agency from putting a road through us,” Jolene said. “And that’s a killer for us. If they bring South Breeze right through us, we don’t want to be here.” “If that were to ever happen, we’re done,” Ron echoed. “Some of the powers that be say that they won’t use eminent domain. But they won’t put that in writing.”