Family Farm Food | July 22, 2009

Walker Claridge

Hatton, MO

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Walker Claridge started farming on his own in 1998. At age 34, he represents a new generation that is looking to farming as a lifestyle away from the big cities and within the small, close-knit communities of America. Walker grows heirloom tomatoes, specialty crops and “every kind of green you can think of” on his 7 acre plot at Terra Bella Farm in Hatton, MO, and in two greenhouses right behind his home in Millersburg.

Walker Claridge became truly interested in sustainable agriculture while working at a fully sustainable bed and breakfast in Oregon. After a stint as an organic inspector throughout the Midwest, Walker decided all the traveling and looking at grain just wasn’t right for him. What was right? Turns out farming a few acres of his own land.

The word “farm” to Walker does not evoke the image of hundreds of acres and large expensive tractors; instead it calls to mind several scenes pieced together to create his own unique farm. Terra Bella Farms, where Walker grows 7 acres, is made up of much more than just farmland – with pasture, woods and a creek diversifying the land. In addition, Walker also tends to two greenhouses tucked behind his house and a half-acre lot in Columbia, where he and others help to produce food for downtown businesses. Walker’s non-traditional methods and “farm” are starting to appear all over.

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Walker began by selling his produce at the area farmers market, and found many upsides to the venue. “The real benefits of a farmers market are that you are directly marketing your goods for full retail price and receiving ongoing feedback from your customers,” said Walker. “It also allows you to grow the food you are interested in, which is not the case when you are selling to restaurants.”

The only downside for Walker came when the sales at the farmers market were not pulling in enough money and the amount he earned varied widely from week to week. Once again, Walker decided it was time to try a new approach and see how he could become an even bigger and more stable presence in his community.

In 2001, Walker started a store called The Root Cellar where he sells only local family farmed food. Right now he offers produce, meats, dairy and other goods from over one hundred and forty different Missouri farmers. The sauces, jams and other products sold are made from these same fresh ingredients. All of the produce is delivered right after it has been picked and the meat comes from non-confined farms that are both antibiotic and hormone free. Through The Root Cellar, Walker is working to expand the community’s commitment to local farms and helping farmers who are just getting started.

Walker’s ‘typical’ day is anything but typical. Normally he splits his time between the farm, The Root Cellar and meeting with chefs at the restaurants where he supplies produce on a regular basis. This year, on top of all that, Walker and three business partners are in the process of opening up a microbrewery and local-food restaurant in downtown Columbia, Missouri.

“It is a really flexible sort of lifestyle,” said Walker. It allows him to dabble in many related areas and still have time to spend with his young son.

According to the USDA, the average age of the American farmer is 57 years old but Walker finds that hard to believe. He said, “If you look at niche farms that are concerned with community…that number drops greatly.” Youth, he said, are beginning to realize there are alternative lifestyles that are appealing and can be enjoyed outside the city. He sees a real cultural move back to family farms.

Walker thinks that new young farmers need to realize that, like any new business, there is a three to five year return on profit. “If we say that,” he explains, “we can see more successful farmers.” New farmers armed with the knowledge of what to expect are able to foresee challenges and be proactive in tackling them.

But even if new farmers go in well prepared, there are no guarantees. “How are they going to live for those first few years?” asked Walker. With no money coming in and very few government programs to help out, many new farmers must survive by their own means until the farm takes off. The need for policy and legislation to help these beginning farmers is vital for small-scale businesses like Walker’s to survive and flourish.

In addition, Walker suggests “[farmers] need to collectively market our products when we have a surplus.” However, he acknowledges that more infrastructure is needed in order for farmers to effectively warehouse, distribute and profit together.

“It is not traditional straight-forward farming,” said Walker, who goes on to explain that this kind of farming is a gradual process and everyone needs to get involved to make the system work and keep money in the community. “Once people in a community become self sustainable, it takes on a mind of its own and keeps rolling.”

Date: 7/22/2009

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