Central Missouri widow enjoys challenge of maintaining farm, alpaca herd

Friday, September 27, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:38 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 27, 2013
Sandy Binder has single-handedly run Binder's Hilltop Apple and Berry Farm and Mid Missouri Alpacas since the death of her husband of 52 years, David. She sells homemade fruit and alpaca wool products on her farm in Mexico, Mo.

COLUMBIA — No one was around to help Sandy Binder the first time she broke her leg.

She fell off a stool while she was pouring water into a sprayer for her apple orchard in 2010.

If you go

WHAT: National Alpaca Farm Days

WHEN: Saturday and Sunday

WHERE: 24688 Audrain Road 820, Mexico, MO

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

INFORMATION: 573-581-1415

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"I knew I broke it immediately, but I wasn't finished spraying," she said. "So I got a spare hoe and used that as a crutch until I was finished."

Sandy was also alone when she broke the same leg two years later after a pack of dogs knocked her over. It hurt, she said, but it didn't slow her down.

How she persevered through these painful episodes is emblematic of the strength Sandy depends on, especially since her husband and business partner died in July.

David Binder, her husband of 52 years, died 10 years after suffering complications from a car accident. He left her 38 acres of land, about 750 apple trees, 80 alpacas, five dogs, flocks of guineas and geese, and a garden.

She continues to run Binder's Hilltop Apple and Berry Farm and Mid Missouri Alpacas — pretty much alone —  on property in Mexico, Mo.

It is the closest U-pick orchard to Columbia, and tending the apple trees is especially busy this time of year. The farm is open seven days a week — 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, with afternoon hours on weekends.

Each September, the farm holds National Alpaca Farm Days. Binder will show off the alpacas, and she has also invited a bluegrass band and a country singer to perform. This year's event will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Last year, about 400 people attended.

Sandy said two things keep her going: the farm and her family.

"I don't have time to feel sorry for myself."

Doing it alone

Most days, Sandy wakes up before the sun does. Her first chores are to keep the farm store stocked with homemade products — including alpaca sweaters, socks and hats — as well as cupboard staples.

"I go into the shop when it's dark, and I'll make jam, jelly or apple chips," she said.

When the sun sheds enough light on her farm, she'll make her way to the alpacas. After spending the morning with the animals, she moves to the orchard and garden for the rest of the day.

Her schedule can change, depending on the volume of customers and scheduled farm tours. She rarely has time to sit down for a meal.

"I haven't had a set mealtime since Dave was alive," she said. "I eat a lot of apples and peaches when I'm working outside, and I have a healthy drink every morning. I'll do that before I do anything else."

At night, she lies in a hammock under the stars, often looking at her pond until she's too exhausted to keep her eyes open.

"Sometimes I think, 'Why am I doing this? I'm dumb,' " she reflected. "I could be sitting around doing nothing, but that would drive me nuts.

"It's a challenge, but I like to be challenged. I like to do better every year."

Always a team

From the day Sandy and Dave Binder purchased the land in 1984, they were a team.

"He wasn't a fast apple picker," Sandy said. "So I would pick the apples, and he would sit on the porch and wash them."

In 2003, a driver ran a red light and hit Dave's car on the driver's side.

"It messed up his lungs real bad," Sandy said. "So he used to help me, but the last four or five years he couldn't do much."

For a few years after the accident, the work dynamic didn't change a lot. The couple continued to put up a tent at farmers markets, with Sandy going to the one in Columbia and Dave handling the market in Mexico.

"Then it got to the point where our neighbor would come help him at the market," Sandy said. "He couldn't set up the tent or take it down. Then he couldn't do it at all anymore. The humidity bothered him so much."

She bore the entire workload after that, with paid help here and there but nothing steady. The Binders continued a subscription gardening business for a while, but she is letting it go.

"My dad could still walk out there to the barn and help her wash apples, but he couldn't do much anymore," said Michael Binder, the middle of their three children. "He wasn't physically able to get out there by himself."

For the last two years, Dave couldn't walk across the room without running out of breath. He relied on a portable oxygen tank.

For Sandy, it was a delicate balancing act to run the farm and take care of him.

"I would check on him during the day, but I couldn't spend a lot of time in the house, just in the evenings," she said. "There's just too much to do out there."

He died July 1. The couple would have celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary Sept. 10.

In the beginning

Sandy and Dave met when he was a dishwasher in the all-girls residence hall where she lived at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. They married in 1960, while both were still in school.

"He was good looking, smart and calm," she said. "I picked good."

The couple lived in in Illinois, St. Louis and Toronto before settling on their farm in Mexico. Sandy taught art and home economics at Mexico Junior High School and the Missouri Military Academy.

Dave worked in several positions at A.P. Green Refractories Co., the brick plant in Mexico. He was responsible for all of the company's financial matters before retiring in 1998.

A few years before her husband retired, Sandy stumbled upon an article about a retired woman who ran an apple orchard. Sandy decided an orchard would keep them busy and provide additional income for retirement.

"We (her children) thought it would be a good project for them," their son Michael said. "We knew it would take awhile for the trees to mature, and they had to do something."

Sandy and Dave had 20 open acres on the property they owned, so in 1993, they decided to plant 300 dwarf apple trees. They planted 300 more in 1994 and the final 300 in 1995 — 18 varieties in all. Between 700 and 750 remain.

The Binder businesses

The orchard was just the first enterprise of Binder Properties. Peaches, berries and a garden full of tomatoes, sweet peppers, candy onions, potatoes and other produce also were planted.

With these additions, Binder's Hilltop Apple and Berry Farm was in full swing.

The couple sold their vegetables and farm products at local markets and attended small farming shows across the country. They also began the U-pick business for their apples, peaches and berries and a subscription gardening business for families wanting to buy produce on a weekly basis.

Then came the second big addition to the farm: alpacas.

"We went to a small farmers' show in Columbia in 1990, and somebody from Washington state had a baby alpaca that he flew all around the country in his Piper Cub," Sandy said.

"Alpacas lie down when you drive or fly, and I told Dave, 'We're going to get us some of those one day.' "

They bought their first alpaca eight years later, after Dave retired from A.P. Green and their kids — Jeffrey, Michael and Angela — had graduated from college.

"It sounded like a good idea at the time, and it was one of the best investments out there," Michael said.

Today, the farm is home to 80 alpacas, watched by two guard dogs, Al and Paca. A breeding service, as well as boarding, is offered for other alpaca owners.

The future

Sandy looks forward to winter, when business will slow down and she can take her husband's ashes to the family plot in Illinois.

"One evening this fall or winter, I'll take a midnight drive," she said. "I'll just take a knife or something, dig a hole and pour the ashes in."

She knows that as she grows older and her ability to take care of herself declines, she'll have to cut back or possibly leave the farm.

"But I don't want to leave," she said. "I like it here. 

"When I go, I hope I'll just drop off somewhere on the farm."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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