Margot McMillen spent her summer in the dirt.
McMillen, an adjunct English professor at Westminster College, spent several days a week this year weeding, planting and doing whatever was necessary for the success of Terra Bella Farm in Hatton.
She owns the farm with her husband, Howard Marshall. A subscriber to the magazine Organic Gardening since high school, McMillen said she dreamed of owning land and practicing sustainable farming.
She showed off that dream Wednesday night, when 125 people turned out at a fundraising event at Terra Bella to support the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and sustainable farmers such as herself.
The proceeds from the event helped promote mid-Missouri sustainable farms, provided low-income rural Missourians access to family farm-raised food and supported the crisis center’s ongoing policy work.
The Columbia-based crisis center aims to help mid-Missouri family farmers.
Rhonda Perry, program director for the crisis center, helped organize the fundraiser. She owns 850 acres in Howard County, where she raises cattle, corn, soybeans and hay.
Perry kicked off the event by stressing the importance of family farms.
“If people can make policy, people can change policy,” Perry said. “There is a real move by corporate agribusiness to take over. Family farms are more efficient.”
Perry cited the hog industry as an example. The corporations own the livestock and contract the animals out to farmers, or producers, who struggle with keeping the farm afloat.
“The inefficiency of corporations can be charged off to other people,” Perry said.
According to Perry, in the last 15 years consumer prices for pork rose 75 percent. She said the producers’ share declined 30 percent, while the corporations’ profits increased.
“Corporations have no care for people, land or environment,” she said.
The fundraiser included a performance by folk group, The Ditty Bops. The Los Angles-based band is driving across the country, playing both traditional concerts and benefits to raise money for mid-Missouri farm organizations, before it lands in New York City for Farm Aid on Sept. 9.
“We wanted to visit farms,” said Abby Dewald, lead singer of The Ditty Bops’. “We shop at the farmer’s market every week. We think a lot of people are disconnected to where food comes from. We wanted to bring communities together to support local farmers.”
This week’s event also provided visitors with an opportunity to taste fresh food from mid-Missouri, including grilled corn, cucumber salad and sausage from Patchwork Farms of Mid-Missouri.
Walker Claridge leases 2 to 3 acres from McMillen. He works the land and, with McMillen’s help, manages farmhands and sells produce at The Root Cellar, his grocery store in Columbia.
Kimberly Griffin, Claridge’s partner, walked out of the bushes Wednesday evening bearing a bucket bursting with tomatoes, some still tinted with dirt. Claridge and McMillen strive to keep Terra Bella Farm sustainable.
“You get what you need for yourself and you leave enough for the future,” McMillen said. “We want to make a profit. We want to be perfectly kind to the planet. We want our people to be taken care of; that includes our workers and consumers.”
Terra Bella does just that, McMillensaid.
The farms have followed sustainable agricultural principles for 100 years, she said.
“The farm has always been maintained in a real, balanced way and sold its products to the community,” she said.
McMillen estimated that the original farmhouse, which is now office space, dates to the 1890s. Her daughter, Holly Roberson and her partner, DeLisa Lewis, bought what was then known as Dudley Farm in 1994. After five exhaustive years of farming, the partners sold the land to McMillen, leaving the door open for her to follow her dream.
McMillen and her husband live seven miles away on a cattle farm in Fulton. They raise pasture-based cattle, which means the animals feed on natural vegetation.
Terra Bella grows a variety of produce, including potatoes, cucumbersand 30 different types of tomatoes. Although Terra Bella follows organic practices, the farm in not officially certified.
“Certification is a lot of paperwork,” Claridge said.
Because of Claridge’s relationship with his customers, he said a certification is unnecessary, which is a benefit of selling to members of the community.
An environmental benefit of sustainable farming, McMillen said, is that farms are laid out with balance in mind.
“Swallows eat mosquitoes. Wasps eat moths that attack the cabbage. Chemicals throw that out of whack,” she said. “The way that sustainable doesn’t happen is that farmers started using a lot of imported chemicals and imported seed from corporations.”
Terra Bella was designed to allow rain water to drain into the pond. The pond is then pumped to water the farm. Crops are rotated to create more nutritious soil, and William Woods University Stables pays Terra Bella to haul away manure.
The farm also has an active bee population, which can sometimes double the productivity of the farm. Art and Vera Gelder, from Walkabout Acres in Boone County, have five hives near the pond at Terra Bella. The European bees pollinate non-native crops, including fruit trees.
“If you have no pollinators, you might get some wind pollination,” McMillen said. “Or a pollinator might help a little bit. Otherwise, it’s chance.”
Thursday morning, McMillen made her breakfast with an egg she took from her hen house that morning and toasted the bread she bought from a local commune.
“I can eat everything locally,” she said. “I think everyone else should.”