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Sound Bites: Local farmers 'bridge the gap between farm, city life'

David Bohlen, owner of Bohlen Family Farms, with his brother Mark in the background.
Carmen Troesser
David Bohlen, owner of Bohlen Family Farms, with his brother Mark in the background.

St. Louis-area restaurants and consumers are becoming more interested in knowing where their food is coming from. And, they are discovering the benefits of working closely with local farmers: fresh, locally sourced food, exposure to rare foods such as heirloom corn, Chinese broccoli and radicchio, and supporting family businesses.

But starting these kinds of farms is no small feat. St. Louis on the Air’s latest Sound Bites segment with Sauce Magazine explored the new generation of farmers in St. Louis and how they work with area chefs.

“Being a startup in the farming industry is nothing like being a startup anywhere else,” said Heather Hughes, managing editor of Sauce. On Thursday’s show, Hughes explained to host Don Marsh how small farms are often family-run and begin with little money and equipment – but a ton of passion.

“[Small farmers] are competing against people who have grown up in the industry; they’ve been taught by their parents and their grandparents [on] what to do, what to expect; and you’re just coming at it completely fresh,” she said. “So we were very impressed by these people who just decided to [start a farm] and … we wanted to learn a little bit more about their personal stories.”

Joining the conversation were David Bohlen, owner of Bohlen Family Farms, and chef Rex Hale. Bohlen’s experience with growing food began as a means to cut back on food costs, “but [he] wasn’t trying to necessarily buy cheaper food.”

While living in Ferguson, a building had been demolished in front of Bohlen’s house, so he called the land owner and asked if he could manage the empty land lot. 

“It started out just me growing stuff for my family … and like a lot of projects of mine, it kind of got out of hand from there,” Bohlen said. His farm now spans 20 acres in Perryville, Missouri.

He described the various levels of difficulty when starting the endeavor: marketing, researching and “getting to a level where I felt confident in our product and in what knowledge we had about our product … [the process] was very hard – not impossible, but discouraging.”

But that’s where local chefs come in handy. When Bohlen connected with Hale, chef and co-owner of Bakers & Hale, he learned about the value of establishing a network with local chefs and the knowledge farmers can gain from the chef’s food experience – as well as vice versa.

“I love the stuff I get from David and a number of other farmers in the area,” Hale said. “To me, it’s really exciting to see the quality of product that’s being brought to the restaurants here in the St. Louis area.”

Chefs who build close relationships with farmers also get to work closely with them to request custom food orders.

“That’s what’s exciting, when you have people that are willing to listen to what you would use if they would grow it, and then if it doesn’t work, next year you don’t plan to do it,” Hale said.

But he emphasized that it’s not always about which food is trending.

“The reality is, if you cook from your heart and you serve food from your heart, it doesn’t matter what the ingredients are, as long as they’re quality,” he added.

Farmers’ markets are the main source to not only buy fresh foods, but also gain knowledge about the food from the farmers themselves, such as the different edible stages of various foods and the different edible parts of the plants.

‘That’s the most important part of the markets, kind of bridging the gap between farm life and city life,” Bohlen explained. “We try to be a source of information so [that people] can put a face to their food and understand what they’re eating a little bit more.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan, and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.