*Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the name of Double Star Farms. This article has been updated to reflect the correct name.
Living in the city would be totally foreign to Silent Oaks Farm owner Tim Hess. Hess, who grew up on a farm, said he can't imagine following any other path.
“I never thought of doing anything different,” he said. “I enjoy the freedom of farming.”
Hess grew up on a farm. He spent a period of time driving trucks before starting his own operation.
“It’s hard work and takes a lot of management, but there’s a joy in planting seeds and watching them grow,” he said. “It’s very fulfilling.”
The farming itself inspires Hess to keep going every day, but he has to pay attention to the farm’s finances as well.
“It’s got to be profitable, or you’ll burn out,” he said. “You have to fine tune as you go. Keep trying new crops and finding new markets."
“That’s less than 10 percent of my business now, but I’d like to make it maybe 20 percent,” he said. “I sell a lot to them through the winter, but no year’s ever the same due to weather changes.”
Silent Oaks isn’t certified organic, but Hess said he tries to follow those standards.
Hess and his wife, Marcile, have been married for 21 years. The couple have five children—Karl, 19; Keith, 17; Kendra, 16; Eric, 14; and Ruth, 10.
Some of the kids help on the farm, but Hess said he doesn’t push them.
“I try to provide a place for them to learn a good work ethic, but if they’re not keen on farming, I’ll let them go their own way,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re burned out quick.”
He said that while his son Karl will be helping some this year, he’s got a full-time job. So Eric will replace him as his primary helper.
The family lives on the farm, which is about 10 miles east of Mount Vernon, IL. The farm is just under 100 miles from , Hess said.
“I think the biggest thing people need to know is that they‘re supporting a farm that’s just 100 miles away, and the money goes directly to the farm,” he said. “Approximately 70 percent goes to pay labor and to support the family.”
Supporting sustainable agriculture
When people purchase produce and other goods at a farmers market, they are helping to support sustainable agriculture, Hess said.
“When you buy from the stores, there are a lot of middle men, transportation costs and other added expenses,” he said. “It’s a long trail, and at the end of the trail you’ll find that migrant Mexican workers do most of the work.”
Most of that produce comes from California or Florida, and a great percentage of those farms employ migrant workers, he said.
“Not that I have anything against them, but those workers are going back to Mexico, and they’re working for minimal wages, too,” Hess said. “No one’s really making a lot in this whole thing.”
He said that he thinks it’s a "distorted” business model and that, on average, the produce from those farms is shipped 1,500 miles before it reaches local grocery stores.
While the produce in the stores is often cheaper than that found at a farmers market, Hess said, it’s not as fresh. That means it might not taste as good.
“We try to make it as economically feasible as we can, and when I can afford to do it cheaper, I do,” he said.
He said his prices haven’t gone up since 2007, when he had a small price increase because of increased costs.
“When you buy a green bean from us, it is very fresh from the field, probably picked the day before,” he said. “When you buy it from the grocery store, it’s been sitting on the shelf, hydra-cooled and shipped across the country.”
Hess said that he hopes to get a bigger van soon and that he’s likely to be seen at local markets throughout the summer.
Selling in Clayton since 2005
As the owners of Silent Oaks Farm, Hess and his family have been selling produce at the since 2005. A friend started going to the market a year earlier and found success, which inspired him to give it a shot.
Hess hasn’t regretted the decision; in fact, Silent Oaks produce is available at several St. Louis-area farmers markets these days.
Hess sells a wide range of vegetables at the market, with tomatoes topping the list. Potatoes, green beans, squash, lettuce, radishes, green onions and more also are available.