Micro-grants for local farmers, and how you can help nourish the St. Louis food scene.
Each year, Slow Food St. Louis awards micro-grants to local farmers who are doing great things for the St. Louis food scene—whether it’s supplying local chefs with fresh produce, selling their goods at community farmers’ markets or offering Community Supported Agriculture programs.
The focus of the grant program is to help farmers diversify their crops and develop a niche for themselves by growing heirloom vegetables or raising heritage livestock. The program has distributed nearly $20,000 over the past three years, supporting more than 200 heirloom crops and heritage breed animals. These varieties of plants and animals are untouched by the genetic engineering of decades of largescale agriculture, so they have more flavor and character than their commercially grown, hybrid cousins.
Unfortunately, they also are more susceptible to the whims of nature (disease, bugs, temperature) and thus harder to grow on a large scale. Kelly Childs, co-leader of Slow Food St. Louis, says that a small amount of grant money can help reduce the financial risk for farmers to take on such projects. The payoff? Greater biodiversity in our ecosystem and more variety in our farmers’ markets, kitchens and restaurants. And, there are plenty of ways to get involved—even if you aren’t a farmer.
Small Farm, Big Impact This year was the third time local farmer Justin Leszcz of YellowTree Farm received one of the Slow Food grants. In the past, he and his wife, Danielle, have used the money for purchasing seeds to grow heirloom tomatoes, peppers and zucchini in their backyard farm in Affton. Come harvest time, they sell the produce to local chefs and save the seeds to grow again next year.
Leszcz has developed a close relationship with local chefs like Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street, Gerard Craft of Niche and Kevin Willmann of Farmhaus, so they get first pick of all YellowTree produce. Sometimes, Leszcz will even agree to grow something unusual for one of them, for the sake of experimentation. Gerard Craft’s requested agretti, a tumbleweed relative with succulent needle-like leaves, did especially well in this summer’s heat, Leszcz says.
Another large part of YellowTree produce goes to members of the community who have purchased shares of the harvest through the CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture
program. Leszcz offers $100, $200 and $500 buy-ins at the beginning of the growing season, and throughout the harvest season, members pick up their shares of the bounty they helped him produce.
YellowTree owes much of its success to the support of the Slow Food grant program. “They have really turned us into what we are,” Leszcz says. The farm has expanded so much over the past few years that 2011 saw the husband-wife duo open a booth in the Maplewood Farmers’ Market, offer buy-ins for the CSA program for the first time and even rent an acre and a half of additional farm land in Fenton. The infrastructure of the new Fenton farm was built with a portion of this year’s Slow Food grant money, and will allow them to produce a larger harvest and offer more CSA shares for next season.
This sort of self-sustaining local agriculture is exactly what Childs and her Slow Food colleagues hope will eventually come out of each of the farming projects their grants help fund.
How You Can Help Slow Food St. Louis relies on volunteers to help plan, promote and execute the events they use to raise money for the grants, like the annual Art of Food and Feast in the Field events. The organization can also use help in the office deciding which grant applications to accept and following up with the farmers after the
money is distributed to make sure they’re putting it to good use. And of course, for those willing to get their hands dirty, helping out on the farm—whether it’s at planting time or harvest—is always a welcome option.
To learn more about Slow Food St. Louis, including a short documentary on the micro-grant program, visit slowfoodstl.org. For more information about YellowTree Farm, visit yellowtreefarm.com.
Justin and Danielle Leszcz, YellowTree Farm
Photo credit: Lily Lin