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Sustainable farming means full-time commitment to learning – and teaching – for Illinois couple

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Live Springs

The farm crew works late in the evening to round up nearly 1,000 chickens to send to the processor, as a storm flashes in the distance, on Aug. 20, 2014. The work is done at night after the chickens return to their shelters. "It's hot. It's sweaty. It's dusty. It's back breaking," Alex Weber says. Photo by Tim Barker, tbarker@post-dispatch.com

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GREENE COUNTY, Ill. • It was a bitter cold morning, with a light dusting of snow on the windswept pasture, when a little boy tried to save a pig named Taco.

The morning — it happened last November — started like many others at Live Springs Farm. Rowan Weber was helping his parents round up a dozen of the farm’s pasture-raised pigs for slaughter later that day.

But as they went about the business of sorting out the day’s selections, the 5-year-old realized that, with only two dozen pigs left from the season’s litters, time was running out.

And so the tears started flowing when his mother gestured toward Taco — raised by hand after the piglet was stepped on by its mother.

The outburst drew Bobbi Sandwisch to her knees in front of the child, offering a host of reasons why it was time for the hog to go.

“Go give Taco a hug,” she urged. “You can give him an apple or a banana.”

But eventually, the tear-streaked face won, with Bobbi agreeing to leave Taco off the trailer.

“Fine, Rowan,” Sandwisch said, exasperation creeping into her voice. “But he’s going in two more weeks.”

It was, in many ways, just another lesson to be learned on this small organic operation in rural Greene County, about 60 miles north of St. Louis. There have been many such lessons for Rowan and his parents, as they carve out a life on a farm that’s trying to do things a little differently.

This is a place where the pigs roam wooded acres, rooting out acorns, pecans and grubs. Where chickens strut around the pasture, pecking at the leavings from a small cattle herd. Where every part of the farm has a role in keeping the land healthy.

Back at their small farmhouse for breakfast, Alex Weber smiled when asked if he anticipated the protective outburst from his son, who has bestowed names on many of the farm’s animals. Unexpected, but not surprising, he said.

“This is a process that’s really important for him to be in touch with,” Weber said. “It’s a huge responsibility to care for an animal in life and in death.”

SUSTAINABLE FARMING

Live Springs got its start in 2009 after a previous effort — focused on raising honeybees — was derailed by the financial crisis of 2008. That group, known as Spikenard Farm, abandoned its Illinois outpost in favor of a smaller tract of land in Virginia. But they left behind Bobbi and Alex, who met while working for Spikenard near the end of its Midwestern run. Not ready to give up, the pair agreed to stick around to run the 610-acre farm.

The property is owned by Dorothy Hinkle-Uhlig, an Alabama woman drawn to the work of Rudolph Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and founder of biodynamic agriculture — an organic farming approach that shuns artificial fertilizers and pesticides.

In the world of farming, the duo is a bit unusual in that neither of them has a particularly deep background in the field. They are rare first-generation farmers.

Weber’s interest can be linked to something he saw while working at a Colorado resort in 2001. His restaurant manager would make a two-hour round trip to the airport to pick up crates of mussels. Weber, 37, was intrigued by the notion that someone would go to so much trouble for food.

“An idea developed,” he said. “I wanted to have something to do with that.”

Taking advantage of his Swiss citizenship, Weber made his way to Germany, where he gained an apprenticeship in 2003 with a large biodynamic farm near Frankfurt. Four years later, he returned to the states and landed at what is now Live Springs.

Sandwisch, 35, showed up a few months later.

The Ohio native’s background was closer to agriculture, with her family running a horse boarding stable near Dayton.

“From day one, I just remember being outside, playing with my animals. That’s all I ever wanted to do,” she said.

She studied wildlife biology at Ohio State University, spent a couple years with the Peace Corps in Morocco, and then worked for farms in New York and South Dakota before moving to Carrollton.

Certainly, there’s no instruction manual for what they’re doing.

They’ve coped with predators, including coyotes, raccoons and eagles. They’ve found ways to minimize the danger to their chickens during transport to the processor. (Too much wind, they learned, can be lethal for the fragile animals.) They’ve developed strategies for rounding up hogs that are skittish around man-made structures.

Very little about it could be described as glamorous.

Days start early and end late. Weber and Sandwisch take no vacations. And seldom have anything resembling a day off.

When they aren’t caring for chickens, hogs, cows, sheep and goats, they’re dealing with the demands of the property. They’ve been working since 2008 to replace thousands of yards of dilapidated fence lines — a project still years away from completion.

Over the years, they’ve steadily built the farm’s brand and customer base, developing a strong following among the regulars at local farmers markets. But there is always more they want to do.

“We were, and continue to be, two young people trying to figure things out,” Weber said.

SELLING THE FARM

Twice a year, Live Springs puts on an open house of sorts. They invite current and potential customers out to the farm for a tour of the operation. The first time they did it was back in 2010, when 30 people showed up. On a cool June afternoon last year, more than 100 people came from across the region to see the farm for themselves. Many of them arrived early and spread picnic blankets on the grass in front of the farmhouse. Kids played in a sandbox made from an old tractor tire.

Live Springs

Former Live Springs employee Seth Dazey directs traffic for the farm's open house on June 8, 2014. Photo by Tim Barker, tbarker@post-dispatch.co

“There are some that come just to spend a day in the country. Others come out to make sure we’re doing what we say we’re doing,” Sandwisch said.

That’s what brought Ed and Mindy Cory from Edwardsville.

They had been before. They like the idea of showing their kids where their food comes from.

And after the tour was over, Ed Cory joined a line of people inside one of the barns. He left with an ice chest half filled with a variety of sausages and bratwurst.

“You’re getting a different product than what other people have,” he said. “I think if more people got out here, they’d understand.”

It’s the sort of event that’s critical for an operation such as Live Springs, which has to find ways to connect with customers who are asked to pay a substantial premium for the meat raised there. The farm, for example, charges around $8 per pound for pork chops, roughly $3 more than local grocery stores. A dozen eggs is $6, compared with $3 to $4 for organic eggs at area grocers.

“We have to convince people it’s an honest, fair product. And that it’s truly different than what the next guy is offering,” Weber said.

It’s the challenge for a farm, which they say is just now approaching profitability, that relies on the whims of people who aren’t content — for a variety of reasons — to simply shop at their neighborhood grocery stores. Some do it to avoid genetically engineered products. Some want to support local farmers. And some do it to avoid meat that’s been raised in what they see as unsavory conditions.

Of nearly 100 hogs sold last fall, only a quarter of them went out through custom orders — to restaurants and people willing to buy a half or whole hog. The rest were sold through farmers markets and retail shops and sales on the farm.

Live Springs

Farm visitors listen as Dorothy Hinkle-Uhlig, the property owner, and Alex Weber describe Live Springs' goals on June 8, 2014. Photo by Tim Barker, tbarker@post-dispatch.com

It’s a tough market, with sales slowing, according to a report this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From 2002 to 2007, farm sales directly to consumers surged 32 percent. But from 2007 to 2012, those sales flattened, according to the report, which suggested consumer interest may have plateaued.

So Sandwisch and Weber have branched out — they recently added a small herd of sheep — looking for new markets. They sell to local chefs, when they can. But many of them aren’t willing to pay the premiums.

Except on special occasions.

Such is the case for Kitchen Kulture, a mobile restaurant that serves lunch on Thursdays outside the Sump coffee shop in south St. Louis. Over the summer, the restaurant used a couple of pork shoulders from Live Springs for a Cuban pork dish that it promoted heavily through social media.

They sold out an hour after opening, bolstering Chris Meyer’s belief.

“There are a lot of people willing to pay for a quality product,” said Meyer, one of the owners of Kitchen Kulture.

And yet, she admits there’s a limit to how often they can afford to bring in pork from Live Springs. It’s just too expensive for their usual menu.

‘THEY’D THINK IT’S CRAZY’

And that’s the rub for Live Springs or any other farm trying to break away from conventional or modern farming techniques. Farming has evolved into a high-volume, low-margin industry. There are exceptions. But simply put, if you want to make money farming, you have to sell a lot of whatever it is you are growing.

Weber and Sandwisch are fortunate to have an investor interested in more than a financial return. Hinkle-Uhlig has an eye toward what she sees as social responsibility.

“I wanted to do something right,” said Hinkle-Uhlig, explaining how she came to own the land.

She works as a consulting partner, meeting by phone with Weber and Sandwisch every couple of weeks. Her goals for the investment are modest. She wants a farm that’s healthy, both in terms of its soil and its ability to support itself.

“None of us are here to make money,” she said. “The first priority is always what’s best for the farm.”

It’s a security blanket of sorts for Sandwisch and Weber. They know it would be difficult, if not impossible, to start over from scratch.

“A bank’s not going to give you a loan for something like this. They’d think it’s crazy,” Sandwisch said.

It is, in many ways, a simple game of numbers.

Live Springs

Rowan Weber hugs Taco, a young hog, on August 7, 2014. Taco was stepped on by his mother when he was three weeks old, forcing the family to raise him by hand. Photo by Tim Barker, tbarker@post-dispatch.com

Live Springs raises 200 hogs a year. A conventional farmer, using a pair of large hog barns taking up far less space, can raise more than 2,000 hogs in the same time frame.

That volume is what allows the farmer to make a decent living. And it’s what keeps prices down for bacon and other pork products, said Marcia Shannon, a swine specialist at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“It’s perfectly fine for people to raise pigs outdoors. There’s a market for it. And there’s a benefit to it from an aesthetic point of view,” Shannon said. “But we need to accept that not all pigs can be raised that way.”

But “that way” is what makes Live Springs different.

It’s a place that makes modern farming operations look bad by comparison. At least in the eyes of animal lovers, who prefer to see animals roaming soft pastures, rather than living their entire lives in cramped pens on concrete floors.

Among Live Springs’ customers is Fair Shares, a community-supported agriculture organization in south St. Louis that puts together packages of meat, produce and other items purchased from local farms.

Sara Hale, who runs Fair Shares with her sister, echoes the sentiment expressed frequently by the movement.

“We only sell happy meat,” Hale said. “A happy life with one bad day, as opposed to a miserable life with only one good day.”

It’s an assessment that Shannon, of Mizzou, takes issue with. During a recent tour of the school’s teaching barn — a scaled-down version of a commercial operation — Shannon said there’s nothing wrong with larger-scale farming practices.

But there is a different relationship between the animals and the farmers.

Walking through the nursery, the educator catches a glimpse of a piglet with a badly swollen leg. The animal is hobbling around the small crate shared with its mother and siblings.

Reaching into the enclosure, she snaps up the squealing pig for a closer look. After poking at the swelling, she figures he might be OK with a little time to heal.

Whichever way it goes, outside intervention — there won’t be any hand feeding — will be minimal.

“We only have so many days to treat him, or we have to sacrifice him,” Shannon said.

And there certainly won’t be any 5-year-old boys there to plead for the life of this pig with no name.

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Timothy Barker is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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