WASHINGTON, MO. • Barely 7 a.m., and cars and trucks were already turning into the gravel driveway on Old Highway 100, customers hopping out to buy peaches or tomatoes or sweet corn.
"If the sun's up, we're open," reads one of a series of Burma Shave-style roadside signs that lead to the farm stand. And because of the heat, work at Todd Geisert Farms had begun well before dawn.
Geisert, 43, is the fifth generation of his family to farm this land. The stately white brick home overlooking the farm from across the two-lane highway was built by his great-grandfather in 1887 and has been enlarged several times. Geisert and his family live in one part of the house, and his parents live in another.
The family has raised hogs since 1916, "free to enjoy the fresh air and play in the sunshine," as Geisert says in his brochure. They didn't use antibiotics or growth hormones back then, and by continuing that approach, he has built a growing clientele.
His locally grown, naturally raised pork — aka "Toad's Pigs," picking up on Geisert's youthful nickname — is a favorite of many St. Louis-area chefs.
"We found Todd through our bartender, Dana, who lives in that area, near Washington," says Ben McArthur, chef at Balaban's in Chesterfield. "Dana kept talking about the quality of Todd's products and how good the stuff, his pork, is.
"Everything is organic, no hormones. The hogs are even free-range. We use it for all of the pork entrees on our menu. I also like to incorporate his pork into our daily specials. It's really good stuff."
Geisert raises chef-preferred heritage breeds of pork: Berkshire, Duroc, Hampshire and Cheshire White. His retail distribution has grown steadily and includes close to a dozen specialty grocers in Washington and St. Louis. He maintains a list of retail outlets — as well as a list of restaurants who use his products — on his website.
Geisert also sells pork at the farm stand and has seen an increasing number of customers making the drive from St. Louis.
"People really want to see where their stuff is coming from," he says.
In addition, Geisert supplies pork to Niman Ranch, a network of almost 700 family-run livestock farms and ranches that use traditional and sustainable practices.
Geisert is used to the uncertainty of weather and pork and crop prices, so the challenges caused by this summer's drought are nothing new to him. One of his latest tactics has been the installation of a small solar array in his fields to power irrigation from the property's creek.
What he is very concerned about, however, is an effort by the city of Washington to annex an area that includes his farm. "People knew this was farmland when they moved here," he says. "I can't understand why anyone would want to change that."
Geisert says he has 800 to 1,000 pigs on the farm at any given time. He won't disclose his acreage.
"I have enough to get by, but not enough to get rich on," he quips.
On a recent morning, Geisert hopped on a 1950s-vintage tractor and rode out to survey an area dotted with A-frame huts, many with walls and roofs made from faded wooden advertising signs. Toward the edge of the field — usually close to a creek, under thick shade, or both — a variety of 500-pound sows were in varying stages of farrowing (giving birth). "When they're pigging, we check two or three times a day," he says.
After the piglets are born in litters ranging in size from five to more than a dozen, workers move the litter and mother to their own hut, where they're fed and watered regularly.
Each season, the huts are moved to a field where a crop had been harvested the season before. The field from which they were moved is replanted, a crop rotation that exploits the cycle of pigs eating what's in the field and then fertilizing it for a new crop.
"Rotating keeps disease down, keeps the smell down and keeps the cropland fertile," Geisert says.
On top of the daily chores, some days of the week call for specific tasks. On Mondays, Geisert selects pigs for slaughter, and he and his workers wrangle them into a trailer. Geisert hitches it to a well-worn pickup and pulls the trailer to a processing facility about a mile from the farm. On Wednesdays, he loads up a refrigerated truck and spends most of his day making deliveries to stores and restaurants.
And every day, the fields dedicated to produce are harvested for the farm stand and for restaurant customers. On this day, Geisert's son, Ben, 16, and daughter, Alexis (Lexi), 14, were leading a team of workers, many of whom are their schoolmates and come from families with brothers and sisters who have worked on the farm.
"Ben and Lexi have been working on the farm pretty much since they could walk," Geisert says.
Geisert and his workers are almost always busy on the farm, so farm stand customers pay by the honor system.
One man pulled up, got out and paid without taking any produce.
"I was in here the other day and I didn't have any change," he explains.
Todd Geisert Farms
4851 Old Highway 100