Friday, April 5, 2013

Blake and Julie Hurst - Missouri Farming Family!

Today we welcome Julie and Blake Hurst of Northwest Missouri. This farming family owns and operates a thriving greenhouse! Julie and Blake are very passionate about agriculture and their way of life. Blake is currently serving as president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.'s suppertime in many households this April Fool's Day; the sunlight is diffuse through the two layers of plastic and the air is cooling outside. I'm at the business end of a water wand and a 150'piece of 3/4 inch garden hose watching the spray fizz out from 400 tiny holes. The greenhouse is in that magic quiet moment between the clatter of the ventilation fans and the roar of the propane heaters. Yes, Virginia, solar power will warm you only....when the sun is shining!! This is one of the questions I answer ruefully: 'Do you need heaters in your greenhouses?' I'm afraid so. Winter is a long dark season and Spring is just a breath for us bedding plant growers in Atchison county, in the very northwest of Missouri.

Lewis and Clark came through:
The Lewis and Clark Expedition camped along the Missouri in what is now Atchison County, 1804, and Clark, impressed by the bare hills rising from the river plain, named the area "Baldpated Prairie." Lewis explored nearby Nishnabotna (Indian--Canoe making) River and call the country handsome.(from the historical marker in Rock Port, Missouri)
Geologically, our landscape is just a babe. The Missouri River is lined with those striking "bald pated"bluffs William Clark mentioned; they are cliffs of loess, an undifferentiated soil profile of wind blown silt gathered up in the last glacial age. When the Indians were in charge of the landscape, these bluffs were prairie grass from bottom to top, but without the cleansing torch of prairie fires, trees have dug in and forests have grown up.

This isn't the case in the eastern part of the county, where we farm. The glacial soils thin from the Missouri River eastward, but we are still blessed with a marvelous landscape of rolling prairie soils that encourage the roots of our corn and soybeans to venture as deep as they care to grow. Yes, you can pick a few rocks as you combine, but most of the rocks left by the glacier are immense pink quartzite erratics that either wind up in someone's front yard as a landscape feature...or are pushed into a ditch so they're out of the way of tillage implements.

We are western Corn Belt through and through. Sure, over on the Missouri River bottom, the water table is close enough to the surface you'll see some circle rigs as you drive through. But our rotation of corn and soybeans must prosper on what falls from the sky during the months of June-August....and some of the years we've been farming, that's been a pretty iffy proposition. The land in Atchison county is as good as much of the land in Iowa....but the rains aren't.

It was partly the risks of crop farming, partly low corn prices, and partly youthful indiscretion that led Blake and me to build a small greenhouse on the farm we had purchased with his family. Many of our friends who graduated from college when we did were leaving farming or agriculture altogether. High interest rates, crushing debt loads, low crop prices, and brutal droughts left agriculture's next generation battered and discouraged. Diversification was the newest game in town; with nothing but sweat equity and weekend work, we built a couple of homemade greenhouses on the hill south of our house and declared ourselves in business.

Our first sign - Blake and our son Ben.
Thirty years later, our kids tell us, teasingly, that they are planning an "extravaganza" to celebrate the survival of Hurst Greenery. After some artful bulldozing, we have 2 1/2 acres of assorted freestanding and gutter-connect greenhouses on top of the hill. The whole hill thing was rather short sighted on our part; what Lewis and Clark neglected to mention, but other settlers certainly noticed, is the unrelenting wind . In the winter, it plunges down from Canada or sweeps in from the Front Range of the Rockies. From late spring into summer, the prevailing south easterlies bend the trees to the north: viewed from the side, our trees often resemble Elvis' pompadour. That wind is damaging to 48x100 foot pieces of poly. When the spring winds howl, the baskets hanging overhead sway like they are at sea and the plastic coverings of our greenhouses shake, rattle and roll.

In so many ways, a greenhouse business like ours is what many people imagine farming was like in some long ago era. Instead of precision farming, think imprecise farming, or, as we prefer to describe it, growing as an art form.....Well, in truth, putting together the pieces of our greenhouse year is more akin to a puzzle in 3D than the 2 dimensional landscape of our crop farm. Our growing year begins in January, when we first fire up the propane heaters, hook the alarm system back up, and thaw enough potting mix to fill trays for the unrooted geranium cuttings that arrive the second week of January. We buy 10 foot tall compressed bales of peat and perlite and tip them into a bale grinder which tears them up and delivers the expanded mix to the 'dirt machine' Day after day from January through April, this machine runs while we fill hanging baskets, 606 flats, 804 flats, 1801 flats, 4"flats, gallon pots, two gallon pots, three gallon pots! Thousands and thousands of containers are stacked into crates made of old pallets, then delivered to a greenhouse where someone will carry them inside (out of the wind!) and tuck in some infant plant with a bright future.

But I get ahead of myself. What makes our greenhouse business a throwback? Like farming in the bygone days, it is very very labor intensive. Despite a transplanter, two irrigators, a skid steer, and modern transportation, most of the elemental factors of growing are done by human hands: transplanting, watering, picking orders, delivery. The bedding plant business is over built, suffering mightily from the slow economy, and highly competitive; we are small, personal, and willing to grow what you want, when you want it, in whatever size container you desire...and then we'll pick it up, put it on our trucks and help you unload it. Planting it .....your job. Our rural county has a mere 5000 people; to have a viable business, we do what American agriculture has always done to expand; we export.

Fortunately, what we have NOT had to export is our family. Our crop farm has grown to accommodate not just a third, but a fourth generation of Hursts with great grandchildren a plenty for Blake's mom to cuddle and spoil. Blake and I are fortunate souls to get up in the morning and work with our children, then watch our grandchildren get off the school bus and come out to play and work with their parents...and their grandparents. Four of us work day in and day out in the greenhouse, Lee and her husband Ryan,son in law Matt, and me while Blake splits his time between overalls at the farm and his work as president of the Missouri Farm Bureau and our other daughter Ann joins in after hours to help in the busy season. We do hire help; the crew changes from year to year, but we rely heavily on the ladies who come back to work long hours every spring.

The whole process is a ballet of sorts. Ryan divides early spring between filling containers in the "dirt shed"and fixing whatever part of the critical heating and ventilation happens to have malfunctioned. Matt runs the transplanter, a contraption with fingers for picking, dibbles for punching and electric eyes to tell each when to do what. He'll look at the spread sheet of this week's plug order, separating one customers' pre-order from another, choose his plug trays of flowers, from alyssum to zinnias, tag the flats, push the button, fill the misses the machine leaves, then stack his flats of 606s high and tight on hand carts. 

 Some of the flowers are already sold, but a certain number are what we call "ours", meaning they are for "spec"and will be waiting 5, 6,7 or 8 weeks from now for Lee and I to pick them up and put them on a rack for Ryan and Matt to deliver to garden centers or grocery stores from Norfolk , Nebraska to Kansas City, Missouri and even the stadium of a certain sports team in red in St. Louis. Lee and I are in charge of the "art"part: deciding how many petunias the good people of Lincoln will desire on April 21st this year or when the masses around the Midwest will flow like lemmings into garden centers to purchase and plant their tomatoes? Some years the season starts in March; more often cold temperatures linger well into April. Part of living in this continental climate is the abbreviated, compressed nature of the season, spring. 

 Everyone, and I mean, EVERYONE, buys all their flowers and vegetables between April 1 and Mother's Day. This is a marked contrast to raising corn or soybeans; semi imperishable product can be sold throughout the year; it can also take us three months to harvest . But not only is time of the essence in the toasty atmosphere of a greenhouse in February, space is too. Early in the winter, we make elaborate logistical plans...these baskets here, these gallon vegetables there. Perhaps we can open up this house a week later and save that much propane...or maybe we'd better assume we have more time now than we will have in May. Alas,' the best laid plans of mice and men oft run awry'; at Hurst Greenery, flexibility is right up there with godliness.

That's what I'm finding out this evening. In response to last year's drought, we invested in a 15,000 gallon concrete reservoir. I've always wanted a water tower of my very own, but this is the next best thing. Two acres of greenhouse flowers under plastic, on a sunny 80 degree day, can develop a powerful thirst. Unfortunately, our stoneless glacial soils have a dirty little secret; they are dry. No rock; no aquifer. Our wells cluster in sand points at about 60 feet below the surface. We are fortunate to have a well on our farm that will comfortably support a household and garden. But that volume is so very far from the 10,000 gallons we can easily use on a sunny day in April. Our little corner of Missouri is starting 2013 with no water in the soil profile and that translates into the news I dread to hear: the wells are dry.It has been ten years since we had to haul water to get through the peak demands of spring. Over that time, we've accumulated an eclectic number of tanks, pumps and even an old Westboro Fire

Like farmers under open sky, we growers under polyethylene are subject to pests, diseases, disasters and deprivations. We watch the sky for hail in the summer and ice in the winter; we worry about our customers'satisfaction and credit worthiness. We epitomize the pursuit of beauty and happiness with what we grow, but to do that, we need the most basic elements to survive and thrive: sun, heat, nutrients.....and water. This year I am singing those old dry weather blues at the end of my rubber garden hose; a love hate relationship in three quarter time.

Thank you Julie and Blake for the great feature!! You can learn more about their greenhouse on their website Hurst Greenery and be sure to follow their blog Dirt Under My Fingernails.

Do you have a passion for agriculture? How are you involved in ag? We need you for the next FOA feature!!! E-mail Elizabeth and Jamie at to learn how you can be our next feature!