Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 20

Heritage & Heirlo

Winigan Farms maps out blueprint for sma

by Zach Smith | zsmith@ruralmissouri.coop

H

alf a century ago, a flock of 50 turkeys
roaming a hill in southeastern Sullivan
County would have seemed small by
Winigan's standards. In the 1960s and
'70s, thousands of the birds were raised in this
part of northern Missouri, most belonging to the
Borron family. The skeletal remains of brood houses and the Borron hatchery still dot the cornfields
that surround the town of about 50 people.
Today, if something grows on the vine, hoof or
wing around Winigan, it's familiar to Rod Belzer.
The fifth generation of his family to farm the area,
he knows his mother Melba's cattle operation as well as he knows
turkeys. His grandfather raised
Winigan
them in the '30s and '40s, and he
grew up helping his family tend to
Borron brood stock. To Rod, this flock
of 50 is a sort of bridge between farming's past and one possible future.
"That's kind of always been the
history of Winigan - cattle and turkeys," Rod says. "But like everything
else, when mega farms came in and
everybody started raising things in confinement,
the days of raising turkeys in large pens on pasture
kind of went by the wayside."
Rod and friends, Roger and Joleen Edwards, are
still raising turkeys in the Winigan tradition just
across the Macon County line with a heritage breed
called Narragansett. Named after Narragansett Bay
in Rhode Island, the turkeys developed when those
brought to the New World by European immigrants
in the early 1600s crossbred with eastern wild
turkeys. The result is a strikingly plumaged bird
checked with white and brown feathers.
"They're as close as I can duplicate that traditional Thanksgiving turkey," the North Central
Missouri Electric Cooperative member says. "There
aren't a lot of functioning breeding flocks in the
country, so it's my way of promoting a breed I think
is worth keeping around."
Three years in, demand from turkey customers,

20

RURAL MISSOURI | NOVEMBER 2017

primarily found at the farmers market in Kirksville, has steadily increased. Winigan Farms
raised only 15 to 20 turkeys the first year from
what Rod describes lovingly as a "motley crew"
of half-breed heritage birds and sold every one.
Customers now pre-order a turkey each for
Thanksgiving and Christmas. The birds also
have become local celebrities among those who
stop at Winigan Station, the town's unofficial
gathering spot.
"They're quite the conversation starter,"
Joleen, a Macon Electric Cooperative member,
says. "People want to know, 'How are the turkeys?' Well, they're turkeys - I don't know.
They're fine? They're growing."
Life on the farm - no matter the size - is
rarely carefree, however. The Narragansetts
numbered 80 when they were purchased
as poults this spring. Along the way
some fell prey to natural illness and
non-paying customers such as owls
and coyotes.
Because the birds are given free
range in their 32 weeks from poult
to plate, they have a higher proportion of dark meat. They're smaller
than the standard Butterball, but Rod
says the toms dress out at 15 to 20 pounds.
And customers are willing to pay the $4.50 per
pound price tag to know something about their
food along with where and how it was raised.
"Whenever you pay that much for a turkey
you're obviously wanting more than a slice of
turkey: You're wanting an experience," Rod says.
"Whenever I go to the farmers market I tell the
vendors, 'You're not just selling produce, you're
selling a story.' "
The stories don't stop with Pilgrim-era table
fare. Driving back into Sullivan County, Rod
checks on the other fruits of his labors. He stops
to examine a mushroom bed he completed this
summer. After a few failed experiments with
shiitakes, Rod's determined to grow wine cap
stropharia from this new plot. When the turkey
business slows down, he adds, he'll probably

plug more shiitake logs this fall.
The drive to keep trying new things is why Rod
doesn't envision raising more than 100 turkeys per
year. Even with the help of his partners like the
Edwards' or Jeff and Robin Morelock, who help Rod
grow four varieties of heirloom garlic, he has too
many products to grow and too many ideas waiting
to take root to drop them all and focus on any one
thing. He makes it a point to grow something new
each year. This summer it was artichokes.
"Won't do it again, but it was fun," Rod says
wistfully, recalling the effort it took to simulate a
California winter for his trays of seedlings. "My goal
is not to become too big. There has to be a fun factor and you don't want to get so big where it's no
longer fun."
Like the artichokes or the shiitakes before them,
some of these experiments in farming don't always
yield new products for Winigan Farms. But one
thing that remains constant is Rod's zeal and customer demand for a flavor synonymous with rural
America: homegrown tomatoes.
For that reason there's perhaps no better place
to grow the tomatoes than on the original family
farm. At first glance it's a typical country vegetable
garden of about 2 acres, although little about Rod's
selections are common produce aisle staples.
"This is my tomato jungle," Rod says, waving a
hand at the redolent plot of green vines sprinkled
with the occasional stalk or seedpod. "You try your
best to keep weeds down, but when you don't use
herbicides you just put up with it."
The downside to an all-natural approach to
gardening is that most heirloom varieties - the only
kind Rod grows - aren't very hardy or resilient.
Rod experimented with grafting his heirlooms on
to hybrid tomato root systems this year. The result
is a stronger vine that is resistant to earth borne
diseases but one that also carries unmistakable
homegrown taste. This year it's Red Brandywines,
Black Krims and Big Rainbows. Next year he plans
to add San Marzanos to the mix.
Never one to let his green thumb lie dormant,
Rod has at least six different hot and sweet peppers
sprinkled alongside the tomatoes and the next



Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - November 2017

Rural Missouri - November 2017 - Intro
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - Cover1
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - Cover2
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 3
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 4
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 5
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 6
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 7
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 8
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 9
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 10
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 11
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 12
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Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 14
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 15
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 16
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 17
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 18
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 19
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 20
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 21
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 22
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 23
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 24
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 25
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 26
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 27
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 28
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 29
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 30
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 31
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 32
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 33
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 34
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 35
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 36
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 37
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - 38
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - Cover3
Rural Missouri - November 2017 - Cover4
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