Tammy Sellmeyer in one of the hoop houses of her Fulton, Mo. farm. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)
Tammy Sellmeyer bends to pick up a strawberry in the middle of a hoop house on the 25-acre farm she owns and operates with her husband, Greg, just south of Fulton, Mo. The Sellmeyers plant some 3,000 strawberry plants here each year and sell them at the Columbia, Mo., farmers market. This past May, they sold 400 quarts in just three hours. But two years ago, they didn't have many berries to sell at all because pests got to their crop.
“We didn’t do any spraying on our strawberries and we lost two-thirds to three-quarters of the crop,” Sellmeyer said. “And so we’re not going to do that again.”
Keeping bugs, black rot, funghi and other diseases from their crops is one reason that Sellmeyer Farm has opted not to go the organic route. (I met Tammy Sellmeyer while doing reporting for my latest story on how USDA organic certification works.) Although the Sellmeyers try not to overspray their strawberries with pesticides -- and sometimes they just use organic mixtures made of peppers and eggs to keep the deer away -- they are not afraid to use something stronger if they're in danger of losing a crop.
“There’s a lot of things we don’t spray, like our sweet potatoes, onions, radishes,” she said. “But our tomatoes, strawberries, fruit trees, winter squashes, zucchinis, those things we will spray if we have to.”
In addition to those crops, Sellmeyer Farm grows many others, including blackberries, blueberries, cucumbers, zucchini potatoes, artichokes, okra and herbs. They compost and rotate their crops to try to keep their farm's soil healthy. Beehives sit not far from their chicken coop, in which 50 birds lay eggs they sell at the market. They also sell jams and jellies and home-made baked goods like Chocolate Chip Persimmon Bread made with persimmons grown on the farm. Tammy Sellmeyer bakes and tends the farm during the day while Greg works at the nuclear power plant. Nights and weekends, he plants seeds, harvests their crops and sells at the market with her.
Customers buy Sellmeyer Farm products because they are fresh and local, Sellmeyer says, and if they inquire as to whether the produce is organic, she or her husband refers them to one of the certified organic farmers at the market. Given all of their hard work on the farm and the deliberate choices they make to be a sustainable farm, sometimes the "organic" question gets old.
“It feels like sometimes we have to defend ourselves for not being organic. But I don’t think, you know, we’re that bad,” Sellmeyer said. “…At least this is fresh and so the nutrient value is higher. And like I said, if we don’t have to spray or do anything we don’t. So even though we’re not organic, I don’t think it’s necessarily that bad.”
Sellmeyer added she wanted to be as healthy as possible but genetics also play a big role in how long you live. Take Sellmeyer's grandfather, a row crop farmer and rancher who had cows, hogs and chickens. He died in November at 100 ½ years old and he didn’t worry about whether or not the food he was eating was organic.
“He was the king of cream and sugar,” Sellmeyer said. “I mean, he put cream -- pure cream -- on everything. Grandma made desserts every day, and that was his thing. Whatever dessert it was -- cake or pie or whatever -- he’d put it in a bowl and pour a bunch of cream on top.”