Organic farm has long history

Monday, July 30, 2007
Potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers harvested by John Wilkerson.

ST. LOUIS -- John Wilkerson frequently wears a pair of torn-at-the-knee khakis and a well-worn button-down white dress shirt as he works the land at the Mueller Farm in Ferguson, Mo.

The attire is fitting for a former information technology worker at the old McDonnell Douglas Health Information Systems, but Wilkerson also has deep roots in farming. He grew up on a farm in Tennessee, and his grandfather held the distinction of introducing tomatoes as a cash crop in the 1920s to farmers in that state's McNairy County.

The farm he tends has been owned by the Mueller family since 1883. Today the farm and its buildings take up just under 14 acres. But despite being bordered tightly on all sides by housing mainly of the post-World War II-boom variety, a boundary line of trees and a bounty of bugs and birds allow the Mueller Farm to keep a bucolic character.

Although he hadn't done it consciously, owner Al Mueller always farmed using what are now known as organic techniques. The Muellers had no children, so they turned to renters to farm the land in the mid-1990s after Al Mueller experienced some health setbacks. He died in 1999.

Wilkerson, who serves as president of the Missouri Organic Association, attributes the quality of the soil to Al Mueller's practice of spreading horse manure over the property every fall for some 50 years. Wilkerson fertilizes with compost and by planting buckwheat and other "cover crops" that he plows under to fertilize the soil. He uses borax and other natural substances for pest control.

John Wilkerson, 65, tended to his tomato plants Wednesday at Mueller Organic Farm in Ferguson, Mo. Wilkerson is in his eighth year of working the land at the Mueller Farm. (Dawn Majors ~ St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Wilkerson farms only a small portion of the 10 or so cultivatable acres on the property, with some of the rest farmed by Rufus Cole, who does the tractor work for the entire spread. Beekeeper Sharon Gibbons maintains one of her bee colonies in the midst of the farm.

At first, Wilkerson sold produce from the farm at the St. Charles Farmers Market, but more recently he's had a booth at the Ferguson Farmers Market, which is held Saturday mornings, just a few blocks from the Mueller Farm.

As might be expected given his heritage, tomatoes are one of his major crops, with about 10 varieties growing this year. Wilkerson also grows seven varieties of potatoes, as well as beets, kohlrabi, squash, corn, cucumbers, watermelon, peas, beans and flowers.

Some are doing better than others this year: He had a terrific early crop of snap peas, but his green beans have a plant disease, a problem that can occur more frequently for farmers who don't use chemicals. Wilkerson is sanguine about the results, preferring to dwell on the high quality of his successful crops.

"Like everything else, it pays to diversify," he says.

Caroline Mueller, 87, lives in the brick house the couple built at the front of the property soon after their marriage in 1947.

She worked side by side with her husband for more than 50 years, but she hasn't been able to get out into the fields for the past several seasons. Thus one of her favorite crops, a row of blackberry bushes near the crops tended by Wilkerson, still yields plump, deeply colored berries, but it has become overgrown, making it difficult to harvest.

Wilkerson realizes that he, too, will sometime have to cut back even more on his time in the field. He's hopeful that other renters will step forward, but he'd also like to see a coordinated effort, perhaps from an academic or state agency, to ensure the long-term viability of what he views as an increasingly rare agricultural resource.

"This soil is just the best I've ever seen," Wilkerson says.

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