Hydroponics, alpaca farms among Emerson tour stops

Thursday, August 23, 2012
Steve Hamra, left, with Hamra Hydroponics Farm of Sikeston, Mo., shows 8th District Rep. Jo Ann Emerson how water filters through trays to help bibb lettuce grow. Also pictured are Ellen Warfield, Christy Nitsch and Lucy Bequette. (Jill Bock ~ Standard Democrat)

SIKESTON, Mo. -- U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson's annual farm tour took her to some unusual stops this year -- an alpaca farm, a deer farm near Poplar Bluff, Mo., a field full of peanuts in Ripley County and then her last stop in New Madrid County where there wasn't a field at all. Emerson closed out her tour Tuesday afternoon at Hamra's Hydroponics farm, where lettuce and tomatoes are grown in irrigated bags and trays.

Owners Steve and Michelle Hamra were eager to show Emerson the changes in the operation since she last visited some four years ago before they moved the operation to a farm outside of Sikeston.

However, like all Southeast Missouri farmers, Hamra told Emerson that this year has tested his farming skills. He, too, struggled to raise a crop with the unusually long hot days and lack of water.

Typically, Hamra pointed out, lettuce isn't grown in the summer. Walking into his greenhouse, however, visitors saw tables filled with green bibb lettuce along with a new venture -- Romaine lettuce. The farmer checked plants as he walked by with the tour, looking for signs of stress.

As the group tagged along, Hamra described the growing process as well as their efforts to conserve water.

His cherry tomatoes plants live about eight months. The greenhouse's 900 mature plants produce some 165 to 175 pounds of fruit a day.

He estimated another greenhouse was filled with 5,400 head of lettuce.

Hamra explained his efforts to keep the products he produces safe from pesticides and herbicides. He described a good working relationship with neighboring farmers who let him know when they will be spraying for insects, so he can ensure no cross contamination.

Most of the produce goes to area schools. Currently he takes lettuce and tomatoes to 35 schools from Hayti to Rolla to near St. Louis.

As he tried to described his routes, Emerson chimed in, "It is kind of like our district."

With the delivery of the produce to the schools, Hamra said, he finds his rewards.

He said he sees the difference the fresh produce makes to the youngsters.

"There are second-graders eating salads," the farmer said with a big grin.

"No one else is doing what we are doing," Hamra said about their farm operation. And there is room to continue to expand the operation, he noted.

Emerson said she can see the future for more nontraditional farming for the region. She added agriculture is the economic driver for Southeast Missouri that, in turn, fuels ancillary businesses.

Asked about the federal farm bill, Emerson said there is about a 50-50 chance of it being passed before the November election.

Describing it as a battle between food stamps and agriculture subsidies, she added, she was "very sad and very angry" about the stalemate. She noted livestock producers were particularly hurt by the lack of a bill because they are without any sort of federal help.

Emerson pointed out the House was able to pass an extension to the farm bill, however, the Senate adjourned before taking it up.

"This is the first time I've ever seen such partisan farm bill in my life," Emerson said. "It is very irresponsible."

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