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Value-added agriculture shines at Reckamp Farms

By Joann Pipkin

Marilyn & Gene Reckamp, Stacy Ward Marilyn & Gene Reckamp, FCS Financial's Stacy Ward.

The mid-summer day was anything but typical. Torrential rain pounded the pavement amid the hustle and bustle of the busy four-lane. At last, a glimpse of sunshine peers through the clouds as the journey leads us through east central Missouri’s winding countryside. In the rolling hillsides north of the mighty Missouri, corn and soybeans soak up the rays. Lavish estates billow with horses and white board fences while quaint early-century German settlements remind of simpler times.

In these shadows of big-city St. Louis, Reckamp Farms is a haven for value-added agriculture. A stone’s throw off Highway OO south of Wright City, this family-owned and operated business thrives on its German heritage as it beams customer satisfaction, first and foremost.

From Humble Beginnings
In the early 1900s, Gene Reckamp’s family truck-farmed on 20 acres in Florissant.

“We raised a lot of stuff on 20 acres,” Gene recalls of his father’s modest acreage that grew fall vegetables, which were sold out of the back of the pick-up.

“We worked the ground with horses,” he says noting, the rich, black soil raised “good Irish potatoes.”

Gene was drafted in 1952 and tells of the staunch discipline and work ethic his younger years taught him. While away, his father would write him every week, and at his father’s request Gene agreed to farm with him on a place near Wright City after he got out of the service.

About a year after Gene’s return from the Marines, cancer settled in his father’s back. With his passing, Gene’s stepmother inherited the farm, leaving him to work in construction.

Gene and wife Marilyn settled in High Point near Cave Springs for about 14 years with their six children. They finally gathered enough money to purchase the family farm at Wright City and moved back there in 1975.

“When mom and dad got married, they were raising hatching eggs,” Dave says. “When corporations became a prominent feature in the poultry industry, it became hard for folks like them to make their operations feasible.”

Back in the 1950s, roosters cost over $1 each, Marilyn notes.

Their hog operation also came from modest beginnings. Neighbor Bill Held partnered with the Reckamps. Yorkshire gilts were kept at the Reckamp farm because it was “clean ground,” meaning hogs had never before been on the land.

The partnership eventually dissolved, but the Reckamps continued in their own hog venture.

In its early years, the Wright City farm raised cattle, hogs and crops. Today, the 185-acre spread includes natural pork, vegetables, honey and free-range eggs, as well as corn and soybeans. Gene and Marilyn’s youngest son Dave and wife Marylin manage the operation together with only limited help from other family members.

As the hog market tumbled, Marylin remembers telling Dave, “Why don’t we do what they do in Scotland?”

And in her thick British dialect, she recounts how Scottish farmers add value to their products by selling direct to the public. “Make more money,” she says.

“We started (value-added) 14 years ago,” Marylin explains. “Small in the beginning. Now it’s huge.”

Value-Added Everything

Reckamp Pork The Reckamps market produce, all natural pork, honey, jams & jellies from their on-farm store.

From its natural pork to vegetables to eggs, honey and row crops diversity is key for the Reckamp operation.

And, it’s diversification that has helped the family manage the operation on the cusp of urbanization.

“It’s helped us put our name out there,” Dave says.

“When we first started, we weren’t really very busy here at the farm,” Marylin says. “Marilyn took me to the farmer’s market in Warrenton. We sold turnips and rhubarb and made $13.”

After that, Marylin would load up what vegetables were on hand and take them to the farmers markets. “We started making more and more money,” she says. “I thought ‘this is a good deal.’”

More farmers markets followed since that meager $13 beginning. One opened in nearby Wright City, and for about 10 years, the Reckamps participated in a huge market once a year at a gated community in Innsbrook about five miles from the farm.

The Innsbrook market alone has played a key role in developing the Reckamp business. It helped put them in touch with a customer who owned a Welsh pub in downtown St. Louis that now features Reckamp natural pork on its menu.

According to Dave, the restaurant has been highlighted on Food Network’s Diners, Drive Ins and Dives, and actually featured one of Reckamp’s pork roasts on the show.

Aside from their farmer’s market trade and the local restaurant business, the Reckamps have been reaching out to customers through its on-farm store since 2001.

The modest shop is housed in Gene and Marilyn’s garage, featuring natural pork right out of the freezer as well as honey, eggs, vegetables, jams and jellies.

About 300-350 laying hens produce enough eggs to be sold off the farm as well as through three farmer’s markets. “They are like gold,” Marylin says. “We can’t keep ‘em.”

The recent Avian flu scare sent customers flocking to the Reckamps for eggs.

The farm is home to more than 130 sows, and the Reckamps work with a processor in nearby Jonesburg who helps market their pork, often in whole or halves. Individual cuts are sold through the farm store as well as at the farmers markets.

“Dave goes (to the processor) usually first thing Monday mornings with a jag of hogs, then we ship to Tyson,” Gene says.

Marketing all natural pork means the hogs are free of antibiotics and have been raised “naturally,” Dave says.

In fact, about 20 years ago the family began using waste product from a St. Louis noodle factory, which also makes fortune cookies and tofu, as a source of soybeans for their hog feed.

A semi load of waste product comes in every 10 days, and although it isn’t free, Dave says it is a cost effective feed alternative.

To help prolong the growing season, vegetables are grown in high tunnels on the farm, which serve as big umbrellas, grabbing natural heat from the sun.

Reckamp vegetables High tunnels, which help prolong the growing season, play a key role in raising vegetables on the Reckamp Farm.

“I start some plants from seed in the greenhouse,” Marylin explains. “Then, a smaller hoop house attached to that hardens the seedlings before they are planted in the field or in the high tunnels.”

She adds they utilize the high tunnels as much as possible for vegetables because field planting is more labor intensive and harbors more weeds and pests. Approximately 25 acres is dedicated to the vegetable arm of the Reckamp’s operation.

The Reckamps work with a former customer to house bees on the farm. The bees are a key component to developing a successful pumpkin crop as the number of times a bee pollinates the pumpkin correlates to the number of seeds that pumpkin has, Dave explains.

Honey produced by those bees is then marketed through the store and farmers markets. Jams and jellies are purchased from four different Amish families and sold by the Reckamps as well.

The Reckamps aren’t unlike other Missouri farmers this growing season. They’ve weathered their fair share of the cards Mother Nature has dealt them.

“We’ve planted beans two times and still don’t have a decent crop,” Gene pipes up.

Fifteen acres of pumpkins have also been planted twice, adds Dave, noting, “Being diversified helps us combat the ups and downs of the weather.”

“It has cost us more to put the crop in so we won’t have as much of a net profit,” Marylin says. “But, as long as we have a net profit, we’ll be all right.”

Customers Come First
When the customer talks, the Reckamps listen.

“When we started growing tomatoes,” Marylin says, “we grew about 15 different varieties.”

After dividing those varieties into separate boxes for sale, the Reckamps asked customers to tell them which ones were keepers. “We’ve whittled it down to five varieties now,” she explains.

That’s just one example of how the Reckamps continually strive to keep customer satisfaction a top priority.

“You can’t be at (the farmers market) one day and expect something,” Dave says. “You’ve got to be there a month, so the customers recognize your face.”

Marylin adds, “They also know our product is good. That’s very important.”

The Missouri transplant knows positive feedback from their customers is paramount, but she also encourages patrons to share when they get an unsatisfactory product. “We have to know,” she states.

In fact, Dave has left sweet corn standing in the field before because he didn’t like it, she adds.

Often, Gene and Marilyn will taste test different vegetable varieties and pork products before marketing it to the public.

“If it’s just okay, we won’t sell it,” Marylin says.

It’s a simple philosophy that has served the Reckamps well over the years. “Your name gets out there that way and the customer trusts us,” she says. “That’s huge. They trust us to produce good, quality food.”

Although not certified organic, the Reckamps work to raise their produce as naturally as possible and maintain that presence up-front with their customers. Produce is picked fresh the day it goes to the farmers market as much as possible.

In their early days, the Reckamps only sold basic cuts of pork. Today, specialized cuts can be ordered in advance to suit a customer’s needs.

“We listen to what our customers are telling us,” Dave says. Take last summer for instance. He explains how pork roasts were a hot commodity for them. This year, however, smoked pork chops and brats are in high demand.

“I never knew what brats were growing up,” Dave says. “We never had that option.”

At their processor’s urging, the Reckamps began offering customers a brat. Other flavors of the now-popular cut followed, and today the business sells about 50 pounds a week of a bacon-cheddar brat featuring bacon ends from their own pork.

Building Lifetime Relationships
Perhaps it was their long-time friendship with FCS Financial customer Jim Zerr that brought the Reckamps to the cooperative. Regardless, the 20-year relationship between the Reckamps and FCS Financial has served each entity well.

According to FCS Financial’s Stacy Ward, “Their operation helps (FCS Financial) stay diversified. It’s nice to have another product to work with in addition to the more traditional operations.”

Ward is also complimentary of the Reckamp’s ability to manage their operation through multiple generations.

Side-by-side, the Reckamps work long, hard hours to ensure the fruits of their labor deliver happy customers.

They admit to not always agreeing, and as Marylin says, “If something doesn’t work, we don’t do it again.”

While this family rich in German heritage jumped at value-added agriculture at a time when value-added wasn’t cool, their leap of faith brought with it a customer following that mirrors the phrase from the movies, “Build it and they will come.”

“It’s got to be good,” Marylin says of their products. “And, the customers know that after all these years, we won’t sell them anything bad.”
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