Prairie Birthday Farm is a peaceful safe haven for more than 150 native species of flora and 45 bird species. Owned and operated by farm steward and artisanal producer Linda Hezel, this 22-year-old farm is also a momentary refuge for anyone that knows how to take the right combination of turns away from the highway, along back roads, across a narrow bridge and up the drive. By invitation, naturally. I headed to the farm last week in search of a story for the August issue of Northland Lifestyle magazine and returned to the city with a rich store of words, images and delicate gems from nature’s bounty.
Hezel’s approach to farming is to focus on raising or growing foods that are artisan, heritage breeds, heirloom plants or native to Missouri. She doesn’t grow large-scale crops for sale at farmers markets or commodity exchanges in the service of agribusiness. She grows hundreds of varieties of fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers, and produces honey, eggs and other goods as well. Prairie Birthday Farm’s bounty finds a second life in the kitchens of area chefs and cocktail bars of ingredient-focused bartenders at The Rieger, Manifesto, Novel, Affare and Voltaire to name a few.
This mode of artisan farming seems unconventional and unpractical in an era of convenience where cheap food is expected to be available year-round at supermarkets. Does it make sense to have tomatoes and strawberries available year-round and out of season? Hezel and other local, small-scale growers take an alternate approach to the food they grow, raise and bring to farmers markets, CSAs, or wholesale customers at restaurants and bars.
Don’t get me wrong. Large-scale farming has its place and methods to produce enough volume to supply manufacturers, feed a nation and contribute to the economics of import/export markets. That’s really a separate, complex discussion.
The day’s visit to Prairie Birthday Farm reaffirmed the importance of Hezel’s methods and thinking to nurture healthy prairie soil, follow sustainable practices and champion farming that values biodiversity. Within the microcosm of her 15 acres, Hezel’s approach prompts a realignment of thinking in how we might better eat on a seasonal basis. How we might consider and value a far greater range of foods readily available if more consumers supported small farms within their community. How foods grown and raised without pesticide and herbicide not only impact what we put into our bodies, but also affects the land and waterways near our homes. The prairie and pasture that supports flora and fauna, pollinating bees, insects, birds and other wildlife are part of a holistic, integrated environment that includes us.
We’re not typically attuned to the richness of the land around us with such immediacy. Most of us live in the city and suburbs, developed land connected by highway, avenues and boulevards. We connect to each other through text messages, emails and screens that carry data on digital winds. A visit to a farm, whether it is Prairie Birthday or the network found on Cultivate Kansas City’s Urban Grown Tour last weekend, is a homecoming in a way. An opportunity and choice to be in contact with local farmers and growers and the land itself.
Prairie Birthday Farm is one star in a dynamic constellation of food producers, massive and miniscule, that comprise our food systems. It is important to pay attention to these stars and constellations that sustain us.
Nature follows its own rhythm. The seasons are a song cycle. Plants and animals follow the natural course of internal music refined, cultivated and evolved over millennia. Farmers like Hezel are conductors that get their hands dirty, brow sweaty and muscles aching. Ever learning and laboring, Hezel is attuned to the orchestral music of what the land will yield in concert with the weather. Her orchard of apple, wild plum and quince may shine one summer, only to falter after discordant hail or freeze in subsequent seasons. This performance of prairie and farmer need not take place in a vacuum, far away from urban dwellers that eat fast, out of convenience and out of tune.
By the end of the visit, Hezel sends me home with a dozen eggs from her heritage chickens. She fills a bag of fresh-snipped bronze fennel, radish seed pods, French sorrel, wild arugula, parsnip buds about to blossom and more herbs from her garden beds. Head filled with the musical names of a dizzying array of native and cultivated species that populate Prairie Birthday Farm, I can’t wait to return home with this bounty and eat well.