by Sally Colby
If a farm is located just 10 miles from downtown St. Louis and surrounded by development, can it thrive? The Thies family would say yes. Despite rapid growth in the area, Thies Farm has been in continual use for fruit and vegetable production since 1885 when Dave Thies’s great-great-grandfather purchased it. Today, fifth-generation growers Dave and his brother Darrell operate three properties to supply the metropolitan St. Louis area with fresh fruits and vegetables.
The three properties are about 15 miles apart, and each is used to its best advantage. The North Hanley Farm, which is part of the original property, includes about 500 peach trees in a high-density planting. The oldest block is about eight years old, with trees 6 ft. apart in the row with open middle and two scaffold branches on each side. “We went to that system to get a faster return,” said Dave. “We seem to get a better yield per acre.”
Most of the farm’s greenhouses, which total just under 60,000 sq. ft. in three locations, are on the North Hanley Farm. “We grow a lot of our own vegetable transplants, bedding plants, hanging baskets, perennials, nursery stock,” said Dave. “We also sell supplies, including mulch.”
Another farm, a 200-acre property in Maryland Heights on the Missouri River bottom, is used to grow about 35 different vegetable crops including cabbage, sweet corn, pumpkins, peppers, tomatoes, greens, eggplant, summer and winter squash, radishes, green onions and beets. Although much of the produce is sold retail, some goes to local restaurants and wholesale to a grocery chain in St. Louis. “We’ve dealt with them for the past 30 years,” said Dave, “but the past 10 years it’s been more intense because of the local interest.”
St. Charles, the latest location, is just across the Missouri River from the Maryland Heights farm and is primarily a garden center. “We are right on the Missouri River, on the Katy Trail (hiking/biking trail),” said Dave. “We have a bakery, and hope to soon open a café and host events there. In the next year or two, we’ll start growing produce and become more of a farm.”
A long-term lease gives Thies Farm 12 acres at the St. Charles location. Right now, about six acres of loamy bottom soil are being prepared for raspberries and blackberries, with plans to establish high tunnels and fruit for you-pick. “That should fit in well with the hiking/biking trail,” said Dave as he discussed plans for the location. “St. Charles County was one of the fastest growing counties in Missouri for many years, and has a large population.”
Dave hopes the three-year process to establish the location, which included a road closure that prevented traffic access to the facility when the location was just getting started, will pay off.
The Thies family drew attention to the St. Charles location by holding workshops for home gardeners every few weeks in late winter/early spring. “We try to pick interesting topics,” said Dave. “We’ve done a soil workshop, and we’re going to do a kids’ garden to get kids more interested in gardening. If we can help make people more successful in gardening, they’ll enjoy it more and we’ll have long-term customers.” Dave noted that about half of the people who attended the soil workshop were customers from the other two locations, and are now familiar with the new location. “Since we aren’t open yet at the other two locations, they came here,” said Dave, adding that the farm’s Facebook presence helped draw attention to the first workshop. “We’re trying to draw from a large metropolitan area.”
To optimize productivity, Darrell adapts equipment to suit crops. He also tracks soil chemistry on the farms. “We brought in a soil consultant who does a very thorough testing of all parcels every year,” said Dave. “We’ve reached a point where we very precisely determine how much fertilizer we need according to what we’re growing. The first two or three years we used a consultant, we cut our fertilizer use almost in half.”
Crops at Thies Farms are watered through drip irrigation, with soluble fertilizer added as needed. “We try to custom apply without over-applying,” said Dave. “We are constantly changing the way we grow, and we’re using different methods. That’s a huge part of sustainability.” Although there’s no use for plastic row covers after the growing season, Dave believes that the covers play an important role in conserving water. “Environmentally, there are benefits,” he said. “If we use plastic, there’s drip irrigation under it. We run well water with diesel engines, and we cut back substantially on water use and the energy to pump that water and the labor involved.”
One of the most popular attractions at the farm is Pumpkinland, making October the biggest sales month of the year. “We have a lot of schools visits but not as many as we used to,” said Dave, noting that school budgets and transportation issues have forced some schools to eliminate such trips. “But we still do a lot of tours and weekends with families.”
Two farms — the original farm and the Maryland Heights location — offer pumpkins and corn mazes. “We have similar play areas at each,” said Dave. “Everything at the Maryland Heights location is larger scale. We grow 30 to 35 acres of pumpkins and sell most of them retail at the two locations.”
Most consumers associate sustainability with growing methods, and although Dave agrees that that’s part of the equation, he says that it isn’t everything. “Unless you can do things in such a way that the whole business is sustainable, you aren’t going to pass it to the next generation,” he said. “Nobody will want to work that hard and not make a profit.”
Another effort toward sustainability is the plastic pot recycling program operated in cooperation with the Missouri Botanical Garden. ““We have trailers at two of our locations — customers bring used pots, flats, and we add ours too,” said Dave. “When a trailer is full, we take it down to their lot and exchange it for an empty trailer.” The plastic is ground and pelletized, then used to make plastic timber that is sold at the botanical garden and lumber yards. The recycling project has kept 680,000 pounds of plastic out of landfills.
Visit Thies Farm on line at www.thiesfarm.com
Growing a farm amidst development
by Sally Colby