Profiting from local buyers in St. Louis

A downturned economy, along with government and private encouragement for the consumption of increased amounts of fruits and vegetables, is having an impact on local produce growers across the country. Increasingly, families are seeking out local produce, purchasing a lot of their fruits and vegetables in the same way city dwellers did a century ago.

David Thies discusses strawberries in the field.
Photos courtesy of Thies Farm.

The Thies family in St. Louis is somewhat unique in today’s population. They’ve stayed in one place while many of America’s families have migrated from their ancestors’ chosen settlements, and they’ve provided fresh produce during that time to an ever-changing metropolitan area. After earning degrees at the University of Missouri, brothers Darrell and David Thies joined the family business started by their great-grandfather on a 25-acre site in St. Louis. He operated a truck farm at the site, selling his produce at the St. Louis produce market. A fifth generation of the family is now participating in the business, which includes greenhouse operations, fruit and vegetable production and two retail operations.

Interest in local produce has increased nationwide, and is likely to increase even more with current reports relating to the effects of chemicals consumed by children. Concerns are often raised about the safety of imported foods where regulations on chemical applications on food supplies are lax or nonexistent. Nutritionists also encourage people to buy locally grown produce whenever possible. Knowing that food is grown by responsible growers who are also marketing that food is important in assuring safe production practices.

Peaches packed for sale in the retail market.
Thies grows peaches on approximately 500 high-density peach trees.
Pumpkins are lined up for customer selection at Pumpkinland Festival.

Local produce is also fresh-picked, providing more nutrients, and just tastes better. Thies Farm is well-positioned to provide not only fresh produce, but also to maintain a customer relationship that retains the hometown atmosphere of purchasing from the neighborhood market. A 10-acre site, part of the original farm, has remained the Thies Farm base of operations. Located adjacent to Interstate 70, the site is surrounded by urban development. A focus on growing the best produce and maintaining strong relationships with customers has assured a special spot for the farm. Over the years, operations have expanded to a current 120-acre site in suburban Maryland Heights.

The business segments are about 30 percent greenhouse, which includes plants and flowers, 30 percent wholesale and 40 percent retail in fruits and vegetables. Although Thies Farm has gross sales of about $2 million, the hometown connection with customers has remained strong.

Growing

Greenhouse sales start the season for Thies Farm. About 90 percent of the flowers sold are grown in the greenhouses. About 6,000 perennials are grown, with about 500 hanging baskets prepared and sold each spring, along with bedding plants for home gardeners. In addition, various supplies such as pots, fertilizers and other needs are sold.

Thies Farm uses its greenhouses for multiple uses. The 10-acre site in the city has 12 permanent greenhouses, plus five portable ones that are taken down each year. Greenhouse plantings are rotated, and the space where the portables are erected is utilized to display mums when they come down. The Maryland Heights site, where vegetables and fruits are produced on 120 acres, has three permanent greenhouses with 40,000 square feet of space.

“We’ve had great variety improvements,” said David Thies. “Vegetables are much more disease-resistant.” Pumpkins are an important fall crop for Thies Farm, and powdery mildew has been a major issue, particularly in a wet year. New virus-resistant varieties are a significant help to growers.

“On the fruit side, new fungicides are well-targeted,” Thies said. “Pesticides are more expensive, but are better targeted now, too.” Careful withdrawal of chemicals before harvest is essential.

Thies Farm has grown vegetables on plastic for about 25 or 30 years, and solid set irrigation is used. Thies Farm grows about 500 high-density peach trees, along with raspberries and blackberries.

About 25 to 30 people are employed by the company, with a number of family members in addition to the brothers. Mostly local labor is used, and some employees have worked at the farm for about 30 years.

Marketing

While marketing is an essential part of any growing operation, at Thies Farm it is considered maintaining relationships with customers. The farm within the city is well-known throughout the metropolitan area. Fruits and vegetables are brought directly from the farm to the retail markets.

Thies Farm highlights its products throughout the year with various festivals, including a strawberry festival. Both you-pick and picked strawberries are available, and are followed shortly by red and black raspberries and blackberries. Traditional crops such as rhubarb are grown, and summer vegetable production includes about 30 acres of sweet corn.

Thies produce is found in a number of area grocery stores, including Schnuck’s, the major St. Louis-based chain with a number of locations in Missouri and Illinois, as well as smaller chains and markets throughout the area.

Demographics have changed over the years, with fewer homes having a homemaker on hand to spend the afternoon preparing the family meal. However, the nutritional interest has steadily increased in recent years, and Thies has responded to this.

“We’re definitely doing more education and supplying more information to our customers during the last several years,” Thies said. The markets offer customers not only high-quality fresh produce, but also ideas on preparing it. Each farm site provides recipes and sponsors a Sample Fest each year in which roast corn, salsa and other produce is prepared and served. Peppers are increasingly popular for use in salsas.

“It’s a huge event,” Thies said. “We have it two weeks in a row. We introduce new ideas to our customers, such as grilled eggplant and roast cabbage. There’s definitely more interest and a trend toward using more vegetables.”

Thies also sites an impact of the economy on plant sales, with an increase of 50 to 60 percent in the past two years. “We’re seeing more interest among young families in their 20s and 30s,” he said.

Fall means not only pumpkins are available, but also straw bales that are popular for fall decorating. Pumpkinland, a major fall festival, is open for the month of October every year. Pumpkins and other fall decorating, along with activities, are featured. When fall is over, fresh-cut Christmas trees are sold, and Thies Farm remains open until Christmas Eve.

Zucchini is popular summer produce. Potatoes are sold in small quantities in the retail market.
Peppers are increasingly popular for salsas. Vegetables on display in retail market.

Operations evolve

Family dynamics are an important aspect of Thies Farm operations. David and Darrell are both actively involved in all aspects of the business, but with some specialization. David is responsible for the business management and financial area, along with greenhouse sales, and Darrell directs the growing operations, maintenance and purchasing.

Eggplant growing in the field is especially popular. Cabbage grows in the field.

Thies Farm is a member of the Missouri Vegetable Growers Association and the Illinois Specialty Growers Association. While Thies Farm has expanded to a suburban location, development has continued, and land available for rent to grow produce has become more scarce. Thies Farm will likely move its major growing operation across the Missouri River in the near future, where more land is available.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Growing. She resides in Mount Zion, Ill.