“Honey, we bought a farm.”
Though it might not have been spoken this way in the Howerton home, that’s what the urban farming couple did last year.
They’ve since lived the inherent risk that comes with a statement like that. They quit full-time jobs, invested in dairy goats and breeding sows, and began living off the land.
Caleb and Klaire Howerton actually have been on the risky entrepreneurial path since the start of 2016, slowly and strategically pursuing their farming dreams.
Known as Green Thicket Farm, they began supplying restaurants wholesale food products and they’ve since branched out with a community supported agriculture program and hosting farm-to-table dinners.
It started with rabbits and quail in their city yard, off of Glenstone Avenue and Division Street behind Evangel University.
They found niche products for locally sourced-conscious chefs. Metropolitan Farmer, Harvest Restaurant and The Order are regular buyers.
When it got too crowded and too noisy in the city, the Howertons went shopping for land.
They settled a year ago on six acres about seven miles north of town. Then they got to work – on the farm and juggling their day jobs.
“It was nuts,” Caleb Howerton says of also working as sustainability manager for Green Circle Projects, and Klaire as a kennel technician for Springfield Sidekick Dog Training. “We couldn’t efficiently do both.”
Caleb quit Green Circle in May, and Klaire joined him as a full-time farmer last month.
They like to be called “new age farmers,” though they’ll take “millennial farmers.”
“The world of farming needs a more diverse group of people,” Klaire says.
She points to the variety of purveyors at the Farmers Market of the Ozarks. Any given Saturday at Farmers Park there’s a comingling of Amish bonnets and breads, pints by Springfield Brewing Co. and the British flair of the London Calling food truck.
To connect with a wider clientele, the Howertons this summer added a month-to-month CSA program to sell their meats, eggs and produce. It’s $250 per month for weekly supplies – a dozen chicken or quail eggs, 20 pounds of meat and about a half-dozen varieties of vegetables and herbs – or $150 for a half-share.
About 11 miles north of town – taking Glenstone Avenue before it turns into Highway H – the couple’s property looks, well, like a working farm. It’s complete with a 1920s-built, white siding house and concrete slab remnants of a dairy barn.
The house is surrounded on three sides with the livestock: 250 laying hens, 75 quail, 20 breeding rabbits, nine sheep, seven goats, 20 pigs, two cows, three farm dogs and one horse.
“We’ve been in dairy goats for like three weeks now,” Caleb says.
The biggest surprise so far has been the response to the farm-to-table dinners on their property. Launched in March, Green Thicket Farm hosts two or three of the five-course dinners per month with a maximum of 16 guests. For $35 per person, guests get five courses, with products sourced from the farm. They say the Oct. 7 dinner is sold out, and they’ve added a third to the calendar in November.
On the menu
At Metropolitan Farmer, Green Thicket Farm’s rabbit products are a constant.
Chef Wes Johnson switched to the Howertons’ supplies from Rogers, Arkansas-based Pel-Freez, which is described as the Tyson Foods of the domestic rabbit industry.
“Wes is constantly changing things up. But we are his sole rabbit supplier,” Caleb says, noting he’s seen stuffed rabbit tenderloin and braised rabbit leg on Metro Farmer’s menu.
At MetropolitanFarmer.com, the current dinner menu has a $24 rabbit fricassee and another dish featuring rabbit bacon. Caleb says chef Craig von Foerster at Harvest often does rabbit terrine, while The Order inside Hotel Vandivort typically buys quail and produce.
“When we go out to restaurants that have our product, one of us usually orders something on the menu we know has ours. We want to see how they prepare it,” Klaire says.
Their earnings have been meager early on. But the Howerton’s expect some of that in a startup farm.
“It’s so tight,” Caleb says of this year’s $12,000 in revenue so far against $11,000 in expenses. “Every time I see it, it scares the living daylights out of me.
“I don’t know sometimes how we manage to pull things off. But somehow it works.”
Their business plan calls for reinvestments into the farm for the first three to five years. Operating expenditures the first year have been in fencing, building maintenance, animal acquisitions, feed needs, and minerals and other soil amendments. Green Thicket Farm’s balance sheet is offset by Klaire’s professional writing and contract social media work and dog training.
“We grow nearly all of our food, or we trade for it with stuff we grow. So our expenses that aren’t business related are really quite slim,” Caleb says. “It allows us to grow slow. Our goal has been to grow the farm just slow enough that we don’t take on any debt besides our mortgage payment.
“We’ve seen other people go full-bore and just buy absolutely everything upfront and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and not be able to farm because they have to go right back into town.”
The Howertons spent about $130,000 acquiring the property, and they project $20,000 in revenue at year’s end.
“Every quarter it gets better, cash flow-wise,” he says.
Where megaretailers abound and more development is coming
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