Organic market rooted in local foods

By: Lisa Frick

For an upstart food retailer that aims to provide a local alternative to the traditional supermarket, The Root Cellar is looking more and more like one these days.

The business even boasts a new deli counter, which opened last week.

"It used to be more of a nine-month market," co-owner Walker Claridge said, noting the store's early boutique-like quality has evolved into more of a grocery store feel.

The difference, Claridge and co-owner Kimberly Griffin say, is that everything at The Root Cellar is locally processed or locally grown using more traditional farming methods: The produce is almost all pesticide-free. The beef, poultry and dairy products come from pasture-based animals raised without hormones or antibiotics.

"People want food made in old-fashioned ways, using old-fashioned techniques," said Claridge, who farms near Millersburg.

Product packaging throughout the store bears zip codes from around the state. In the freezer, there's chicken from Missouri Country Fresh in Macon and slabs of grass-fed beef raised on Covered L Farm in Centralia.

The dairy case features cheese from Goatsbeard Farm in Harrisburg and organic milk from Green Hills Harvest in Purdin. Peanut butter from East Wind Nut Butters of Tecumseh shares shelf space with rice from Martin Rice Co. in Bernie, whole-wheat pasta from Hodgson Mill in Gainesville and honey from Bonne Femme Honey Farm in Columbia.

"We're such a diverse state," Claridge said, "it's crazy."

Born in Colorado, Claridge grew up just south of Jefferson City in Wardsville. After high school, he worked during the mid-1990s at a bed-and-breakfast in Oregon, where he became interested in food systems. The bed-and-breakfast was self-sufficient, feeding overnighters produce from its garden and greenhouse, beef from its pastures and beer from its own brewery.

"I would hang out in the fields," Claridge recalled. "It was so holistic. I wondered, 'Why isn't society more like this all over?' "

In 1997, Claridge returned to Mid-Missouri, procured a greenhouse and began farming. Soon enough, he was selling produce at the farmers’ market. He cooked up his own jams and turned his homegrown tomatoes into tasty sauces, which he also sold at the farmers’ market.

As a farmer, Claridge saw a need for a market that lasted past October. He was also in need of his own kitchen. To make his products, Claridge had to rent out health-department-certified kitchens at other establishments. He realized that by having his own store, not only would he have a market for his produce; he could have his own certified kitchen. Ever passionate about local producers, Claridge rents out The Root Cellar's certified kitchen to others who want to create foods for the retail market.
The Root Cellar provides a connection between local growers and consumers.

"That's where Walker fulfills an incredible niche," said Mary Hendrickson, a University of Missouri Extension assistant professor of rural sociology and an avid Root Cellar shopper. Hendrickson said people want local food, and The Root Cellar makes it convenient to find.
Hendrickson said buying local foods has become a nationwide trend for many reasons. For starters, there's taste and quality. "As our food supply becomes more globalized, people feel it doesn't meet the same standards of taste," she said.

Hendrickson said most industrial foods bought in the grocery store have been bred for productive capacity, aesthetics or shelf life.

"It takes a lot to move a piece of fruit from California or Florida to us," she said. "It's hard to maintain taste over that long distance."

By contrast, small-scale farmers tend to grow plants for flavor. Some of the nation's top chefs have begun touting the benefits of local foods, and Americans have begun to take notice.

Hendrickson said the store also provides a season extension for farmers and helps them sell to buyers directly so they don't have to rely on commodity crops, where prices are falling.

Steve Landers, who owns Centralia's Covered L Farm with his wife, Sherry, said it's important for communities to have places like The Root Cellar.

"It really gives the community a vibrance," Landers said. "When there's an avenue for local produce – essentially full-time and not just a seasonal farmers' market – that helps local operations grow. That money, in my instance, gets turned around in the local economy."

Landers buys steers from the surrounding counties, processes them in New Franklin or Centralia and sells them at The Root Cellar.

"Everything stays within Boone County," he said. "That money is not going to corporate headquarters in South Dakota or New York City."

Landers began raising beef about 11 years ago. His cattle are raised without antibiotics and growth hormones. They consume grass rather than the starchy grains of supermarket beef. He points to studies showing that grass-fed beef has a more heart-healthy mix of fats.

Landers says The Root Cellar has become a large portion of his business.
This past week, The Root Cellar added a full-service deli, featuring free-range meats and hormone-free cheeses, as well as salads and soups. Claridge tries to offer one vegetarian and one meat soup every day. There's also a "bean of the day," a cooked bean customers can take home and plan a meal around.

For $4.50, customers can get Fulton-made Backer's chips and a vegetarian or free-range meat sandwich. When a customer orders one, Claridge chops some fresh veggies and sautés them in olive oil while spreading mayonnaise and mustard - pesto and hummus for vegetarians - on Uprise Bakery bread.

Shoppers at The Root Cellar often run into the farmers who produced the food. When Goatsbeard Farm operator Jennifer Muno drops off her cheese, she stays and shops.

"I really believe The Root Cellar is an important idea that every town should have," Muno said.

Claridge said he wouldn't have stayed in business without his partner, Kimberly Griffin.

"She's kept me on course," Claridge said. "I'm pretty much the brawn of the operation. She's the brains. I call myself the custodian, whereas she's pretty much the accountant and good-advice giver."

A Kansas City native, Griffin also co-owns High Maintenance, a salon near Hy-Vee.

Griffin's interest in good foods developed after her daughter, now 13, was born.

"I can see what our food system has done to our younger generation," Griffin said. "When you feed" hormones "to a cow, it doesn't just go away. Our kids are also consuming it."

While prices are higher at The Root Cellar than a traditional grocery store, Claridge points out that it's difficult to determine the true cost of food at a supermarket. There are environmental costs, he said, and food is subsidized on many levels, from corporate subsidies to transportation. Claridge boasts that some products at his store required only a half-gallon of gas to get there.

Claridge and Griffin envision a personalized and sustainable food system that helps the environment and the economy alike.

"Farmers are very good stewards of the land and the resources around it," Claridge said.

Hendrickson agrees. "I ask my students, 'What kind of landscape do you want to support?' If you enjoy the beautiful landscape surrounding Columbia that's supplied by diversified agriculture, then you need to support that through your consumption decisions," she said, "and The Root Cellar helps you do that."

March 3, 2006

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