Farmer Linda Hezel Feeds Others Through Artisan Foods and Knowledge
The summer morning air is hot and hazy, a damp woolen blanket hanging over Prairie Birthday Farm’s 15 acres bounded by backroads crisscrossing the Northland. Farmer Linda Hezel’s rubber boots provide protection from the damp muck of rain-soaked soil. She offers a greeting and begins a tour of the verdant farm.
Prairie Birthday is a farm and not “farms,” Hezel says, “Singular, not plural. Plural reflects agribusiness and corporate ownership of multiple farms.”
Like her 22-year-old farm, Hezel is one of a kind, an unconventional woman with a distinct outlook on modern farming that draws on old traditions. Her stewardship of the land begins with organic, sustainable practices. No pesticides or herbicides are used. Rather than commodity crops, she grows and raises foods that are artisan, heritage breeds, heirloom plants or native to Missouri. Her vegetables, fruits, greens, herbs, chicken and duck eggs, honey and other goods make Prairie Birthday Farm a preferred partner for several area chefs.
Hezel’s path winds clockwise around the farm. She opens a large black binder filled with before and after photographs.
“We bought the property in 1993,” Hezel says. She owns the house and farm with her husband Richard Moore. She points to the front of the property. “This used to be fescue and scrub.”
To reconstruct the native prairie, the family conducted a controlled burn annually for 10 years and hand-planted seeds from Missouri Wildflowers Nursery. Subsequently, she did “mosaic” burns of select patches every other year.
“Our American agriculture is built on the back of prairie soil,” she says. “Prairie plants restore the soil’s health. It’s a slow process at nature’s pace.”
Now, butterflies, dragonflies and bees zoom and pollinate the plants. Daisies, clover, coneflowers, bluestem, butterfly weed, Ohio spiderwort, switchgrass and other prairie plants cover the slopes along the front of Hezel’s home down to the main road. At least 45 bird species have been identified here, drawn to a rich food source of insects. The crowded orchard is home to apple, peach, plum, pear, cherry, apricot and quince trees.
More than 150 native species plus cultivated plants populate Prairie Birthday. “It’s the key to survival and success,” she says of the farm’s biodiversity. “If something fails, then there’s a backup.”
The walk continues to the side of the property where a small shack houses stacks of fruitwood. Hezel sells the wood to chefs. She points out a sweetheart apricot tree that will bear fruit with edible pits, a Madison peach tree and a paw paw shrub. Elsewhere, society garlic, bergamot, lemon thyme, French sorrel, native passion fruit, chamomile and prickly pear cactus grow in “nature’s chaos.”
The recitation of plant names and varieties is dizzying. Hezel’s specific language identifies the depth and range of nature’s endless warehouse. Comparatively, it’s disheartening to think of the limited varieties of apples, oranges and bananas found year-round at the supermarket.
Nearby, a sprawling yard enclosed by wire and netting contains roaming heritage breed chickens and ducks. They range freely at night as Hezel works close by and keeps predators away. She feeds the fowl organic whole grain shipped from Nebraska. The eggs, filled with orange-yellow yolks, have speckled brown, cocoa and pale cornflower blue shells.
Our stroll leads to red and black currant bushes, chokeberry, wild plum and persimmon trees. A small pile of hardwood sawdust from a local woodcutter will be mixed with horse and chicken manure and compost to create fresh top soil.
“We don’t buy topsoil,” Hezel says. “We make it all.”
A dozen beehives line the top of the back slope. The bees encounter no insecticides as none are used on the farm. They feed on a diverse buffet of blossoms and produce honey with a complex flavor unlike single-source clover or lavender honey.
“I harvest around 250 pounds of honey per year,” says Hezel. She typically harvests in July and September and sells the honey in glass jars.
Each hive is left with at least 60 pounds of honey so the bees can survive during winter. Hezel is attuned to the nutrition and welfare of bees in her pasture for two key reasons. First, bees are an essential pollinator for plant reproduction.
Second, her innate nature is to care for the holistic health and welfare of others. Hezel is a formally educated and trained nurse practitioner. She has a master’s degree in community health and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction. Hezel was an associate professor of nursing for 13 years at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.
Her original motivation for building Prairie Birthday Farm – literally from the ground up – began with her family. As the mother of two boys, she grew and prepared organic, nutrient-dense food for them. She gradually expanded the farm to produce more food for her boys and their friends.
Hezel’s farm work is intertwined with her mission as a health educator. She provides knowledge shared through on- and off-site classes and talks to nurses and hospitals.
“I straddle the farmer and nursing worlds. They’re intimately connected. I like to teach and feed others nutrient-dense food,” she says. “It’s a fundamental, healing approach to nursing.”
By extension, her direct clients are chefs that also educate the public. Her tablescapes at The Rieger prompt talking points about the farm and array of plants she grows. She also provides dried and fresh wildflowers for Cleaver & Cork and The American. She supplies food to Happy Gillis, Novel, Affare, Voltaire, the Nelson-Atkins Museum restaurant, chef Philippe Lechevin at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and other venues.
“I’m grateful to my buyers and eaters,” she says. “It takes all of us to make it work. I invite chefs and cooks to come here and learn. Chefs may be the real teachers of diverse diets.”
Not surprisingly, Hezel is keenly interested in healthy ecosystems. She says, “I’m a systems theory person.”
She has spent most of the past quarter-century reconstructing prairie habitat. Her efforts yield ongoing benefits. The farm’s dense plant life captures carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. The biodiversity is self-evident among the flora and fauna found here. Meanwhile, Northland development encroaches and produces monoculture lawns.
Hezel distinguishes her work from counterparts that grow and raise food on a much larger scale. She researches and test grows unique and flavorful varieties that are not readily available from other local producers. The farm’s success depends on staying ahead of mass production. By comparison, most food available in supermarkets is relatively inexpensive; however, the true cost of commercially-grown food is not readily apparent at the checkout register.
“There is no cheap food,” says Hezel. “The costs are assigned to other species, the environment and workers.”
Prairie Birthday Farm was founded on the goal of economic viability through biodiversity versus mechanized monoculture food production. Hezel poses a key question: “Can we do this?”
Wise enough to pick her battles, Hezel focuses on the changes she can effect. The visit concludes on the front patio. She pauses to sip on a glass of chilled homemade kombucha as the mid-day sun rises high overhead.
“It’s a complex job running the farm,” Hezel says. “It’s hard but great.”
Prairie Birthday Farm does not sell at farmers markets. Customers may buy direct only by arrangement via the farm’s website.