Ronald Antonini’s smile grows big and grateful as he shows me around his small southwest Missouri farm. His joy is palpable. It lifts me as we walk through the five 30 x 96-ft high tunnels, or passive solar greenhouses, where he grows lettuce, leafy greens, and herbs for local markets.
“I make a simple living here at home with my wife, thanks be to God,” he said. “I send my children off to school in the morning, and I greet them when they return in the afternoon. You can’t put a price on that. So many people wish they could do that.”
Indeed, employing oneself — providing for family through some commercial venture — has become increasingly uncommon in the United States. America today, for example, produces half as many new, startup businesses as it did in 1970. This data is revealing. It shows that our nation’s social and economic troubles may be less about too many businesses closing and much more about too few opening.
Ronald Antonini’s story, however, shows what can happen when communities make a point of making places for local businesses to grow. It is a story of entrepreneurial spirit, hard work and sacrifice. It is also a story of people coming together in the market to improve their choices by changing the outlook for local businesses.
Ronald started his Salad Garden business three years ago in a trial run, with just one cooler full of lettuce, at the Greater Polk County Farmers’ Market. Now, in addition to the farmers’ market, Ronald and family also supply — year-round — the local Bolivar R1 School District and three Mama Jean’s Natural Market locations in Springfield, MO, 30 miles away.
Each of these outlets, or buyers, represents a community of people motivated to get more for their money. Each took action to get more value from the market; that is, to get tasty, safe, and healthy food and to see more independent farmers on the land.
Citizen consumers like these are opening niche market opportunities for small farmers like Ronald who are otherwise shut out of the globally integrated mainstream food industry.
Mama Jeans’ produce coordinator Luke Whitacker explains: “We are a local organization, and we love supporting local,” he said. “It keeps money in the community and reduces our reliance on outside suppliers.”
“Love” is the operative word here.
Love of fresh local food brought neighbors together to form the Greater Polk County Farmers’ Market. It provided, in turn, important support for startup farmer Ronald Antonini.
The farmers’ market is where he tested his products, built his customer base, and developed relationships with wholesale buyers, too. It is also where he proved his mettle to friends and neighbors who loaned him money to keep building the business toward profitability.
“In the beginning, it was not financially rewarding,” he said. “But I kept thinking it could be possible.”
Another important support came through the love and hard work that local residents and leaders put into getting a farm-to-school program going at the Bolivar R1 School District. This effort to get fresh-picked goodness into kids provided, in turn, the opportunity for Ronald to scale up his operation for larger volume sales.
Today he enjoys a new washing and packing facility at the farm. Years of long hours, doing without, and toughing it out have brought the Salad Garden to this point of investing in that next big business step. More love and support has followed in the form of a state grant to help cover construction costs.
It is just what Ronald needed to further secure and grow his now twice-weekly deliveries to Mama Jeans markets in Springfield. It also helps the natural food retailer keep an independent business foothold in a competitive market.
“We’ve worked really hard to make local a year-round thing, produce manager Whitacker said. “Slowly, as farmers invest in their operations, we are able to do it.”
Working together, these citizens and entrepreneurs are building market niches where local business can gain traction and grow. The hard work and love in these collaborations is a powerful force we can tap for more self-employment and local commerce.
“You have to have the attitude, the willing,” Ronald said. “Then everything is possible.”