Show Me Missouri: The history of farming in the Ozarks

Bicentennial

One of the most important things to do in a show like this is to get out of Springfield and focus on the wider area of what we know now as the Ozarks and Southwest Missouri, and really focus on the region’s heritage.

In fact, heritage is so important to the folks in our next segment, they made it part of their business label.

If you live in the city, you might not realize just how much of a farming powerhouse Missouri is. But farming has been the backbone of the Missouri economy since the state’s founding. And today, the state has some 95,000 farms, making it second in the country. And we’re in the top 10 in terms of beef cows, goats, and turkeys.

Then there are hogs. According to the State Department of Agriculture, Missouri ranks sixth in the number of pigs. But not all pork is the premium stuff. In fact, most of the pork we eat comes from so-called commodity pig farming, where pigs are kept in crowded conditions. You might think that’s no big deal, but third-generation farmer David Newman and his family are paving a different path for pork. You might even call them gourmet farmers on the cutting edge of advancing the show me state’s multi-billion dollar farming sector.

David Newman explained how his farm works.

“By technicality, we actually describe our operation as being a British-based pasture system,” said Newman. “So this is something that, especially 20, 30, 40 years ago even, would not have been uncommon to see in England or other parts of the UK, even Australia, where you still focused on pigs having access to pasture. So for us, living in the Ozarks, this is an awesome place to allow livestock to exhibit natural behavior—pigs especially.”

David showed me around his family’s farm: All the way down in Myrtle, Missouri, on the border with Arkansas.

“We have a climate that is almost perfect for it,” said Newman. “We have a soil type that’s pretty rocky that also works very well with hogs and cattle as well. But in our business, in this pasture-based system, it’s about animal welfare for us. Allowing animals to exhibit natural behaviors. Allowing them to have access to pasture, even though pigs don’t get any nutrition from eating grass and hay, does allow them to root, to express natural behaviors, and to have larger paddocks where they’re not as confined as what you would see in a traditional system.”

“These are what we call gestation pens. These are basically pregnancy pens, where once the sows are pregnant, they all will actually live in a building, still have a dry place to stay out of the weather, still get fed a high-quality diet every day. Nothing about what we do is free-range. These animals are protected from predators. They’re protected from the elements so that they can be inside. But also that piece about raising pigs outside is they’re actually allowed to exercise. And exercise from a meat standpoint can add to the benefits of the eating quality perspective of what we do.”

And someone thinks that eating experience is top shelf: Newman’s farm sells the Berkshire pork to high-end restaurants all over the country, making this farm a symbol of Missouri’s farming heritage and its dynamic future.

But farms are just part of the state’s food legacy. A good example of this is Springfield-style cashew chicken, created by David Leong.

Wing Yee Leong, executive chef and middle son of David Leong explains the worldwide influence of the family business.

“My dad and my brother were in Hong Kong, and I guess after a documentary on my dad about cashew chicken it showed on a cafe sidewalk billboard,” said Leong. “We have Springfield-style cashew chicken.”

Leong, a Chinese immigrant who moved to Springfield after serving in World War II, helped create Springfield’s first Chinese restaurant and put Springfield on the map with his dish: A creation that combined his Asian heritage and a midwest staple, fried chicken.

“It was basically trying to adapt Asian culture with Ozark meat, potatoes, fried chicken,” said Leong.

In 1963 Springfield style cashew chicken was born, featuring fried chicken smothered with a signature gravy style sauce topped with green onions and roasted cashews. The dish emulated popular comfort food.

You can find his original recipe at Leong’s where his son is the executive chef and co-owner.

And speaking of comfort food: Nothing says comfort like having a fresh roll tossed at your head (well, kind of).

Brent Moore, manager of Lambert’s Café in Ozark, explains how the tradition got started.

“Somebody was too far away and they were too busy to get a roll to him,” said Moore. “And he said, just hey, just throw the thing!”

And that is exactly what Lambert’s Cafe is known for, well that, and family-sized portions and homestyle food.

“Fried pork chops. Fried catfish chicken fried steak,” said Moore.

Earl and Agnes Lambert started the first Lambert’s cafe in Sikeston back in 1942 with a loan of 1500 bucks from a family member. And the rest is history.

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