Real People. Stihl People.

Rural Missouri Magazine
Farming for
a healthy market

Russ Pisciotta raises beef and poultry for customers who know their food and their farmer

by Bob McEowen

Russ Pisciotta bags an order for a couple shopping at The City Market in Kansas City. Russ sells pasture-raised chicken, farm fresh eggs, honey and all-natural beef. All of his products are raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics. Russ sells direct to consumers at the open-air farmers’ market.

It’s Saturday morning at The City Market in Kansas City and health-conscious shoppers pack the aisles. Among row after row of produce vendors, flower sellers and other producers hawking their goods, a line forms in front of a freezer trailer.

There, Russ Pisciotta greets familiar customers and educates first-time shoppers about his products and methods. Every few minutes Russ disappears behind clear plastic slats hanging in the door of his trailer and re-emerges with an armful of frozen meat. Russ swipes the customer’s VISA in a cordless credit card machine linked to his bank via satellite and another sale is made.

The fancy credit card machine is about the only high technology involved in Pisciotta Farms food. Russ sells beef and chicken, eggs and honey that he raises using organic methods on a small farm near Kidder, 60 miles north of Kansas City. No hormones, antibiotics or any other chemicals are used. And there are no impersonal online sales for Russ, either. He sells his products almost exclusively at Kansas’s City’s downtown farmers’ market, where he can meet customers face-to-face and explain the benefits of all-natural farming.

Russ carries a spool of electric fence line through his pasture on his small farm near Kidder, Mo. Russ raises beef, chicken, eggs and honey employing organic farming methods that do not include the use of growth hormones or antibiotics.

“What I’m trying to do is produce the best product I can, and then market directly to my customers,” Russ says. “That way it gives the customers a chance to talk to the people who raise the food and know where it comes from and how it’s raised.”

Russ’ chickens and laying hens are raised on pasture in enclosures that he moves every day. His cattle, too, are fed on lush pastures, rich in legumes and other protein-packed forage; their diets supplemented with grain. The honey he sells is not pasteurized so the enzymes believed to combat allergies are intact.

Only the prohibitive cost of certified organic feeds keeps Russ from producing a true organic product. But by using organic methods, Russ hopes to tap into a segment of the food-buying public that is hungry for wholesome, natural foods produced close to home.

“I hear from a lot of customers. I know there’s a growing demand for this,” Russ says. “They’re looking to buy their product from a local farmer. They’re looking for a better product.”

It’s hard to say what consumers crave more: wholesome food or a connection to the farm that was lost generations ago, experts say.

“The benefits of the products are great, but it’s the personal touch they also like,” says Sarah Gehring, with the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s AgriMissouri program. “A lot of consumers like to hear the stories and see the pictures of the farms and really get to know that person and develop a relationship with them.”

Ron Macher, who for 24 years has chronicled the success of value-added farming in his monthly publication Small Farm Today, says the desire for natural foods and a longing for a connection to the farm are inseparable.

Russ scatters gravel to aid his laying hens’ digestion in an enclosure he moves around his pasture. Both laying hens and meat chickens are raised on pasture, where they can eat grass and bugs, which add protein to their diet. Russ calls his mobile hen house the “Coop deVille: The Cadillac of chicken coops.” Russ also raises turkey, including a heritage variety.

“When the consumer buys organic, he’s not just buying organic food. He’s buying into the whole concept,” Macher says. “He believes in local production. He believes in knowing the farmer who’s producing his food.”

But Macher says that selling homegrown food to health-conscious consumers requires more than just a booth at the local farmers’ market.

“You can’t just do it the way Grandpa did it,” Macher says. “You have to bone up on marketing and salesmanship. You have to have a business plan. You have to have a mission statement.”

Russ didn’t have a business plan, but he does have a mission and it’s a simple one, clearly stated on his marketing materials: “To grow healthy, natural foods using agricultural methods beneficial to the land for sale to local consumers and eateries at affordable prices.”

Russ updates prices on a hand-written sign he uses when selling meat and poultry at The City Market in Kansas City.

Judging from the enthusiastic comments of regulars who wait their turn to buy his products, Russ is achieving his mission and satisfying consumers’ hunger for homegrown, healthy food.

“He has the best eggs, beef, chicken and honey,” says Betty Jo Simon of Overland Park, Kan., who stocks her freezer each time she sees Russ at The City Market. “And he’s a nice guy.”

Russ, 43, grew up in the food industry. For three generations, his family operated the Pisciotta Fruit and Vegetable Company, a wholesale food supplier in Kansas City. When it came time to go to college, Russ left the food business and studied resource conservation and wildlife biology at the University of Montana. After trapping bears for six years he came home and joined the family business.

When his father sold the business Russ sold real estate for a few years and bought a small farm in Caldwell County and, eventually, began to pursue a lifelong dream of farming.

Initially, Russ assumed he would produce organic vegetables but instead began raising cattle. He also took up beekeeping, fulfilling another lifelong fascination. From the beginning, Russ adopted sustainable farming methods, which protected his land from harm.

Wearing a protective head covering, Russ checks his bee hives. Raw honey is one of Pisciotta Farms’ biggest sellers as unpasturized local honey contains enzymes believed to help combat allergies.

Today, Russ grazes about two dozen steers on a 50-acre pasture. A single strand of electric fence line corrals the herd into a 1- to 2-acre paddock. The cattle are moved nearly every day to prevent overgrazing. Once moved, the cattle won’t return to the spot for at least 30 days.

“That gives the legumes a chance to recover, rest and regrow,” Russ says. “It helps get everything grazed evenly. It helps disperse the manure evenly and helps take care of the pastures.”

When Russ began raising chickens he created a mobile shelter from an old hay wagon chassis. A wheeled chicken coop provides a place for his hens to lay eggs. Both shelters are moved every day to provide fresh forage for the birds and to prevent excessive accumulation of droppings.

Although Russ puts out feed for the chickens, their diet also includes fresh grasses and legumes, along with insects, another source of protein. The more natural diet makes for a healthier chicken, Russ says.

“It’s just like us,” the Farmers’ Electric Cooperative member says. “When we eat more green vegetables, we’re healthier. It’s the same with those birds.”

Russ moves a portable shelter, which houses chickens raised for meat sales. Russ moves the shelter each day.

Russ raises a couple hundred chickens at a time, not the tens of thousands most commercial poultry houses contain. Unlike those chickens, Russ’ birds are free to move around their compound. That, too, produces a healthier and tastier bird, he says.

“Doing it this way is the only way to make a good tasting, healthy bird,” Russ insists. “They get to move around so their muscles actually have a firm consistency. They have more flavor. They have a more robust taste than what we’re used to in the store.”

Likewise, Russ says his cattle produce a healthier, better-tasting beef. Russ finishes his steers on pasture instead of sending them to a feedlot. His cattle live a few weeks longer and the beef is aged a few days more than most meat, two factors that lead to tastier beef, he says.

Russ’ methods are not lost on customers, who increasingly look for foods raised using natural techniques.

“I’m very concerned about the methods by which the food comes to market,” says Stan Slaughter of Lee’s Summit. An environmental educator who helps organize an annual exposition of Kansas City-area farmers, Slaughter is a frequent customer of Pisciotta Farms products — and, coincidently, Russ’ ninth grade science teacher. He says it’s important for consumers to be aware of how their food is produced.

Russ collects eggs from the "Coop deVille." The eggs will be cleaned and packaged for sale at The City Market in Kansas City. Typically, Russ sells out of eggs by mid-morning each Saturday.

“There’s good ways and there’s bad ways,” he says. “If you care at all about what you become, you’ll pay attention. Because you are what you eat. You really are.”

Pisciotta Farms products cost more than some store-bought food, though less than most organic meat offered at health food stores. Whole chickens cost $2.95 a pound, while whole birds pre-cut into pieces are priced a bit higher. Ground beef, his biggest seller, retails for $3.20 a pound — though he occasionally runs sales or volume discounts. He also offers turkey and a full line of beef products, including steaks, roasts and ribs.

Russ’ prices reflect the labor intensive nature of his methods. They also include the cost of transporting chickens and cattle to distant licensed processing plants. But the costs and effort are worth it, he says, to produce a product that satisfies both the farmer and his customers.

Equally importantly, Pisciotta Farms foods satisfy a craving on the part of consumers for healthy food purchased from someone they can look in the eye.

Russ moves a strand of electric fence wire after repositioning his cattle to another section of pasture. He moves his cattle nearly every day to maintain a healthy pasture.

“This is more like farms used to be,” Russ says. “The old farmers fed people directly, rather than going through middle men.”

And that’s the model for Russ. He doesn’t have the efficiencies of a large commercial farm, but he believes his beef and chicken offer consumers qualities they value more than price.

“I just can’t raise them as cheap as they can. There’s no way,” he says. “But I can raise them better. And that’s what I have to do.”

For more information about Pisciotta Farms foods, log onto www.pisciottafarms.com, call (816) 803-9001 or look for Russ each Saturday (less frequently during winter) in stall 141 at The City Market in Kansas City.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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