Blue Bell Farm is best known as an event venue, perfect for weddings and private parties. But the land owned by Derek and Jamie Bryant is steeped in local history and now a centerpiece of farm-to-table dining destinations in the Columbia area. Beyond that, it’s a story of how a new generation is exploring sustainable ways to live on the land while helping to invigorate aging rural communities.
The farm has been in Derek’s family since the early 1800s. Derek’s ancestors had relocated to the New Madrid area from Kentucky shortly after the December 1811 earthquake.
“I guess [the earthquake] gave them a jolt that frightened them enough to take advantage of the government’s New Madrid [relocation] Grants,” Derek says, prompting their move farther north and west to the rolling hill country just south of Fayette.
Only 300 acres remain of the original 1,000 — most sold or some gifted for a church, schoolhouse and cemetery where many of Derek’s ancestors are buried.
Throughout most of Derek’s childhood, neighbors managed and lived on the farm.
“The concept of multiple generations being part of this land didn’t mean anything,” but with his grandparents’ health declining, the family had decisions to make. “We didn’t want to sell it. That much we knew. Too many ghosts would haunt us if we even considered that notion. But the question was what are we going to do with the land next? Who’s going to live there?”
By this time, Derek and Jamie, both living in St. Louis, had met and grown interested in the slow food movement — learning about the merits of small-scale farming, sustainable practices and locally and organically grown foods.
Deciding to move to the farm was a natural — if initially daunting — progression as they married and made plans for their future.
“I came out as a kid to the farm and shot BB guns and fished. That was my knowledge of the farm: shooting walnuts,” Derek says. Jamie had grown up in rural Wisconsin helping her grandmother tend a big garden, but her adult life was “living in tiny apartments and lofts in Chicago and St. Louis.”
Nonetheless, the couple realized “we had all the really tall hurdles to farming already cleared for us: we had the land, and the house was here. All we had to do is quit our jobs, sell our [St. Louis] house and move,” Derek says. Before taking the plunge, Jamie did an organic farming apprenticeship at Earth Dance Farms in St. Louis. “And I loved it. I was ready to go.”
In January 2011, they moved into the original 1823 farmhouse, with an event barn concept in mind. They ambitiously started hundreds of vegetable and herb seedlings on pop-up folding tables under florescent lights strung throughout the kitchen. Their ideas gradually crystallized with their involvement in a University of Missouri/USDA program that helped new and aspiring farmers explore and develop feasible business plans. A network of people involved in the revival of Fayette and other rural communities embraced and mentored the couple.
In May 2014, a month after completing the new barn, Blue Bell Farm hosted its first wedding — for 350 guests. The Bryants still marvel gratefully at the Columbia family that looked at drawings almost a year in advance and put faith in the couple’s vision and construction timeline.
Since the birth of their daughter in June 2012, the Bryants have cut back on the amount of produce they grow themselves. But they remain committed to locally grown foods and meats, teaming up with other local suppliers. A nearby sixth generation farmer, Laura Korte, manages a herd of grass-fed cattle raised on their land, and raises free-range chickens and turkeys on nearby property.
“We feel strongly that using fresh, local ingredients delivers superior taste and variety. Eating a bean picked from the garden versus getting a bean shipped across three states is going to taste better, look better, be better for our environment,” Jamie says.
“Eating locally grown foods is also about supporting our local farms and local economy and investing our money here in our own communities where it belongs,” Jamie adds. “We want our guests to benefit from that perspective, too. It’s not just about taste. It’s about growing community, too.”
Last year, Jamie and Derek started brainstorming how to share the beauty and bounty of locals farms after the main wedding season ended in October.
They hosted their first farm-to-table meal in November, a Fall Party with hayrides. January’s Winter Party featured food prepared by Wine Cellar & Bistro chef Craig Cyr. Since then, they have offered seasonally inspired meals each month, served family style at artfully set common tables. Farm tours, cheerful bonfires and music provided by local musicians complete the experience.
With an accomplished in-house chef, Amanda Elliott, now onboard, the Bryants have embarked on other ventures such as family (wood fired) pizza and movie nights and Wednesday evening Vino & Vinyasa gatherings that top off an hour of yoga with a wine and appetizer pairing. An in-house chef also ensures a consistent experience for weddings and private parties with meals prepared with high quality, locally sourced foods.
“We want guests to leave the farm thinking not only was this a great meal in a beautiful space, but knowing that the food they ate came from this land. They can see for themselves where and how the food was grown and talk to us about it, bringing the whole experience to another level,” Jamie says.
Laura Korte, a sixth generation family farmer, manages Blue Bell Farm’s herd of about 30 cattle and an annex farm with chickens and turkeys.
Korte was raised on a small, diversified livestock farm “about five miles from Blue Bell Farm as the crow flies. I used to travel by this farm every morning on the school bus. When I’m out working, and I see the school bus go by it gets to that legacy idea. It’s completely homespun and local and an expression of who I am to be able to farm here.”
A tightknit community, “including wonderful WWII era neighborhood uncle types who were solid stockman and farmers, taught me that we can make a good living from our land but it has to be done ethically. You can’t just extract; something has to be given back.”
“When I was small, there were businesses, there was life within our communities. As the small farms leave, so do the children,” says Korte, who watched her father and grandfather rehabilitate land they purchased.
At the University of Missouri, she created her own major — part rural sociology and agricultural economics and systems management — before returning home to farm, continuing to hone her craft and supporting others who want to use sustainable, humane and organic methods.
“We’re trying to piece together a farm that is uniquely fitted to this climate and this soil to bring about the best food and best eating experience we can create from what we have right here,” Korte says. “The essence of our farm should just shine through, giving guests an experience that’s the unique distillation of what we’re doing here.”
Grilled Sweet Potatoes with Cardamom Labneh
“I first fell in love with labneh on my travels to Lebanon, years ago. It is rich and thick like cream cheese but sour and tangy like yogurt. It’s great on its own with warm bread or with any number of vegetable and meat preparations. We often think of yogurt being used only for sweet dishes when it is fabulous with all sorts of savory elements, too. I love this dish in particular because it’s the perfect segue from summer to fall: ‘Goodbye, grill; hello, root vegetables!’”
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more to taste
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon honey
Juice from half a lemon
CORIANDER CARDAMON LABNEH
2/3 cup labneh* (Lebanese-style strained yogurt)
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic peeled and minced finely
1/8 cup chopped cilantro
1. Combine all of the ingredients for labneh and set aside.
2. Heat grill to high. In a large bowl, cut sweet potatoes in half and in half again making large wedges. Toss the sweet potatoes with olive oil, salt, garlic and pepper until evenly coated. Arrange the sweet potatoes on grill and lower the temperature to medium. Grill on each side for 2-3 minutes until there’s a nice char on both sides. Then, move wedges off the coals to indirect heat and finish cooking approximately 5-10 minutes longer. Test with a fork: when it goes in and out easily, the potatoes are tender. Place back in the bowl and toss with lemon juice, honey and an extra teaspoon of olive oil to taste.
3. Place labneh mixture at the base of the plate and assemble potatoes on top. Garnish with herbs and serve warm.
* Labneh is found at A&Y Global Market, 15 N. Fourth St. and World Harvest International & Gourmet Foods, 3700 Monterey Drive. Authentic full-fat Greek yogurt can be substituted.