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      Local farmer says his produce will change the way you eat

      Have you ever wondered about the origin of the fruits and vegetables that are sold in Hy-Vee? Well, some of them are grown right here in Northeast Missouri by commercial growers, like Mark Slaughter, owner of Sunrise Farm and partner in Lil Beeb's Produce.

      "What you're getting out of these operations like this is good nutritious food and it taste way better than what you're used to seeing normally in the stores that's shipped in here from all over the country and all over the world in many cases," said Slaughter.

      Mark Slaughter is just one of the five partners in Lil Beeb's Produce. It's cooperative in Macon County. Each farm involved in the cooperative grows all types of fruits and vegetables ranging from tomatoes and broccoli to radishes and peppers. The partners collect all of the produce every week during the growing season and then, sell it to local restaurants, grocery stores, and patrons of area farmer's markets.

      One of their biggest customers is Hy-Vee. Its clients are always asking for locally grown food.

      "It's good for the community, it keeps your money local, it's supporting local businesses, plus it's something that our customers are looking for," said Harper Higgins, a produce manager at the Hy-Vee in Kirksville.

      Slaughter said he learned how to mass produce vegetables by attending the Master Gardener's Class, offered through the University of Missouri Extension Offices. He has found over the years that raised beds allow for better soil composition and irrigation.

      "Use of raised beds increases the production by 20 to 30 percent on the plant itself," said Slaughter.

      Since Slaughter and his partners banded together three years ago to form the co-op, he said their biggest challenge is mother nature.

      "We can control a lot of the environment but the weather we can't control. Last year, we had the hail storm here in this area on the west side and that took 10,000 of our tomatoes plants."

      With 2012's unseasonably warm winter, Slaughter said they're already battling bug problems. On top of that, the volatile gas prices are also taking a cut out of their profits.

      "I think we're starting to see some profit, now, finally, but there's a lot of setup involved here to get the stakes, the strings, the irrigation system, the plants that we start with. It costs a lot of money to get this going. We'll see how it goes, gas prices on the transportation end are a big issue. Gas is expensive right now."

      Despite it all, Slaughter said the investment is worth it because he hopes that one day, the co-op will grow into an industry, and be able to produce enough produce to feed all of Northeast Missouri.

      "This is a good way to grow jobs locally. We can't always wait for some big company to come in here and save us, providing hundreds of jobs. This could become an industry in itself."

      According to Slaughter, the co-op produces and delivers about 3-4,000 pounds of produce each week during the growing season. They also donate 1,000 pounds of produce every week to local food pantries such as the Salvation Army.

      So far, Hy-Vee and Truman State are the co-op's biggest customers. This summer, they will sell their produce at the Kirksville Farmer's Market, the Kirkwood Produce Stand, and at the North Park Baseball/Softball Complex in Kirksville. Also, you'll be able to find their produce at Hy-Vee and Costa Rican Coffee in Kirksville.