While we may have passed the spring equinox, somedays it can be hard to tell. Many trees remain barren, and occasional sub-freezing temperatures hit Springfield.
But, at Fassnight Creek Farm, spring is in full swing, with truckloads of onion sets coming in and vegetables sprouts nearly ready to brave the outdoors.
Fassnight Creek Farm, the urban farm of about 15 acres sandwiched between Fort Avenue and Grant Avenue in central Springfield, is prepping for its 37th spring planting season, looking to keep building on their post-COVID growth.
Dan Bigbee, who owns Fassnight Creek Farm with his wife Kelly, still runs the day-to-day of the surprisingly sizable farm that sits adjacent to its namesake of Fassnight Creek, just west of Parkview High School.
Farming already comes with some degree of unpredictability, whether in the form of droughts, floods, frosts, bugs and everything in between. But with the uncertainties that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, Bigbee found opportunity.
During recent peak harvests, Fassnight Creek Farm has found itself busier than ever, and they are preparing for that trend to continue this year.
Like clockwork, Bigbee has kicked off spring planting, after another winter spent splitting firewood for consistent work year-round. In February, he began starts of cabbage, broccoli, beets, carrots and leafy greens, among other vegetables that can survive the cooler temperatures of early spring.
March, meanwhile, consists of transplanting and hardening off those vegetables, more seeding and putting potatoes and onions in the ground.
Farmer, lumberjack, onion broker
Onions represent a large part of his business early in the year. While Fassnight Creek Farm primarily relies on customers buying fruits, flowers, produce and plants directly at the farm, Bigbee has become an integral part of southwest Missouri’s onion industry, by selling sets wholesale to other produce farms and garden centers across the region.
“To close the loop, the onions are lovely,” he said.
When he first got in the onion game, Bigbee sought out sweet onion varieties, which were hard to come by in Springfield. Storage onions were commonplace, and while he said they are fine to cook with, they are too “hot” to consume fresh.
Having gotten in touch with a fellow well-traveled farmer, he became aware of and began doing business with an onion farm in Carrizo Springs, Texas, which sits between San Antonio and the Rio Grande.
Bigbee used to take the trek down there himself, initially to purchase onions just for his own farm.
“I would drive all the way down there and get them and, of course, if you’re going to make that long a drive, you think, ‘Well, maybe I can bring some back and defray the cost of my trip by selling a few boxes,’” Bigbee said. “And next thing you know, we just went from there.”
Today, due to the sheer amount of onions Bigbee buys, they’re delivered to him.
In late February, Bigbee received his first shipment at the farm, and set about organizing the pallets stacked with wooden boxes full of onions, before going on his own delivery routes around the Ozarks.
From (eventually) humble beginnings, Bigbee looks to the future of Fassnight Creek Farm
After getting a degree in horticulture from Missouri State University, Bigbee set out with confidence to purchase and run Fassnight Creek Farm, which is now approaching its 100-year anniversary, according to Bigbee.
While going to school, Bigbee worked as a landscaper at Wickman’s Garden Village, a plant nursery essentially right across the street from Fassnight Creek Farm. That helped him become familiar with the farm’s former owner, Frank Phipps.
“So, I was always over here, pestering him and seeing what he was doing and checking things out because he had the biggest garden I’d ever seen,” Bigbee said.
After selling the farm to Bigbee, Phipps continued to reside in a house on the property.
“Profit was tough at first…and I didn’t take any advice [from Phipps] for the first couple of years,” Bigbee said.
In his third year of running the farm, Bigbee finally started listening to the former owner’s guidance.
“I thought I knew way more about garden business than what I did,” Bigbee said. “I’d grown up gardening and I had my horticulture degree [from MSU] but I had no knowledge of really what it took to make a living doing it.”
Bigbee said that everything Phipps said “worked and made sense.”
More than three decades later, Bigbee is sometimes single-handedly running the farm. While his son, Cameron — who himself has a full-time job elsewhere — and daughters will offer help when and where they can, Bigbee is as much a part of the farm as the soil.
He usually tries to hire extra hands in the summer, primarily to run the “counter” and pick weeds, but amid the labor shortage of the past couple of years, it has been challenging.
“Labor was really difficult,” Bigbee said. “Last year, I stopped trying to plan out the day before, because I’d have two or three people supposedly showing up, then I wouldn’t have two or three people showing up. So basically, I just kind of got to where I get here in the morning and see who shows up, then we’ll figure out what we’re doing.”
Rather than rely as much on labor for weeding and cultivation this year, he is upping the amount of wood chips and straw he has on hand to place between rows of crop.
By mid-April, Bigbee will be selling bedding plants, flowers and hanging baskets. By the time people have stocked up for their own gardens, the strawberries will start coming in, and the rest of his produce will soon follow.
While some fresh fruits and vegetables will hit the counter as soon as late May, the produce peak typically falls in July and August, and by the time September rolls around, it’s pumpkin season.
“You got the first nip and coolness in the air, and then they come on,” Bigbee said. “Fall business is really good for us.”
With growth in business, Bigbee finds no time — or need — for a farmers market
Bigbee spent years as a farmers market vendor, but due to the extra workload and growing the business to where the customers come to them, they have since weaned off of it.
“Best decision I ever made,” Bigbee said. “I was stretching myself too thin coming and going both ways. And I found out, especially in the pandemic, there were a lot of people driven to a place like this…Everything is driven here by the farm.”
Bigbee attributed some of their success in recent years to weekly television appearances on KY3 with anchor Steve Grant, in a series called Garden Spot that runs every Wednesday during his farming season.
But Bigbee knows that the history of the farm is a factor in and of itself.
In addition to the purchases they make, guests immerse themselves in the farm, taking walks through their butterfly garden and enjoying the company of Bigbee’s cats and dogs.
“We usually do good business on Sundays because people love to come out and stroll after church,” he said.
Bigbee anticipates 2023 to be another busy year, but he continues to look for new, creative ways to further the success at the farm. At the eastern end of the property, Bigbee said his son is helping brainstorm the possible addition of campsites, for guests to get an overnight farm experience, despite being in the middle of the city.
“I love what I’m doing,” Bigbee said. “I did this for 30 years, just paying the bills basically, not making any money. And now I’m starting to make a little bit of money and it’s just fun whenever the pressure’s not on.”
At the beginning of the season, the farm’s hours vary, and depend largely on the weather and labor. They usually start by opening on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but expand to six days as the season progresses.
“Usually by mid-April, we’re rolling,” Bigbee said.
Fassnight Creek Farm is located at 1366 S. Fort Ave. in Springfield. Updated hours and contact information can be found on their Facebook page.