Busy Bee Farms Provides Tomatoes to Southwest Kansas
By Charity Horinek
Part one of a three-part series, highlighting successful specialty crop growers in Southwest Kansas.
“Busy as a bee” is an idiom come to life in Kismet, Kansas, where Danny and Suzan Nelson and their family have successfully grown and sold tomatoes and other produce under their Busy Bee Farms, LLC, banner for the past 11 years.
The name of their enterprise comes from two sources, said Suzan Nelson – the bumblebees they use to pollinate their tomato crops, and the many helping hands of grandchildren they employ to run their business.
“If you don’t use bees, you have to go around and vibrate each plant to pollinate. But one bee can pollinate 300 flowers,” Nelson explained, adding with a laugh, “And all of our grandkids within a 60-mile radius get put to work as well. They are our little busy bees!”
Busy Bee Farms uses bumblebees instead of honeybees, because they are much better pollinators. The bees live in the greenhouses, and because they use only worker bees, the Nelsons replace the bees every two months.
“The bees work pretty steadily from 10 to 2 each day pollinating the tomatoes. They don’t really bother anyone, but we have learned to stay away from their boxes,” Nelson said. “There are always a few bees guarding them that get aggressive if we come near.”
Nelson said she had raised pond plants for years, and people kept telling her she needed to sell them. After she and her husband noticed how many people were buying tomatoes at a farmer’s market in Wichita, they decided to grow both her pond plants and a crop of tomatoes. They found two 30-by-120-foot greenhouses at a farm auction, and a business was born.
“The standard advice is always to have a market before starting a business,” she said. “We did the opposite, because we were able to find the greenhouses so cheap.”
Though they have room for 1,700 tomato plants, they currently raise 1,500 at a time and have a section of the greenhouse dedicated to Nelson’s other plants. The tomatoes are grown in the hair from coconut husks, along with a drip system that in spite of its hydroponic label, uses less water than other traditional growing methods.
“It has taken us a long time to build the business,” she said. “For the first year and a half, it was a struggle going out to get them sold. People had a bad taste for hothouse tomatoes.”
But the Nelsons persisted, knowing the variety they had chosen, Geronimo, had a soft skin and was very flavorful. Soon, customers agreed, and now they sell out of their crop year-round. In addition to being regulars at the Farmer’s Markets in Liberal, Kansas, and Amarillo, Texas, Busy Bee Farms supplies tomatoes to small local grocers in places like Hooker, Oklahoma, and Sublette, Kansas.
The produce manager at Venture Foods in Sublette, Clarita Giesick, said the tomatoes are popular in her store and she likes having fresh, regionally sourced produce.“Our customers really love Busy Bee tomatoes,” Giesick said. “On occasion, if tomatoes are not producing and so not available to us, our customers are disappointed, but understanding! We are grateful to Danny and Suzan Nelson for their dedication and hard work.”
Of their 23 grandchildren, about half live close enough to be “put to work,” as Nelson terms it. “They learn so much. How to count back change, set up, create displays, pick and sort vegetables, customer service – we really teach them the whole process,” she said. The grandkids who serve as worker bees range in age from 17 down to three.
In addition to farmer’s markets and small grocers in the area, Busy Bee also provides tomatoes to Billy’s barbecue restaurant in Liberal, and open their farm to face-to-face sales every Wednesday from 1-5 p.m. during the summer.
Future plans include marketing more bedding plants online, but the Nelsons don’t plan any expansions.
Already, Danny Nelson has to hire additional help, and Suzan holds down a full-time job in addition to her Busy Bee Farms work.
“We’re at the size we want to be, and plan to continue as long as we enjoy it!” she said. Busy Bee Farms LLC has a Facebook page, and can also be reached at (620) 482-1306.
Charity Horinek of Sublette, Kansas, is working on KRC’s Feeding Southwest Kansas Food Assessment. Telling the stories of specialty crop producers and local food businesses in the region is part of the research for the report.