Demand Is There: “We Need More Farmers Raising Food”
Women in Farming Profile: Jill Elmers
by Jean Stramel
Jill Elmers is now well into her second career – as a farmer raising food for the growing local food market in the Kansas City and Lawrence area- after 21 years as an acoustical consultant. Demand is high for her produce, and she is doing her best to keep up with it.
Jill has owned and operated Moon on the Meadow farm near Lawrence since 2003. She came to Lawrence in 1994, and worked as an engineer. Then in 2000 she took a sabbatical to try her hand at farming, working at Wakarusa Valley farm.
She was good at it and was asked to lease some land and try her hand at raising vegetables on her own. She went back to work part-time, and for many years split her engineering work with raising vegetables. In 2006 she bought her current house and 3 acres of land.
In 2013, she left her engineering career with the intention of jumping in full speed ahead. The local food markets were taking off and she didn’t want to be left behind. There has been no looking back.
“We cannot keep up with the demand. The demand outweighs my management capabilities, of what we can produce from this land – it’s incredible.”
Jill raises 30-40 different kinds of vegetables, small fruits and herbs on her Moon on the Meadow farm. Lawrence has a good labor supply, and she employs up to 5 people during the season and one year-round, all part time.
In 2010, she and another couple, Tom and Jenny Buller, bought a 34-acre property down the road. The Buller’s were looking for land and Jill wanted to expand but neither could afford the land prices on their own. So they joined forces and now Buller Family Farms and Moon on the Meadow Farm market as Common Harvest Farms, sharing administrative tasks. They both keep some individual enterprises as well as joint projects.
Wheat is now grown on 7 to 9 acres of this jointly owned land. Thom Leonard of then Wheatfields Bakery was looking for farmers to grow Turkey Red winter wheat, so they got seed from him and expanded into small grain production on 1.5 acres the first year. This endeavor required the purchase of not one but two combines, one to do the work and one for parts. The farm had an old seeder already.
The wheat is fresh ground into flour by a stone mill also located at the farm. The wheat is sold retail and wholesale to the 1900 Barker Bakery in Lawrence, a fairly new venture specializing in bread, desserts, and coffee.
All land is certified organic through the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, whom she says is “great to work with”. The soil is sandy river bottom ground, so even in wet years, is well drained and productive. She has two hoop houses, one of which was funded under the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) “High Tunnel Initiative,” allowing staff to be employed through the winter growing spinach.
The organic certification process was tedious and sometimes frustrating, as was the experience with USDA programs. NRCS office employees often do not understand organic production and “we had to teach them,” Jill remembers. But in the end, it worked out well.
She states that labor is not a problem for her, other than the frustration of wanting to pay a living wage. But to do that means “I’m paying more than I am making, and that is hard”. She has been part of the “Growing Growers” apprenticeship program since 2005, run by K-State, and sponsored in the past by the Kansas Rural Center. She does not have lodging facilities, so does not use farm stay internship programs.
Tillage equipment on the farm is a 40 HP John Deere, with all the attachments. Common Harvest Farms has a one-row potato digger, but most vegetable harvesting is done by hand.
She is looking into growing more storage crops, to spread income over more months. Spreadsheets to track rotations and field layouts are used, but one area needing improvement is keeping track of harvest amounts for each crop. They have made an attempt to track Cost of Production on around 10 crops, having employees keep a small pocket booklet to keep track of time on task.
The farm is participating in a Kansas Rural Center project, which helps track cost of production in Hoop Houses. Moon on the Meadow farm grosses between $75,000 and $85,000 from vegetables on 6 acres, which Jill knows is not optimal. She has plenty of land, but she feels it is all she can manage at this time.
Chemical drift from neighbors has been an issue, but it helps that the farm grows many different crops so everything is not vulnerable at once. Jill finds it disturbing that some of her neighbors do not appear to pay attention to wind speed or direction when they spray.
A crop rotation of 3-5 years, and scouting seems to be enough to manage pests. Cover crops are used including cowpeas, field peas, rye, wheat, oats, vetch and “green fix” mix. Certified organic cover crop seed, which is also quite pricey, is hard to find and usually comes out of Iowa.
Certified organic compost is also not readily available, and she sees these two things as niche market opportunities waiting to be filled in her area. Soil testing usually determines why pests are a problem and is done often. Growing many different crops allows some wiggle room in marketing, and this year an onion crop failure was made up for by having other crops ready to sell. A beekeeper brings hives to the farm, but Jill does not manage them.
The Moon on the Meadow farm sells to the Community Mercantile grocery and Farmers Market in Lawrence, nine restaurants, and collaborates with other farmers to provide 265 CSA shares. She wants to sell things fairly and wants all income levels to have access to good food. This year their wholesale market is ahead of the farmers market. It was 8% and is now up to 26% of sales. “The Farmers Market is the one thing that wears me out … I get home at noon, and have already put in an 8 hour day!”
Jill is chair of the Douglas County Food Policy Council, which has a “Common Grounds” program, where city land that is not being used is matched with residents who want to grow food.
Additionally, city land in north Lawrence near Teepee Junction has small farmers growing there. The Food Policy Council would like to expand to find private landowners who could be matched with small growers. “Access to land is a big issue for people wanting to farm. We need more farmers growing food,” Jill says.
Jill’s advice to beginning farmers is to network. “It is so incredibly valuable. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” Also be bold and keep pushing. “I was kind of lucky – for 20 years I was in a man’s world of engineering, visiting job sites as the only woman in a giant building …. It would be hard for someone who is timid.” She recently learned that K-State has an Urban Agriculture concentration, so she sees more educational opportunities now.
Jill is also involved in a joint attempt between Kansas City and Douglas County to create a Food Hub. Each had done a feasibility study – KC in a 250-mile radius, Douglas County in a 16 county area – and agreed that the region could not support two food hubs, so they joined efforts. Everyone agreed it needed to be farmer owned, so a call was put out to find interested farmers. There were initially eight farms interested but only four are still involved, including Jill. “It takes a lot of work to start a business. I think more will join once it is established” Jill says.
“It is very exciting. This is why I quit my job – so I could be involved in this. But ultimately I have to be a farmer. I am not getting paid for all this organizing!”
Jean Stramel is a freelance writer living in Lucas, Ks. She is retired from the USDA NRCS.