Dream small: Workshop Explores Marketing Vegetables and Urban Farming in Central Kansas
By Tom Parker
“I was always told to dream big,” Sheila Corn said as she addressed the workshop crowd in Hutchinson in March. “It was supposed to make me successful, rich, good-looking, and I’d have a happy life. But I couldn’t afford a large farm like my father’s, so I decided to farm like my grandfather had, by hand labor with a small Farmall tractor and implements from the 1950s.”
Corn, who was instrumental in organizing the Reno County Producers’ Market and the Foodie Fest at Dillon Nature Center, has spent almost 40 years farming the sandy loam in McPherson County. Her story, “Dream small: bigger isn’t always better,” was presented at the Kansas Rural Center (KRC) Specialty Crops Workshop, held March 20 in South Hutchinson.
Other speakers included David Coltrain, former ag instructor at Seward County Community College; Ron Hirst, a Reno County farmer and Chair of the South Central Kansas Economic Development District Board; Scott Kohl, Director of the Highland Community College Viticulture and Enology Program; Ron Hulsey, who owns an experimental vineyard near Hutchinson; and Adam and Maggie Pounds, owners of Simple Abundance Farm in South Hutchinson. The workshop, one of five throughout the state focusing on conservation, production and marketing practices for small-scale specialty crop growers, was organized by KRC and funded by the Kansas Department of Agriculture through the USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant program.
Corn decided to plant high value crops such as tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe and sweet corn. She started with $25 of seeds, a shovel, a hoe and a potato fork. Starting small didn’t bother her. It bucked the prevailing opinion, but she had her reasons.
“I wanted to set my own prices by selling retail and not take what the elevator was offering,” she said. “I wanted an operation where my kids were involved and they would know their labor was valuable, and they could learn life lessons from being out on the farm. You can teach kids science, business, people skills—you name it—when you sell at farmers’ markets.”
She sold produce out of the bed of her truck at a factory parking lot and at farmers’ markets before expanding to CSAs (community supported agriculture), on-farm sales and local grocers and specialty markets in Hutchinson. In addition to specialty crop production she raises cattle, sheep and chickens, and has recently started selling halal lambs to a local mosque. Though her farm has grown to 65 acres plus some rented ground, she still considers small-scale farming a viable approach for beginning farmers.
“I encourage you to dream small,” Corn said. “Some of you don’t have 65 acres, or 150 acres, but you have a backyard, or a basement, or the church down the street has an area where they were going to put a playground but it’s vacant and full of weeds. Or if you’re a farmer you have that funny little patch of land that’s a pain to get your big tractor in, and you could put in watermelons, or pumpkins, or sweet corn. Look at what you have and see what you can do with it. You can start little and grow up. Small dreams allow you to start where you are.”
Ron Hirst understands small. A self-proclaimed hobby farmer and hobby gardener, he began growing sweet corn several years ago to support two new markets in Reno County, with the stipulation that he wouldn’t compete with growers who were doing it for living. His “little project,” as he called it, taught him a lot about business planning, production, marketing and sustainability—both soil and financial—but every hard-earned answer invariably led to more questions, including one he still asks himself: “Is just growing locally-grown fresh foods enough?”
Beginning specialty crop farmers would be well advised to ask themselves the same question, he said, and to decide which type of producer they want to be, whether a hobby gardener like himself, someone wanting supplemental income, or a full-time farmer. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. A hobbyist doesn’t make much money, but he doesn’t have to spend much money, either, and the bulk of his production goes toward personal use.
Producing for supplemental income takes more time and effort, plus more infrastructure and space, to grow enough to sell consistently. It also requires more capital investment. A full-time producer needs a plan—numerous plans, actually—laying out land and building utilization, marketing options, financial sustainability, and others. “Growing is not enough,” he said. “You have to define your market and your strategy. Create a detailed list of your goals and expectations. And remember the four Ps: product, price, place and promotion.” Above all, share your story about your farm. “If you connect, that consumer becomes an owner in your farm,” Hirst said. “It all goes back to public relations.”
The importance of marketing and business planning for beginning farmers cannot be overemphasized, David Coltrain said. “Before you start production, know where it will be marketed,” he said. “Marketing is the key to profit. If you’re a commodity producer, you are a price taker—you get what you get. With good marketing, you produce what the customer wants, when he wants it.” Though specialty crops can be a lot of hard work, he added, they offer more profit compared to other kinds of farming.
Another benefit of small-scale specialty crop production is that it can be done anywhere, even in the middle of an urban setting, and nobody does it quite like Adam and Maggie Pounds. Though relatively new to urban agriculture, they spent a year apprenticing on a four-acre diversified vegetable farm in Seattle, WA before adapting what they learned to Kansas. For them, small means small. When they started in late 2014, their entire production area consisted of a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood in their basement, and even now it encompasses less than a fifth of an acre. The trick, Adam Pounds said, is to maximize every square inch of soil.
“This is the scale people are using, five acres or less, with intensive planting and tighter rows to shade the soil,” he said. “We grow high-value, quick-growing crops like spinach, kale and arugula, but our main goal is to get crops in and out, with two to four crops per year.”
That first year they raised micro-greens and sold them at a farmers’ market. Their success led them to expand another 500 square feet in the front yard of their duplex. Luckily, the duplex manager was his father.
Once production began, people in the community took notice. A garden was one thing, but an urban farm was unheard of. Neighbors walking by stopped to ask what they were doing; drivers stopped to ask where they could buy the produce. That level of attention was both a benefit and a challenge, and underscored some of the unique challenges faced when farming an urban setting.
“People stopping by made it hard to get anything done, but it’s easy to sell our crops when people see them every day,” Pounds said. “It’s all about creating relationships with our customers.”
Water isn’t an issue because there’s always a tap nearby, but keeping neighbors happy requires tact and patience. When flowering cover crops were planted, some neighbors were thrilled at the swarms of bees that appeared while others objected. And then there are cats, which can be a big problem to deal with when so little goes unnoticed in an urban setting. “Neighbors don’t like it when we try to live-trap their cats,” he said.
Another issue was having to deal with city codes and regulations. Pounds worked with the city to rewrite legislation that would allow high tunnels, and they now have two plus a small greenhouse on a nearby lot. Their goal has been to create a working urban farm without incurring a lot of debt, and so far, they have succeeded, he said. “We’re really on a small scale,” he said, “but you can grow things anywhere.”
Following the workshop, participants toured the vacant lot where Pounds is setting up his high tunnels. Passing vehicles slowed to watch the activity, and more than a few blew their horns. Without a glance, Pounds waved a hand in the air and shrugged.
“We’re urban,” he said. “People honk when they drive by.”