Greenhouse Dream Sparks Specialty Crop Business in South Central Ks.
By Charity Horinek
We often hear how Kansas farmers feed the world, but for Ellen Mohler, that cliché wasn’t enough.
“They always say, ‘We feed the world, we feed 155 people,’ but we aren’t even feeding our neighbors. We don’t even feed ourselves,” Mohler said. “We get all of our food from grocery stores. We don’t know where it’s from and how it’s grown.”
It was that desire to feed her family and her neighbors directly, with home-grown foods, that led Mohler to dream of having her own greenhouse. Then she attended a “Women Managing the Farm Conference,” and the die was cast – she would make that greenhouse dream a reality, and start her own business.
Mohler, her husband, and their son, are the fourth generation in their family on a commodities farm just north of Sawyer in Pratt County. Besides her desire to have a greenhouse, she said she wanted to expand her own family’s healthy food choices.
“We had gotten more interested in soil health and no-till farming, when I went to the women’s conference,” she said. “I had gardened for years. And then, my husband was diagnosed with diabetes, and we turned that around through diet. I started thinking how a lot of our ailments and problems are related to our diet.”
Mohler opened Mulberry Lane Greenhouse, Garden Center, and Farm Market for business in March 2014. Her 24-foot-by-36-foot greenhouse is open from March through May, and features organically grown bedding plants and vegetables for sale. She added shrubs last year, by customer request. Mohler also delivers baked goods and eggs from her pastured chickens to Pratt every Tuesday.
“Years ago I used to bake breads and sell them at the Farmers Market in Pratt. But then I got busy with homeschooling and the farm, and stopped doing that. But people really want homemade food, and it has always sold well,” she said.
Mohler began attending the Farmers Market in Pratt again last spring, with a variety of produce, eggs, and her baked goods. She has standing orders for her weekly baked goods and egg deliveries. Because the family rents their farm from her mother, they have not been able to expand the business much since opening.
“Renting means that I can’t get loans to expand on the property,” she said. “But we do have a garage that we plan to turn into an inspected kitchen and farm store, hopefully this year.”
Some of the products she makes and sells include sweet sourdough bread, cookies, pies, quick breads, cinnamon rolls, garlic bread, jams, jellies, and homemade noodles.
“Food sells better than plants,” Mohler noted. “When we open the farm store, that should help with food sales, giving us a place to sell instead of just delivery. And we will be able to offer more gluten-free options.”
A “meal bundle” may also be in the works as Mulberry Lane expands, offering a week’s worth of meals and desserts.
“We are in our fourth year right now, and our customer base has increased every year,” she said. “We will double our customer base in year five. So my best advice to someone who wants to start a business like mine is ‘Don’t give up.’ Expect it to take a lot more time and money than you anticipate. Set your expectations lower than what you think, but don’t get discouraged and don’t give up.”
Mohler currently grows one acre of sweet corn and one acre of mixed produce.“We are limited to two acres of irrigated plot without a special permit,” she said.
The vegetable plot includes potatoes, onions, carrots, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and a variety of other produce. Mohler also picks up local honey from a producer at Norwich to sell at the Pratt Farmers Market, along with her own noodles, eggs, chickens, and produce.
The biggest challenge to operating a specialty crop and greenhouse business, Mohler said, is the Kansas climate – along with resources such as time and money. “One of my biggest challenges is the weather, as far as growing things,” she said, adding, “But spray drift is another big challenge. We grow right in the middle of a lot of conventional mmodity farms. We even had to move our main produce location because of spray drift, and it has done better this year.”
Marketing is another challenge Mohler has faced, and met with success. Mulberry Lane has a Facebook page and a website, and relies heavily on word of mouth to sell products and gain more orders. But she says there is room for more such businesses in the area.
“My business is unique for south central Kansas, as we have very few local growers,” she said. “We definitely need more growers in this area. There is more demand than product. And with Farmers Markets, the more people you have selling, the more you sell. A bigger selection draws more customers.”
Mohler also dreams of working with others to someday open a locally grown food store in Pratt.
“A store location would make it convenient for people to buy and eat locally grown food,” she said. “I started doing delivery because people won’t come out to the farm. Convenience is what sells.”
But for now, her ever-growing business and her plans for a commercial kitchen and farm store give Mohler plenty to focus on.
“I am way too busy,” she said with a laugh when asked how opening Mulberry Lane has impacted her life. “I never have enough time for everything.”
Mulberry Lane Greenhouse, Garden Center, and Farm Market is located at 90315 SE 30th Avenue, Sawyer, Kansas. Phone: (620) 770-1313. She keeps her Facebook page regularly updated, and also has a website: mulberrylanekansasfarm.com.
Charity Horinek is a freelance writer from Sublette, Kansas, contributing a series of stories on local and regional food in SW and SC Kansas to KRC, including Prairie Wind Produce and Pedro’s corn chips articles in this issue.