Kansas Farm Profile: Shepherd’s Valley Farm
by Tom King
John and Ramona Crisp operate a 90-acre diversified farm in Morris County, located in the Flint Hills northwest of Emporia. Recently expanded from an initial 10 acres, Shepherd’s Valley is a sustainable CSA farm, supplying over 40 types of fruits and vegetables, along with grass-fed lamb, pastured poultry, eggs, herbs, honey, and other specialty products including soaps, salves, and wool to a growing number of shareholders and customers. Approximately 3 acres are planted to garden fruits and vegetables, and 20 acres are in pasture. With the acquisition of new adjacent property, an additional 25 acres will soon be utilized for vegetable production. The remainder of the acreage is alfalfa, grains, woodlands, and pasture.
Shepherd’s Valley Farm (Americus, KS)
John Crisp, a sixth-generation farmer with over 40 years of farming experience, utilizes organic growing practices, though the farm is not certified. Hoophouses extend the growing season to nine months per year and the majority of the farm’s produce is sold through CSA subscriptions. Livestock are grass-fed, from pastured poultry to grass-fed lamb. Crisp, who was interviewed for this article, has recently branched into aquaculture, with a goal to raise over 2,000 tilapia fish annually along with gourmet mushrooms and salad greens. He will be using a synergistic model utilizing high tunnels and aquaponics.
The farm currently employs two to three full-time workers, depending on the season. Volunteers, apprentices, interns, and students also bring their enthusiasm to the farm team. The Crisps have helped ten area families become organic producers in the last three years. The Crisps help market these growers’ products through their CSA and local farmers markets.
John is a founding member and current president of the Emporia Area Local Food Network, an organization promoting the production, preservation, and marketing of local food in the region. He also teaches sustainable farming and local food production at the Flint Hills Technical College in Emporia as part of a Sustainable Studies degree program. He has been active in helping start up community gardens as well as area farmers markets, and is in demand as a speaker and consultant.
– Vegetables: Over 40 types from arugula to zucchini, including nearly 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
– Fruits: Apples, pears, berries, and melons.
– Meats: Grass-fed lamb, chicken, and turkey. The Crisps are currently adding tilapia fish to their line of meats.
– Grains, nuts and seeds: popcorn, peanuts, sunflower seeds, pecans, and walnuts.
– Herbs: Culinary and medicinal; fresh and dried. Crisp plans to grow ginger in the high tunnel.
– Bee products: Honey, beeswax, and bee pollen.
– Processed foods: Breads, jams, jellies, and preserves.
– Specialty items: Wool, sheepskins, soaps, salves, and luffa sponges.
– Retail – On-farm sales of all products. The farm has a list of over 300 regular customers in addition to shareholders. They also sell at the weekly farmers market held in Council Grove on Tuesday evenings throughout the summer.
– Wholesale – Four area restaurants buy Shepherd’s Valley farm produce.
– Institutions – Shepherd’s Valley sells fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, and microgreens to the Culinary Arts program at Flint Hills Technical College in Emporia.
– CSA subscriptions – Shepherd’s Valley has three growing seasons — spring, summer and fall — and sells approximately 50 shares per season – produced on the original 10-acre farm site. The on-going development of recently acquired acreage will more than double the shares offered. Spring season full shares are $100 for an eight-week season providing mostly salad greens. Summer (17-week season) full shares sell for $425, half shares are $225. Fall is another eight-week season, with full shares at $125, half-shares for $75. Shepherd’s Valley offers one of the longest CSA seasons available to consumers in the Midwest.
– Distribution: Self. The farm delivers weekly during the growing season to pick-up locations in Emporia, Council Grove, and Topeka. On-farm pick-ups are twice a week on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Shareholders take turns coming to the farm, picking up all CSA shares in their specific area and returning them to a designated drop-off site for distribution.
– Production logistics – “The quality and reliability of our product is our brand. We want to offer a wide variety of wholesome foods to our many loyal customers. Doing so requires a lot of food production knowledge and accurate record-keeping.”
– Remote location – “We’re a long way out here. Not many drop-ins from passers-by. It made logistical sense to target our audience via the Internet.”
The farm itself has become a marketing tool, primarily for the diversity of food it produces and the manner in which it is raised. Visitors come to the farm to learn how a wide variety of local foods are produced and to also enjoy the family recreation area Crisp has created along the creek. Hundreds of people visit the farm on special farm tours each year to learn about organic gardening and sustainable food production methods.
– Working Shares
“People who choose to be a part of the Shepherd’s Valley’s team work with us on the farm, and receive the fruit of their labors directly. This system works well for everyone. A lot of people come to the farm just to learn more about how to garden. They learn by doing, and thus help to produce their own food. And they always tell their friends about what they learn and how much fun they are having here.”
– Customer list
“We’ve invested serious efforts into building long-term relationships,” says Crisp. We are on a first-name basis with all of our customers and count them as friends. When we do have surpluses beyond what our shareholders can use, we have a list of people we contact via e-mail – including farmers market customers, home canners, processors, and chefs who are eager to purchase whatever we offer.”
-Food Buying Clubs
Shepherd’s Valley works with several regional food buying clubs, supplying fresh produce, grass-fed meats, and pastured eggs to a clientele that is already well educated about the health benefits of organically grown foods, and are looking for local sources that are farm fresh direct.
-Community Education Courses
John teaches a number of community education courses related to local food production, such as seed saving, wild edibles treks, solar cooking, and more through the local Community Connections arm of Flint Hills Technical College in Emporia. These classes have spawned interest in Shepherd’s Valley and a direct consequence has been an increase in inquiries and customers.
“Many of our customers first discovered Shepherd’s Valley via the internet while searching for local and organic foods in their area. I highly recommend the Local Harvest website (www.localharvest.org) — we get calls from all over the country through our farm’s listing on this site.”
“Word about Shepherd’s Valley spread first from the community. We’ve been here for a long time. We always want to be an asset to our community. We have a “zero-dollar” annual advertising budget and depend heavily upon word-of-mouth recommendations from our many customers — it’s the best way we grow.”
– News Articles
A number of newspaper and on-line publications have interviewed the Crisps and toured Shepherd’s Valley farm, bringing many articles of interest and photos to the public. Television interviews and documentaries have also brought in new customers.
For start-up farms, Crisp advises against jumping right into CSA farming. “Gain a following of customers first through farmers markets or other direct marketing venues. Gauging predictable yields against all the variables of farming is something you learn by doing, and shortfalls are plenty at the start. There is a real learning curve in producing wholesome foods reliably, and the CSA is not a model for the novice gardener. Expanding into a CSA model is a natural progression, but it’s not the place for most gardeners to begin. The CSA model has worked very well for us, and as we bring more growers on board and establish a reputation of premium quality wholesome foods, the demand for our products outstrips our ability to supply it – a great problem to have.”
**This Farm Profile is an excerpt from Finding Your Niche, A Marketing Guide for Kansas Farms, published in January 2013 by the Kansas Rural Center. You may CLICK HERE to view the guide’s full Table of Contents and print or download other profiles and resource documents. Finding Your Niche: A Marketing Guide for Kansas Farms offers a great starting point for envisioning the potential your farm has to increase and respond to local demand.
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