Prairie Wind Produce Proves Specialty Crops Work in SW Kansas
By Charity Horinek
Water gardens have been a part of public and private gardens since ancient Persia and China, but Southwest Kansas is not an area that has typically been well-known for water features. Prairie Wind Aquatics in Garden City set out to change that in 2000, with owners Steve and Kandy Michel opening their water garden business in an older building with no windows and no sales floor.
And now, it is a thriving business serving a wide variety of clients, and has recently expanded into other kinds of gardening – such as specialty crop growing, with a division called Prairie Wind Produce.
“The water garden business has grown and expanded into landscape supplies, trees, and special order landscape plants for clients,” Steve Michel said. “We started growing specialty crops in 2017. We did OK, and learned a lot.”
The Michels already had three high tunnels at the store being used for other crops and one at home, so they are converting some of the high tunnels to vegetable production.
“We have always grown vegetables. They are easy for us,” he said.
They have been Master Gardeners since 2001, and Steve oversees a community garden at the Finney County Extension Office. His Master Gardener group also does vegetable trials for Kansas State University research each year. And, he said, gardening is in their blood.
“Both of us had parents who were gardeners, so we grew up growing vegetables,” Michel said.
In their first season of growing vegetables for sale, they grew mostly outside as they convert some high tunnels – which Michel said has limited what they can grow. They had a 90-foot-by-90-foot garden plot last year, but have up to four acres to work with.
“I’m reworking a 72-by-72 area now, and have another 150-by-250-foot area tilled and ready to go,” he said. “We just need more water lines and hydrants.”
The Michels grew 30 different vegetables last year and will change the type of pepper grown this year to better fit their current market.
“We have not advertised as we are still limited in production, but we sold everything we grew last year,” he said. “We remodeled part of our store sales to include a produce market with glass coolers, and that has worked well. We are still working on getting our walk-in cooler installed in the shop.”
The Michels market to the public through the produce store, and have plans to expand to restaurants and grocery stores as they can ramp up production.
“Expansion has been a challenge, with the infrastructure changes and capital needed,” Michel said. “We have applied for a Natural Resources Conservation Service high tunnel cost-share program.”
Adding the specialty crop sales to their business has kept them very busy this past year – especially since Steve also drives a school bus six hours a day. He and Kandy hire high school-age summer help, who also help out on Saturdays during the school year.
“We can’t go to the farmers markets on Saturdays, as that is our busiest day of the week at the store,” he said, adding that they keep the store open six days a week, and see strong sales all week. “We’re still working on finding the right mix of vegetables.”
Michel thinks Southwest Kansas is ready for a much bigger specialty crop presence, with the right growing conditions and strong demand for produce. Currently, he sees a lack of specialty crops other than tomatoes and cucumbers, and a growing demand for broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, lettuce, micro greens, and other crops.
“I see a huge potential for specialty crops – especially vegetables high in Omega 3 content, which lose much of their value the longer they are in transit and storage,” he said. “Offering veggies within seven days of picking is huge – yes, it is a challenge, but the demand is there.”
Prairie Wind Produce can be found on Facebook with a business page as well as a group called “Prairie Wind Veggies,” and is located at 1413 W. Mary Street in Garden City. Their phone is (620) 276-0700, and email firstname.lastname@example.org.