Raising Vegetables on the High Plains Reaps Rewards and Presents Challenges
First in a series of five farmer feature profiles distributed by the Kansas Rural Center
By Jennifer Kongs
Dave Svaty has farming in his family’s roots. He grew up on a farm down the road from where he and his wife, Connie—along with his son, Caleb and his family—are tending cattle, pigs, sheep, and vegetables growing in fields and inside hand-built hoop houses near Kanopolis, Ks. in Ellsworth County.
Dave and Connie have raised livestock and sold vegetables from a roadside stand for more than 25 years. Dave, who has a degree in Agronomy from Kansas State University, started working 17 years ago at the local co-op to provide a source of steady income. Three years ago, Dave left the co-op job and at about the same time, his son also lost his teaching job. Connie continues to work as a teacher’s aide, largely to keep the family covered with health insurance. The Svatys wanted to try making the combination of meat and increased vegetable production a go, with a focus on high-value crops, like tomatoes, grown in hoop houses. KRC visited Svaty’s Produce on March 30, a muddy, blustery day, to learn more about their operation and get a tour of their production.
The Svatys have been able to expand their operation and create a unique setup with ingenuity and DIY skills. Dave custom-built his farmers market trailers to pull behind a truck. The wooden frame features a drop-down side that holds flat crates of produce; a walkway where the Svatys stand to sell from; a spot for a freezer to hold the meat; and large bins for melons, potatoes and other larger, heavier crops. The produce is held at eye level for the customer and everything is easily accessible by the person handling sales at market that day. Dave and Caleb liked the first one so much, Dave built a second one, so they could both have one at each Saturday market where they are vendors.
For the folks who want the on-farm experience, the family built a shop on-site, with customer-friendly reach-in coolers, a walk-in cooler for crop storage, and shelves and boxes for produce sales. The investment, Dave says, would be worth it to save the driving time to multiple markets each week, and of course, the family hopes for added income from the set daily operating hours of 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays. The space also has a back room, which has already provided value in getting the produce-washing and storage out of their house. Before the building, washing, storage and prep on Fridays before the big Saturday markets all happened inside Dave and Connie’s home, where she bakes and packages homemade kolatches by the tens of dozens for market sales.
Dave and Caleb have been smart about how they re-purpose materials and incorporate made-to-fit solutions for season-extension and crop protection. For example, the calving barn is built with bridge planks Dave bought from the county. He moved an unwanted wooden hoop house frame from Ellsworth high school, which came complete with plastic covering. When their second hoop house, which has gone through four seasons, kept losing its plastic covering, Dave boxed in the ends with wooden frames to keep the hoop house together better. Turns out, wind is often a specialty-crop farmer’s most challenging nemesis. The shape of the hoop house has other shortcomings: “I made a mistake in buying a round hoop house. I should have bought one with sidewalls, because I can’t get in close enough along the sides with equipment,” Dave says in retrospect.
Dave has built a lean-to greenhouse onto his home, heated with the home’s old woodstove. “I came home one night, and told my wife I was going to build a greenhouse. So, I dug this space with a skid loader.”
When I visited, the greenhouse was full of green, growing life. Because of a previous year’s infection, the family now primarily raises tomato varieties resistant to tomato spotted wilt virus, including ‘Mountain Glory’ and ‘Skyway 687.’ They are trying some varieties—especially cherry tomatoes—that are not resistant, such as ‘SunGold,’ because of their popularity with customers. The greenhouse held dozens of flats filled with starts of tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, celery and herbs. Once I left, he was planning to plant three colors—red, yellow and orange—of seedless watermelons on electric heating mats to keep the soil warm enough for germination.
There are also fig trees in buckets in the greenhouse that Caleb and Dave are planning to experiment with based on expertise from a fellow farmer in New York. Caleb, his father says, connects to other growers online who are also trying unique setups around the country. I joked with Dave about him being cutting edge, and he smiled, but readily reminded me it was Caleb who was making the new connections.
The farm’s growth and diversification has not come without its struggles. “The first year was great. The second year, we lost all of our tomatoes to tomato spotted wilt virus. We have also lost tomatoes after uncovering them to spray drift,” Dave says. Their history with a nearly complete crop failure caused by TSWV is why the family emphasizes TSWV-resistant varieties for their tomatoes and peppers.
After losing the tomato crop two years ago, Caleb needed to take on off-farm job working on wind turbines. “He has three kids, and we had nothing to fall back on, so he had to get a job for security. He wants to farm and he has a space, and we have markets to go to, but you need health insurance and you need steady income, and you can’t do that as a starting specialty crop farmer,” Dave says.
The family still raises close to 60 acres of conventional wheat and soybeans, accounting for an estimated 20 percent of the family’s farm income. Dave says the farm gets better returns on the vegetables than the meat, especially the lamb and chicken. The pork and beef, largely because they are more popular meats in his area, have higher profit margins. The family has about 200 head of sheep, a dozen cattle and fewer than 10 hogs.
Dave has his concerns for the future of vegetable farming. One is FISMA, the Federal Information Security Modernization Act, and how to update to meet all of the requirements, especially regarding his family’s combination of livestock and vegetables. His lambing barn, which is separated by a barrier wall but connected under one roof with a growing spot for early greens to take advantage of the animals’ heat, would likely be forbidden.
“I’m an exemption, but we try to be up to speed. It is overwhelming, some of the specific rules and the amount of written documentation that would be required. My wooden picking crates wouldn’t be allowed, I couldn’t let my dog go into the field with me when I pick, but we have rattlesnakes and I want my dog with me.”
Dave also wonders whether having multiple weekday markets in different parts of town — rather than a concentrated time in one spot — is best for farmers’ sales. The most economical setup for where and when to hold markets is a commonly discussed direct-sale farmer struggle. “In summer, we saw more foot traffic to the farm store, which is ideal for us, but winter has been harder,” Dave adds.
He worries about new farmers getting started, and existing farmers adding or diversifying their operations, with the heavy financial burden associated, given the current structure for financing and health insurance. Working without a fall-back, as he is now, leaves “no margin for error” with the growing and marketing.
When asked what changes could help his farm be more successful, Dave responds that he feels strongly that the sales tax on food should be eliminated, for the sakes of both farmers and consumers. “It is difficult to track, and compared with neighboring states, we’re putting a tax on poor people trying to buy groceries.”
He also recognizes a need for a better system to protect against drift for sensitive crops. “I have neighbors that do their best to be careful, but even on windless days, we see the damage.” He also suggests that when feedlots or other concentrated operations move in nearby, that the specialty crop farmers who need clean water be protected. As his farm shows, there are multiple ways to grow food and build livelihoods through agriculture in Kansas, and he would like to see them all treated with equal protection.
Despite his concerns, as we walked through the fields, Dave’s love of growing food and raising animals was tangible. He proudly pointed out the field planted days before with 2,200 pounds of potatoes (he named the dozen or so varieties off the top of his head); his sandy soil that grows juicy melons; and the baby lambs he has protected with their mamas in the barn.
Dave shared new ideas he wanted to test this year—clearly skilled at coming up with unique solutions to the various challenges farmers face. He spoke of incorporating oats as a cover crop before planting melons; a new method for stringing and covering tomatoes he’s keen to experiment; harvesting asparagus throughout the year; and more. When he spoke of challenges, he appeared distraught and overwhelmed by handling the bulk of the work solo, as if he were watching the end of an era. But, while visiting the farm, it’s hard to see anything but hope and potential while watching the lambs bounce, listening to the calves call, and passing through the warming hoop houses filled with new life.
Jennifer Kongs is a freelance writer with Bark Media in Lawrence, Kansas, who produced this story as part of KRC’s Specialty Crop Block Grant funded by the Kansas Department of Agriculture through USDA’s SCBG Program.