Specialty Crop Farmers Share Challenges and Opportunities
by Jennifer Kongs
“Sustainable economics for rural communities includes sustainable growing and a system that is financially sustainable for farmers,” said Claire Zimmerman, operator of Groundspeak Farm in Edgerton, Kansas. Zimmerman was one of 11 specialty crop farmers who gathered in Salina, Kansas, on February 26, 2018.
The farmers were participating in a learning circle as part of the Kansas Rural Center’s (KRC) project “Linking Experienced and Beginning Specialty Crop Farmers to Share Information for Establishing Successful Specialty Crop Enterprises.” The project goals include identifying common challenges for specialty crop farmers and opportunities that have been learned through farmers’ experiences, and building a network for ongoing peer-to-peer connection between specialty crop farmers across the state. Zimmerman succinctly summed up many of the concerns shared by the farmers present: a sustainable farming system must be economically viable for those engaged in farming.
The farmers invited to the learning circle, which included long time experienced growers and several beginning growers, discussed the realities of growing and marketing fruits and vegetables in different communities across Kansas.
“People in my area prefer to go to Wal-Mart than buying local food,” said Christi Janssen of C and C High Tunnels in Scandia, Kansas. “People lack knowledge about the seasons – many people don’t understand that you can’t grow tomatoes in the wintertime, even with hoop houses. I was asked at farmers market last year whether I grew oranges. There is an education piece to getting consumers to try new foods – such as when we started selling kale at markets.” The Janssens grow entirely within the city limits of Scandia, selling through multiple CSA deliveries in their hometown and neighboring communities as well as at multiple farmers markets.
“Local residents don’t know what to do with a lot of the crops, which factors into whether I grow eggplant versus tomatoes,” added Chris Palmberg or Lazy E Produce in Kanorado, Kansas. He and his wife bought a vacant parking lot to start growing within the Kanorado city limits. He said, “I’m in the phase of my experience of, ‘What’s going to work where I am? What can I grow here, and will the local population buy it?’”
The Palmbergs are selling eggs and raising small numbers of poultry for meat, and Palmberg notes that including value-added breads and jams have been popular and, perhaps, could be a more profitable market than the raw ingredients. As someone with work experience in economic development, Palmberg is interested in the role local foods could play in revitalizing rural economies.
Dave Svaty of Svaty’s Produce in Kanopolis, Kansas said, “For areas without a large population center, getting consumers to come to an on-farm store or operation is a struggle. Our farm store is currently not holding water, but we want it to work because making time to get into town is a struggle.”
The Svatys raise vegetables in multiple hoop houses, as well as run a grass-fed beef, lamb and pork operation. Dave currently sells primarily at farmers markets, but a few years ago he built an on-farm store, with daily operating hours, to sell produce and meats year-round. Svaty raised concerns about the logistics of selling the majority of a farm’s produce through farmers markets when the most profitable markets are all on Saturdays, and the weekday markets are much smaller and held in multiple locations.
Dan Brooks of Roots Revival Farm in Sharon Springs, Kansas, said, “We came to western Kansas because it is accessible to buy land, especially small acreages.” Brooks operates about a half-acre vegetable farm with his wife. The couple sells some produce locally and some through the High Plains Food Co-op, and they are looking to do more wholesale if possible. They are completing the organic certification paperwork now, and he wished he had access to market research for their area to know which crops would be most popular instead of needing to go through a long period of trial and error to find what their community will buy and eat.
“We started working with vegetables, because we couldn’t find good food anymore,” said Brooks, but the market isn’t readily available. Based on the attendees’ experience, where land is more affordable and accessible, the markets are harder to develop.
Farmers like Frank Gieringer of Gieringer’s Orchard in Edgerton, Kansas, have had growing success in developing agritourism opportunities near a large population center, like Kansas City. Fifteen years ago, the family put in an orchard and then added a high tunnel, which grew into six, growing mostly grafted tomatoes. The U-Pick and agritourism efforts at the farm include plasticulture strawberries; raspberries and thornless blackberries; peaches; pumpkins; and soon apples.
Gieringer also raises conventional corn, soybeans and cattle, but shared that 2017 was the first year the specialty crops beat out the conventional crops in net income. “Look for something that sets you apart,” said Gieringer. “If we didn’t have fruit, we wouldn’t get people out to our farm.” The Gieringers do a lot of marketing and alerts about the U-Pick availability via their Facebook page, which has more than 20,000 followers.
Similarly, Leah Dannar-Garcia of Firefly Farms near Wichita, Kansas, says, ““I can’t scale enough to meet the large Wichita market. But we can’t get enough new farmers to grow more – we don’t have enough farmers in our area to support a food hub for the production we can support.” Dannar-Garcia has been growing for three years and has primarily focused on tomatoes and selling to local chefs. The local sourcing for restaurants is an opportunity for farmers growing in areas with such a demand.
Labor and health insurance were two challenges for which no ready opportunity presented itself during the conversation. It is especially a challenge when farmers are paying someone until midsummer before getting money to cover those wages. While CSA models, which provide upfront payments to farmers before production begins, provide income to pay for labor, it isn’t an answer for all farmers.
For large wholesale producers, including attendee Dan Kuhn of Depot Market in Courtland, Kansas, hiring seasonal labor through the H-2A visa program is an option. Kuhn has been growing vegetables and fruit for about 40 years. Pumpkins are his main crop, and he primarily sells wholesale with a retail market on-site. He raised 180 acres of produce, the majority of which is under pivot irrigation. Kuhn notes that the visa program is clearly not for everyone: It requires extensive paperwork and infrastructure, and is not sustainable for individual smaller operations.
Gabe Spurgeon of South Baldwin Farms, an intensively planted fruit orchard that has been in operation for a couple of years in Baldwin, Kansas, added, “In other states with apple-growing regions, there is a known population that does this type of work. We don’t have that as strongly in Kansas.”
On health insurance, many farmers expressed that someone in their family was required to hold off-farm jobs to provide health care coverage for their families. Dave Svaty said, “My son came to farm after he lost his teaching job. The first year was great, but the second year was bad – we lost all of our tomato crop to a virus. 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.”
Regulations and crop insurance were also identified as barriers. While many specialty crop farms, especially those who market directly to consumers, are exempt from many of the larger farm regulations, the confusion and concern for what the future holds was expressed by many in attendance.
In addition, the lack of consistent availability of information and willingness to help producers with unique business models is a reality many farmers have faced. Nina Isley of Y Knot Farm and Ranch in Bird City, Kansas, said. “Whole-farm crop insurance is available, but it isn’t well received to work with farmers on it. You have to be patient because the commodity crops and those farmers have more sway. You can work with the NRCS for help, too.”
Jeter Isley, current President of the High Plains Food Co-op and co-owner of Y Knot Farm and Ranch with his wife, Nina, stressed that the bulk of farmers’ abilities to scale is limited by access to capital.
“We know where the market is,” he said. “But we need grantors to provide capital to growers, co-op coordinators, and our delivery drivers. Our current High Plains Food Co-op model is not sustainable with volunteers. We have an opportunity to turn our rural communities around with sustainable economics – sustainable growing and sustainability for farmers. I consider our rural communities as disadvantaged as urban inner cities, or even more so because there are fewer people. This co-op model, which sells to large markets, is a means of getting and attracting capital into rural areas that can, hopefully, then support their own local food system sustainably.”
Dan Kuhn said, “There’s a real challenge on economics versus scale — the balance of equipment, markets, size, and how to find the answers to your questions as you grow. There is no cookie-cutter approach.”
The attendees recognized several creative opportunities to address many of the challenges brought forward. One was to consider ways for farmers to collaborate with their efforts on growing, marketing and selling products.
Tom Buller, specialty crop specialist at Douglas County Extension, reported on the FreshFarm HQ northeast Kansas food hub and Jeter Isley shared about the High Plains Food Co-op. In both cases, the models aggregate multiple small growers who then gain access to larger markets. FreshFarm HQ sells into the Kansas City area, and the High Plains Food Co-op sells to the Denver/front range region.
Christi Janssen brought examples of the brochures they had created for their CSA and for other farmers in the area who also show up at local markets or sell locally. They split the cost and divvied up taking time going door to door to deliver the brochures and talk to people about how it works. David Coltrain, a contractor with the Kansas Rural Center, shared about produce auctions, such as the one held in Dennis, Kansas, as a new marketing opportunity.
The attendees also brainstormed ways to increase producer education opportunities. “I am interested in learning more about whole-farm planning. How do I integrate a larger farm and build a whole-system farm that ties cover crops, commodity crops, specialty crops and livestock?” said Claire Zimmerman.
Dan Brooks asked whether farmers could setup an apprentice or labor “trade” program to provide extra labor for big projects and potential new farmers with opportunities to learn from various operators. “Hands-on learning is valuable for this type of education program. You have to learn how to make everything as efficient as possible because time is a valuable asset. Somebody has figured it out, and you can learn over time,” he said.
The farmers agreed that peer-to-peer connections, especially with other growers in a similar region or trying similar techniques, was valuable. Attending conferences, including out-of-state events in areas with more fruit and vegetable growers, can be a source of new information and ideas that aren’t yet being implemented by farmers in Kansas.
“Because we are growing differently than many orchards here — we are building trellises and training limbs — we are getting a lot of supplies and insights from Michigan, where more people are doing this sort of work,” said Spurgeon. Fellow fruit-grower Gieringer has found a lot of value in the North America Farm Direct Market Association, especially their Facebook group, and shared that he and his wife often “vacation” to out-of-state conferences to learn more about fruit operations.
Additionally, connecting growers through a closed Facebook group or monthly producer conference calls are opportunities the Kansas Rural Center is pursuing with the hopes of launching these and other ways for farmers to stay connected, ask questions, and share lessons in the coming year.
Next steps for the KRC project are individual interviews and grower profiles that will be published later this summer along with the Learning Circle summary. Also the KRC fall conference will feature several workshops for specialty crop growers.
Jennifer Kongs, as part of Bark Media, coordinated KRC’s Learning Circle meeting and prepared this report.