Taking the Urban Farm to Rural Towns
Photo above: The Janssens rely on right-sized equipment for their smaller, urban vegetable plots, including a sprayer wagon for pesticide applications and a trailer for harvesting and hauling pumpkins and melons.
Third in a series of five farmer feature profiles distributed by the Kansas Rural Center.
By Jennifer Kongs
Chris and Christi Janssen have taken the concept of an urban farm and modified it to the town of Scandia (population estimated at about 350 people). The Janssens have launched and managed a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program and sell at multiple farmers’ markets, driving hundreds of miles each week to reach their spread-out customers, but determined to provide fresh produce to the small towns clustered around their own in North-Central Kansas.
The Janssens moved to Scandia to be closer to Christi’s family, who live in the area, in 2006. Chris had a job as a teacher and Christi was working at an eye doctor’s office. Becoming vegetable farmers and marketers was not in the plan. But, two years after the move, Chris lost his job. Shortly after, the eye doctor where Christi worked was sold, and she, too, lost her employment. Chris worked at Depot Market, a large, wholesale-focused specialty crop operation in nearby Courtland, as the couple started their own vegetable operation, which they named C and C High Tunnels. “This is what we decided would work without uprooting the family again,” Chris says.
KRC visited the farm, which covers a total of about 2 acres of cultivated land on one edge of Scandia, in early June 2018. Chris gave a tour of their four plots as well as their home lot. The weather was warming after an unseasonably long, cold spring. Despite the delay in warm weather, the crops inside the Janssen’s high tunnels were looking strong. “We started out with two high tunnels in 2009, when we bought our first plot of land. We added a third in 2011.”
The couple raises about 2,500 tomato plants and about as many brassica crops, as well as potatoes, sweet potatoes, onion, cucumbers, sweet peppers, onions, rhubarb, melons, squash, berries and more. They plant tomato starts in the high tunnels around the first week of April, and start their melons and squash in a small unheated greenhouse by their home at about the same time.
Most growers using high tunnels choose determinate tomato varieties because the indeterminate varieties can grow unwieldy, requiring regular attention to pick the suckers off as the plants grow and trellising to the top of the hoop house structure. “We mostly grow Jet Star tomatoes,” Chris says. “We prefer indeterminate tomatoes because we think they have better flavor.”
Without steady income at the time they started the farm, Chris says the high tunnels were financed through loans. “We got a rural development loan out of Belleville and a loan from a bank in Courtland to buy the high tunnels. We had to go into some pretty serious debt, as this was before there were grants available to put up high tunnels for nonorganic producers like us. We went to the Courtland bank because the bank in Scandia didn’t want to finance the tunnels.” (The Natural Resource Conservation Service now allows organic and nonorganic producers to apply for its high tunnel grants.)
When asked whether wind or other complications have caused them much trouble with their high tunnels, Chris says the biggest issue they’ve had are the white flies that come on in August. “This year,” he says, “we are going to start preventative spraying to get ahead of the problem. Once they start, we haven’t been able to get rid of them for the rest of the season.” Outside of growing in high tunnels, Chris spoke of the challenges of finding financing that didn’t require debt or loans to start and build their farm. Without more creative economic supports, Chris says, more farmers are going to have a hard time getting into the field.
The family relied on sales’ growth to finance their expansion over the years, which has included purchasing three more empty lots, clearing any trees on the lots, and farm equipment. The lots were added over an eight-year period, with the most recent being added in 2017. “We buy from neighbors who aren’t really using the land anymore. People like to see the lots get cleaned up and put to good use,” Chris says. All four of the plots are within a 10-minute walking loop of the Janssens home, and often, Chris and Christi will ride their bikes to do a quick harvest, pull weeds, check on crops or other chores at the plots. Indeed, as Chris walked us around to the plots, Christi pedaled by with a bucket in hand to pick a few more cucumbers to fill out the day’s CSA order.
They’ve also been creative in modifying the resources available. For example, after their son moved out, they turned his bedroom into a walk-in cooler. They lined the inside of the walls with insulation, stripped the floors to the wood, and added a cooling unit and shelves. They also use the space to pack boxes and bags for deliveries.
The Janssens currently sell through retail and wholesale outlets, with revenue split about 50/50 between the two. Of the retail sales, Chris says about 80 percent are farmers market sales and 20 percent are from the CSAs. At the time of my visit, 55 people were signed up for the CSAs in various nearby towns. Their goal is to reach 100 members, and they expect to have closer to 70 by the end of summer. Only five or six of the CSA members are in Scandia, and the town doesn’t host its own farmers market, so the Janssens drive to their customers almost every day during the growing season. “We go to the Phillipsburg market on Tuesdays, Wednesdays we head to Beloit, Fridays we are in Salina, and on Saturday we go to Belleville. We deliver wholesale orders to grocery stores once or twice a week in Hutchinson and to Pendleton’s Country Market about once a week in Lawrence. We have additional CSA customers in Salina, where we deliver sometimes to Prairie Land Market, and we have another bigger buyer in McPherson,” Chris says.
With that much driving and customer management, Chris and Christi are figuring out ways to scale and streamline their business. First, he says, they hope to grow their Scandia customer base with the store they are opening in the town’s downtown in 2018. The goal is to sell their produce alongside other Kansas-made products, such as soap, lotion and canned goods, to both attract more customers with a wider range of offerings and give their neighbors a way to buy their products “without having to knock on our back door to get them.”
Chris also says they’d like to grow the CSA membership enough to drop at least one farmers market, largely because the markets require either Chris or Christi to sit for hours with only the hope of sales. (Chris does, however, enjoy explaining the crops and ways to cook them to new customers, evidenced in our conversation and the fantastic tomato soup recipe he shared with me.) “Increasing the membership of our CSA would also help stabilize the situation with our larger buyers. We are dependent on them to an extent, and we’ve been stuck sitting on tomatoes for a long time when a buyer has backed out,” Chris says.
He’d also like to buy a refrigerated unit that can travel with them, making it easier to do longer delivery routes and concentrate the days off-farm delivering CSA shares. The couple also hopes to add more lots of land, but not to expand production much. “Right now, we have to carefully time and stagger our production. For example, we plant our melons in between our rows of cauliflower and broccoli. We have to get the cauliflower and broccoli out in time to create space and driveways for us to access and harvest the melons. More space would make farming less of a logistical headache for us,” Chris says.
The bulk of the farm’s work is done by Chris and Christi themselves. They hire a few young, local residents to help throughout the summers. Christi is a para at the local grade school to provide the family with health insurance while still giving her the summers off to work on the farm. Chris left Depot Market five years ago to focus full-time on the family’s operation.
As with most specialty crop producers, the Janssens have made changes based on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations. (FSMA is an FDA audit program that requires producers to meet safety standards for growing, harvesting, washing and processing produce.)
The Janssens have taken the necessary steps to become FSMA-compliant, despite being exempt for the time being. While the family expects to expand their operations, they have limits to how big they want to get. Part of their decision in pursuing compliance despite their exemption was their relationship with wholesalers. “We don’t sell to large grocery stores, who also require Good Agricultural Producers (GAP) certification for much of their products. But we can sell a pallet or two of certain crops to smaller grocery stores, and that allows us to stay mid-sized but still access wholesale markets,” Chris says.
One of the biggest pieces of advice Chris and Christi have for farmers looking to sell direct to consumers is to invest into marketing materials. C and C High Tunnels has a brochure they hand out to potential CSA members at markets and door to door in neighboring towns. “You have to spend money to make money sometimes,” Chris says. “And to stay in business, you’ll need to make money.”
Jennifer Kongs is a freelance writer with Bark Media in Lawrence, Ks. 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.