Three Sisters Success Story from SCCC Specialty Crop Incubator Program
By Charity Horinek
Part two in a three-part series about successful specialty crop growers in Southwest Kansas.
Three Sisters Specialty Crop Growers in Liberal, Kansas, began life in an unusual way – it was the result of a class and program offered at Seward County Community College. “We were made aware of the Specialty Crop Incubator Program at SCCC and decided to be a part, not because we wanted to sell produce or start a business, but because we enjoyed growing things,” said Donna Apsley, co-owner of Three Sisters Specialty Crop Growers with her husband, Travis Apsley.
The program, called SCIP for short, was funded by a Kansas Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant that allowed the college to create “incubator plots” and teach area residents how to grow and profit from specialty crops. “In January 2016, we enrolled in SCIP and were allowed a plot that measured a bit less than a quarter acre, and we planned our crops and planted as best we knew how,” Apsley said. “That first year, we probably looked a wreck, not really knowing what we were doing, but hoping we could get something to grow!” The Apsleys named their burgeoning business “Three Sisters” for two reasons, according to Donna.
“We are parents to three incredible daughters,” she said. “We derived our business name from the American Indian legend of the three ‘sisters’ that lived together — corn, beans, and squash. These sisters supported each other, grew alongside one another, and gave back what the others needed to thrive. We would like to think that we have raised our own daughters in the same manner.” But, she noted, that doesn’t mean they are limited to three crops.
“As specialty crop growers, we may not plant our crops specifically in Native American tradition, but we do strive to grow in such a way that our customers know that great care is put into everything we do,” Apsley said.
Three Sisters Specialty Crop Growers primarily sells its products through the Liberal Farmers Market, she said. They grow and sell cool season crops such as lettuces, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage; warm season crops including onions, garlic, several kinds of tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, many kinds of peppers, winter squashes, pumpkins, and okra; and bedding plants. The Apsleys utilize social media marketing to entice customers to come to the Farmers Market.
”As far as marketing is concerned, we sell freshly harvested produce, and not everyone likes to buy produce that they have to prepare themselves. We may have items in our market booth that people don’t recognize or know how to cook. A key for us at market is education,” she said. “We had better know what we’re talking about when a customer asks us what something is, how do you cook it, what does it taste like, et cetera.”
Southwest Kansas differs from other regions of the state both in population and climate, which can provide particular challenges and opportunities for specialty crop growers. “Southwest Kansas is home to so many different peoples and backgrounds. Everyone eats, but some eat differently than others,” Apsley said. “If a grower doesn’t want to plant tomatoes and cucumbers, there are so many other nationalities the grower can cater to, allowing those customers to find foods from their own culture.”
Their first year proved successful enough that they enrolled in January 2017 for a second year at SCCC in SCIP. “We were allowed the same plot, as well as an area within a high tunnel – approximately 120 linear feet — which we could utilize,” Apsley said. “This allowed us to extend our season by growing and harvesting earlier. We also invested in some flower plugs so that we could have bedding flowers available at the local farmer’s market.”
The incubator program not only taught them the basics of a specialty crop business, but it provided a soft landing for mistakes they could learn from. “We are also much smarter! The first year was truly a learning experience,” she said. “We were able to take our successes and failures from the first year, and use that knowledge to work smarter, not harder the second year.”
The couple’s life has changed in more ways than one, Apsley said, since starting their business. “We sure work a lot more! We’ve both lost weight, become physically stronger, and oh, what a tan!” she said. “Farming isn’t easy, and the weather certainly does not always cooperate. But we enjoy it more than anything we’ve ever done. It provides a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.”
One of the biggest benefits to starting their business has been growing not just food, but relationships. “It seems to me that having a specialty crops business is as much about community as it is farming,” Apsley said. “We have built relationships with people we had never met before, people we would otherwise have never known. I now feel responsible to grow and provide the best produce I can because these people are important to me.”
Having outgrown the SCCC plots, the Apsleys have set a goal to be growing on their own property in 2018. “We would like to erect some high tunnels for season extension, and also plant fruit trees and
a variety of berries. The whole big dream also includes honeybees and chickens!” she said. “Our current greatest challenge is finding a place to grow. We feel we have expanded past the point of growing on SCCC property and we need to be out on our own. We need to sell our house in town so that we can buy a bit of acreage, but the real estate market is so slow right now that we’re kind of spinning our wheels.”
Three Sisters has plans for expansion, hoping to venture into Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in the near future, and gaining the certifications necessary to be able to sell directly to local schools and other institutions.
“When we have our own property we will also make available some perennial crops such as asparagus and rhubarb,” Apsley said. Another area of expansion will include value-added products. In 2017, the company did start with offering homemade granola at the first Farmers Markets.
“We had little-to-nothing to sell for a few weeks, so I made some granola to fill out the table,” she said. “It sold! Woo-hoo! People came back for more! Woo-hoo! I didn’t have granola available the second year, simply because we were doing a better job of having produce available.”
With value-added product expansion, of course, comes more paperwork. “Again, there is the matter of certifications and licensing requiredto do some things, and we’re trying to take this one step at a time and not grow faster than we can handle,” Apsley said. But she sees a bright future for specialty crop businesses in Southwest Kansas.
“Generally speaking, I think that people want to eat well, buy fresh, and support their local businesses,” she said. “In our area of the state, these venues are just starting to open up. I feel like we have kind of been the pioneers out here, and hopefully others will see that a specialty crops business is a viable option here in Southwest Kansas.”
Three Sisters Specialty Crop Growers has a Facebook page under its business name, and an Instagram account (3sistersgrow). “Follow us to watch our progress,” Apsley said. “This journey has been and continues to be an exciting one, and we enjoy sharing it with others.”
Charity Horinek of Sublette, Kansas, is working on KRC’s Feeding Southwest Kansas Food and Farm Assessment. Telling the stories of specialty crop producers and local food businesses in the region is part of the research for the report.