KRC: Tunnel to Table -Features two county businesses

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.

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Depot Market – Courtland

Depot Market: Scaling to Wholesale with Specialty Crops in North Central Kansas

Fourth in a series of five farmer feature profiles distributed by the Kansas Rural Center

By Jennifer Kongs

Most specialty crop operations in Kansas rely heavily on direct-to-consumer sales. While several farmers are specializing and scaling to provide to institutional and wholesale purchasers, one of the largest and to-date most successful is Depot Market in Courtland, Kansas, run by Dan Kuhn and his wife, Kathy. Currently, the farm’s sales are nearly 80 percent to wholesale outlets. But that’s not how Kuhn got started and isn’t where he intends to keep growing.

Kuhn wanted to be a farmer, “but I was raised as a city kid in Shawnee. After attending KU, I went to K-State and farmed some orchards nearby. When I graduated, I had an opportunity to work on an orchard north of Courtland, so I moved here and started working for that orchard, then started farming for myself,” Kuhn says. In 1989, he and his wife bought 1.5 acres and the old Santa Fe Depot in Courtland, renovated it, and moved it to the property alongside Highway 36, where it still sits today. The site houses a retail store, vegetable washing/packing house and walk-in cooler (added in 2010), and is a convenient location for deliveries and pickups.

“We started with apples, including you-pick, all through the ’80s, but moved away from them toward vegetables as the market shifted. We raised seven kids and lived below poverty level for a long time. My wife did some teaching and for a few winters I worked at a meat-packing plant to pay bills,” Kuhn says. The family relied on borrowing from the bank when needed and organic growth to scale. “I didn’t start with anything. I had no land and wasn’t from here. In 1981, my grandmother died and left me $12,000. We probably wouldn’t have made it without that.”

Kuhn in one of his twelve hoophouses.

It was clear on the day KRC visited that Kuhn has come a long way since the start. We walked through the washing and processing house as a truckload of freshly picked zucchini was packed and sent off for delivery. “We sell in 10 states on average each year, and pumpkins are our biggest crop. Two large chains comprised half of our total sales,” Kuhn says. “We also sell to our local guys and local peddlers and would like to grow that business, but we can’t make a dead switch and keep the farm. If we could, we’d like to have a route going through western Kansas and hit a loop to sell to those smaller markets.”

To sell at such a scale requires growing at a large scale, hiring at a large scale and dealing with a large amount of paperwork. Kuhn has 190 acres under production, and his largest pumpkin and watermelon fields, each 50-plus acres, are planted under center pivot. Kuhn manages 29 employees during pumpkin time, which grows from 12 employees earlier in the season. Two employees work full-time, year-round. In the first week of June, eight H-2A program workers were employed on the farm, living in provided housing. (The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program, sometimes referred to as “visa hiring program,” allows U.S. employers who meet specific regulatory requirements, including housing, to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary agricultural jobs.)

“The number of visa hire will increase as the season progresses. This is our 11th year hiring through the visa hiring program. We don’t really have other farmers nearby who hire through the program,” Kuhn says.

The farm is compliant with Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). GAP, required by many chains to sell into their stores, is a voluntary audit that verifies that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored in adherence to the recommendations made in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. FSMA is a separate voluntary certification overseen by the FDA, which includes a specific set of on-farm practices that must be met. By January 27, 2020, any farm where the average annual monetary value of produce the farm sold during the previous 3-year period is more than $25,000, will be required to be compliant.

“We had started selling to bigger wholesale customers who required us to get GAP certification in order to keep them as a customer,” Kuhn says. The certification is managed by one of Kuhn’s full-time employees, who also oversees bringing in a GAP auditor. This year the auditor came from Texas, so the farm pays for travel and lodging expenses on top of its certification fees each year to maintain certification and its wholesale clients. Other years the auditors have come from Kansas City, Missouri. Some of the tracking requirements include a sign-in for handwashing outside of the walk-in cooler and portable bathrooms and handwashing in the fields. Currently, GAP and FSMA are not aligned on the requirements, each with its own processes and bookkeeping stipulations.

To accommodate orders by the semi-truckload, Kuhn and his team manage 12 hoop houses, the majority filled with tomatoes: “about five varieties, one house has indeterminants.” (Indeterminate tomato varieties tend to have a longer fruiting season but their fast, continuous growth habit requires trellising and pruning in a hoop house setting.) One of the hoop houses is filled with raspberries (“a great retail crop through frost”), and one with cucumbers (“as profitable as the tomatoes”).

“We have our hoop houses located in a spot with some wind protection, which is key for this part of the state. For us, the bigger the house, the better. We put removable ends on them so we could run a tractor and farm straight through,” Kuhn says.

Kuhn has 190 acres under production including 12 hoophouses with mostly tomatoes, and sells in ten states as well as to local markets. Pumpkins are the biggest crop. Melon and squash are planted with rows of wheat as wind protection.

His watermelon field is planted with rows of wheat between the rows of melons to operate as windbreaks. The weeds are kept down with herbicides, a pre-emergent and then post-emergent applied with a shielded sprayer. For the pumpkins, “We have been working on a no-till program. Two years ago, our cover crop didn’t burn down fully and the pumpkins came up with weeds. We probably spent $40,000 hoeing them free, with as many as 18 hoes swinging at a time. The pre-emergent timing is key to preventing that sort of disaster.”

Kuhn’s fields are nestled among conventional row crops, but he hasn’t yet experienced damage from spray drift. “We haven’t been hit with drift yet, but it scares me. A group of specialty crop growers in our area, including us, put an ad in the paper about how the use of Dicamba can destroy our crops and our income,” Kuhn says. “The loss of one of our fields of pumpkins would be devastating, so especially with Dicamba, we’re nervous. We have crop insurance, but it doesn’t cover loss to spray drift.”

Kuhn says he doesn’t plan to keep growing the operation. “We are trying to switch to play smaller ball, and sell more locally and on farm.” He has his reasons. “Up until this year, we were paid a premium for being local by most of our larger wholesale customers. They ended that this year. While their marketing is local and organic everywhere, they are pulling away from local farmers, even those of us they have worked with for years,” Kuhn says. “On top of that, they make a lot of demands of us farmers, such as needing us to be in their bookkeeping systems. We pay to be in their systems. This is an additional revenue stream for them. That on top of the GAP certification makes it expensive to continue to work with them.”

The consolidation of the larger chain warehouses has not been kind to grocery stores in western, rural Kansas. “Dillons, AWG and Wal-Mart are the main outlets and their warehouses have been consolidated over the last five years. West of us, they only have one warehouse. They’re in a bad way. If you could make a delivery route work, then you could have fresh produce in the smaller grocery stores to keep customers excited and keep those smaller stores open. It will only get worse as it consolidates,” Kuhn says.

Some changes are happening to help make the transition to being smaller and more local again. The farm has brought on Mark Stadler, who is a full-time farm manager helping making some of these transitions. This year is the first year the farm is trying trellised thornless Natchez blackberries. They planted 300 bushes, the first farm in North Central Kansas to try this method of growing for a you-pick target market. The farm also planted 8 acres of asparagus intended for retail markets.

These types of innovations are not readily available in education materials for growers across the state, however; a fact not lost on the Kuhns and Stadler. “We want to teach others how to do specialty crops and teach some of the topics where extension used to be in operation,” Kuhn says. “When I was a student at K-State, I studied apples under a full-time pomologist. Students today don’t have that opportunity. Today, the extension specialist Cary Rivard is one of the only resources people know of to turn to, and he’s great, but the needs extend beyond his capacity. We need to bring more people in to share expertise, especially in the western half of the state.”

After visiting with Kuhn, it feels that the specialty-crop market is gearing up for some big changes and big decisions. What is the type of market people want to access, and what type of farmers do growers want to be? Navigating the waters of wholesale versus smaller, localized markets—and establishing the proper distribution channels and fair regulations—will play a key role, along with creating the path for farmers to learn new techniques and connect with peers to make the (likely) necessary changes to build a sustainable, ecologically diverse food and farming system.

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.

C & C High Tunnel Farm – Scandia

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 Janssens bought their first plot within Scandia, Kansas, city limits and a 5-minute walk from their front door. Shown here in July, this main plot has onions, greens, potatoes and more planted.

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.