By Tom Parker

“You can all hear the roadway, right?” asked Josh Smith, manager of Gibbs Road Farm. “It never stops, day or night. That’s a constant reminder that we live in the city.”

Smith had to raise his voice to be heard above the roar of a nearby interstate. His audience, participants in the first of three farm tours sponsored in part by the Kansas Farmers Union and the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Kansas, huddled into a tight knot around him.

Behind Smith, two young women harvested tomatoes of a half-dozen cultivars in a field bordering the highway, their slow, measured motions as timeless as civilization itself. The juxtaposition of bucolic farm scene and metropolitan speedway was jarring—and telling of the nature of urban farming, as well as its promise.

Cultivate KC

Growing Growers interns harvest tomatoes at Cultivate KC’s Gibbs Road Farm.
Just beyond the trees lies one of the metro’s busiest highways.

The idea of a two-acre farm in the heart of the Kansas City, Kan., metropolitan area might seem unusual, but it’s part of a larger push to develop strategies for the growth and sustainability of food production within urban centers. That most of these small operations are owned by young or beginning farmers is no coincidence. A staggering amount of young people are leaving the military each year, searching for jobs that would help them reintegrate with society while simultaneously tapping into their experiences and training—upwards of 300,000 annually, according to Ken DeVan, president of the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Kansas, who acted as tour guide during the day. And the timing couldn’t be better.

“The average age of the American farmer is 65 or 67, depending on who you listen to,” DeVan said. “The USDA feels that a crisis is coming. Farmers are aging and the youth are leaving the farm.”

The impending crisis has not gone unnoticed. The Kansas Department of Agriculture has initiated programs to find farming opportunities for veterans, he said, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is collaborating with the Department of Defense to match skill sets of retiring veterans to new farming options.

Regardless of whether they had previous military or farming experience, though, more and more young people are turning to farming as viable careers, and finding success on acreage once deemed too minimal to succeed.

Cultivate KC

Josh Smith, Cultivate KC’s Gibbs Road Farm manager, explains the intensive growing practices used by the organic farm.

Gibbs Road Farm was a prime example. A small rectangular slice of ground sandwiched between a residential area and I-635, the two-acre property has about an acre and a quarter in actual growing space, Smith said. It’s a far cry from Jefferson’s 640 acres or Lincoln’s infamous 40-acres-and-a-mule, both now deemed unrealistic by today’s standards. And yet farmers like Smith, DeVan and others are finding success, against the odds. Gibbs Road Farm annually maintains sales of $100,000, according to Cultivate Kansas City, making it one of the area’s largest vegetable producers.

Because of its pioneering status, the nature of urban farming appealed to Smith.

“I chose urban farming because I believe it’s one of those frontiers of agriculture that’s as unexplored as some of the other areas that we encounter,” he said.

The farm is certified organic and operates under Cultivate Kansas City, a larger umbrella organization established in 2005 with the goal of promoting urban agriculture. Since its inception, the organization has grown to seven full-time employees, numerous part-time staff and a budget of over $700,000. It’s also become active in local and state policy development, working with the city’s urban planning department and the city council to draft legislation supporting urban food production and food access.

The farm includes hoop houses, beehives and a 6,000-square-foot greenhouse partially rented to graduates of its Juniper Gardens Training Farm, a developmental program offering up to five years of hands-on training for beginning farmers or resettled refugees.

The young women harvesting tomatoes were apprentices of Growing Growers, a program Cultivate KC helped to establish which provides education to new and experienced growers through a farm apprenticeship program and an annual workshop series, Smith said.

“Each of them have their own agricultural idea, whether farming in their backyard or on nearby property that they’re developing into an economical support system, or simply to grow their own food and make themselves more sustainable,” he said. “The program here works with each of them to develop business plans and their models, to help them make connections with markets.”

Cultivate KC

The farm includes hoop houses, beehives and a 6,000-square-foot greenhouse.

Smith’s tour encompassed the entirety of the small farm and culminated at the new wash station. At the rear of the station stood a wooden contraption that immediately caught the attention of many attendees. Cell phones were brought out to record it from all angles.

“Man, that’s a salad spinner!” one woman exclaimed.

The contraption—a root crop washer—was constructed of wood slats banded together with bicycle rims and powered by a variable speed motor taken from a treadmill. “It really knocks the dirt clods off,” Smith said, “plus it cuts processing time by half.”

“That’s the fun part of agriculture,” he said. “Farmers are some of the best innovators and inventors you never hear about. We’re not just out here playing in the garden—we’re always trying to improve ourselves and become more creative and more efficient so we can spend more time with our families.”

Cultivate KC

Cultivate KC volunteers with engineering backgrounds collaborated with staff to design and build the DIY root crop washer.

The wash station was built as a preemptive measure for new government regulations being drafted on food safety and handling. The latest batch of regulations didn’t apply to a such a small-scale farm, he said, but that could change at any time.

“Urban agriculture still remains in a strange fringe of policy,” he said. “It’s hard to classify us, but at this point I don’t think the regulations have found themselves down to our scale. But I know how government works and I’ve seen it happen several times. Eventually they will find their way to us, so we’re starting to make the transition now so we’re ready when the time comes.”

The farm wasn’t perfect, Smith admitted, alluding to the deep grass matching the height of some of the crops, but he reminded the participants that it was mid-summer.

“We work pretty intensively year round,” he said. “We grow almost 365 days out of the year. We stay busy.”

Cultivate KC

The wash station was recently added as a response to potential Food Safety Modernization Act regulation.

If Gibbs Road Farm was urban farming with a strong emphasis on urban, JET Produce and Meats in Leavenworth was the exact opposite. The farm was situated atop a grassy ridge dropping away on three sides with expansive views of rolling hills and wooded valleys, and yet it was very much in an urban setting. On one side of the road cattle wandered through knee-deep grass while on the other sheep moved away from the crowd as they spilled from the bus. A half-finished McMansion rose on the near horizon, its skeletal frame a promise of encroaching civilization.

Owners Jacob and Jennifer Thomas started small—three-quarters of an acre of marginal land on his family’s livestock and grain farm. That first year he made $2,000 selling vegetables and vegetables. The second year he expanded his operation and made $5,000. “And ever since then we’ve basically doubled it each year,” he said. “I thought, this is great! I can do this.”

JET Produce and Meats

Jacob and Jennifer Thomas operate JET Produce and Meats located in Leavenworth County.

The success of the vegetable sales surprised him and his wife, but not nearly as much as it did his father. Jacob’s father dealt with livestock and grain in the evenings after working at a full-time job in town. When Jacob returned home after graduating from college—itself something of a sticking point following heated discussions about his parents’s admonitions to seek career opportunities elsewhere—his work in the vegetable patch and his Saturday mornings at the farmers market took him away from regular farm chores. What might have turned into a simmering dispute was softened when Jacob asked his father to assist him one Saturday morning.

“My father was shocked,” he said. He was also an experienced farmer and recognized a good thing when he saw it. He offered Jacob more acreage to expand his operation, using smaller fields of highly erodible land that could be controlled by grass strips every 100 feet.

With the assistance of his father and uncle, the young couple expanded into Angus cattle and cage-free chickens. Duroc and Berkshire pigs, renowned for their exceptional flavor, are pasture raised on the farm as well as Katahdin and Painted Desert sheep. The farm rents about 700 acres of hay ground, mostly native prairie, which is used for grazing as well as hay.

JET Produce and Meats

Davey Thomas, Jacob’s uncle; Dale Thomas, Jacob’s father; Jacob Thomas; and Ken DeVan share a laugh with Summer Fun Farm Tour attendees on August 1.

The success of JET Produce and Meats lies in part on nearby Fort Leavenworth with its steady influx of students and staff from around the world. Understanding that market, however, took some time.

“People rotate out of Fort Leavenworth school every June, so we lose a third of our customers then,” Thomas said. “New customers haven’t received their kitchen equipment yet, so they’re not buying. It’s interesting trying to plan around a whole lot of produce in May, not a lot in June, and a whole lot in July.”

That first year, he said, much of June’s produce went into compost or to the chickens.

JET Produce and Meats

Thomas said diversifying into direct-marketed meats has increased the farm’s profitability.

The addition of lamb has been popular among officers at Fort Leavenworth, many of whom hail from cultures where the meat is a staple. The farm’s lambs are bred specifically for meat and are grazed on native grass until they weigh between 120 and 150 pounds. “Customers like big chops,” Thomas said.

The vegetable and fruit side of the operation has continued to expand with the addition of added acreage and hoop houses. The latter are used for chard, lettuce, kale, broccoli and tomatoes. Ninety percent of the farm’s products are sold retail, with another 10 percent sold wholesale. And considering that for the most part Jacob and Jennifer do the bulk of the labor, that’s about all they can handle, he said.

Green Thumbs Up

Green Thumbs Up partners John Edmonds and Austin Reynolds operate separate farms about one mile apart in Leavenworth.

Nearby Green Thumbs Up Produce is another small-scale vegetable farm owned and operated by two young growers. Austin Reynolds and his partner, John Edmonds, each with separate farms about one mile apart, graduated from college in 2012 and 2011, respectively, but when they failed to find careers in their chosen fields, they turned to their roots in agriculture. Though not a certified organic farm, they fertilize with compost and manure only, growing vegetables and specialty crops such as ginger in small greenhouses and high tunnels.

“We’re not a ginormous operation,” Edmonds said. “We like to grow unusual stuff, like ginger and Cinderella pumpkins. If you go to the farmers market, you want to offer something you can’t find at Walmart.”

Beside leaf vegetables and 30 to 40 varieties of tomatoes, the two produce specialty colored peppers, berries, peaches, green beans, radishes, pumpkins, decorative gourds and cucumbers, among others. They market their crops at farmers markets in Leavenworth and Overland Park as well as wholesale through Fresh Farm HQ.

Green Thumbs Up

Edmonds adapted an unused dairy barn, as well as adding a new high tunnel, to grow tomatoes.

Grafted tomatoes are a specialty that produces bigger and better tomatoes, Edmonds said.

“We cut off the tops and graft them onto more vigorous root stock,” he said. “They’re extremely vigorous, more productive, more disease resistant, more labor.”

Most of the grafted tomatoes are grown in a new greenhouse appended to the side of an old dairy barn. A footpath where cattle are led to a nearby field bisects the barn and greenhouse, creating a sort of open-air foyer. Someday, Edmonds said, he hopes to turn the barn into a big walk-in cooler.

The two demonstrated techniques for growing heirloom and grafted tomatoes on trellises and gave tours of their greenhouses.

  • National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame
  • Farm Fresh HQ presentation
  • K-State Research and Extension–Douglas County Horticulture Agent Marlin Bates

Following the tours, lunch was served at the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs. The day’s educational session focused on the Food Safety Modernization Act and what it might mean for farms with K-State Research and Extension–Douglas County Horticulture Agent Marlin Bates.

The purpose of the farm tours was to give people new ideas to explore, DeVan said.

“Four years ago, Jacob Thomas was scratching his head trying to figure out what to do,” he said. “Two college students both got degrees, one in anthropology and the other in history, and they couldn’t find jobs. So they all went back to what they had been doing—farming. Maybe some of you are scratching your heads wondering what to do. Maybe some of these individuals can you can give some idea.”

Mercedes Taylor-Puckett, Kansas Farmers Union, also thinks the model used by JET and Green Thumbs Up is an important one to highlight.

“Purchasing land is a roadblock for many beginning farmers. This type of complementary production and farm diversification holds great promise for both peri-urban and rural areas. Row crop farms cannot typically support the next generation in addition to the current operators,“ she said. “By putting under-used areas of the farm into specialty crop production and adapting currently unused infrastructure, it may be possible for young people to return to the farm and make a living while also improving the supply of locally-grown fruit, vegetables, and meats.”

The Summer Fun Farm Tour Series runs every other Monday in August and includes stops across the northeastern region of the state, a local foods lunch, networking, and an educational session. Tours are free but registration is required. Registration can be made online at kansasfarmersunion.com, or by phone by contacting Mary Howell at 785-562-8726.

The Summer Fun Farm Tour Series is made possible through funding from Farm Aid and a Frontier Farm Credit sponsorship. Tour partners include Kansas Farmers Union, Farmer Veteran Coalition of Kansas, Kansas Beginning Farmers Coalition, Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, and Kansas AgrAbility.

Summer Fun Farm Tour Series Sponsors

Kansas Farmers Union is the state’s oldest active general farm organization working to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life for family farmers and ranchers and rural communities. We believe family ownership of farm land is the basis for the world’s most viable system of food and fiber production, and that maintaining this family farm system will preserve our natural and human resources.