By Tom Parker

After two tours of combat in Iraq, U.S. Army Major Ty Martin was feeling the strain. Though he wasn’t exhibiting clinical symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he was, in his words, “wrapped sort of tight.” This was particularly troubling because his pending retirement from the service gave him qualms about transitioning back into civilian life.

Recognizing the symptoms, a close friend, Ron Ward, suggested a hobby to help him relax. Under other circumstances it might have been merely a well-meaning though hackneyed gesture, but Martin trusted Ward enough to suit up in protective gear and follow him into a field dotted with beehives. As his friend opened a hive, Martin peered inside at the seething mass of bees and knew that he had found his true calling.

It was a sentiment that Ken DeVan fully understood. DeVan, a retired colonel with 28 years of active duty and three combat tours under his belt, was trying to reintegrate with a society that had no concept what he had witnessed and endured. Like a growing number of combat veterans, many of them young, all he wanted was to be left alone with his family and a small plot of land where he could raise his own food—and in particular, blueberries.

“We blew things up and destroyed things,” DeVan said. “Now we want to nurture things.”

Martin and DeVan’s stories and their farms, along with Sarah Hoffmann’s sheep dairy in the rolling hills of western Missouri, were the focus of the third Summer Fun Farm Tour, sponsored in part by Kansas Farmers Union and the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Kansas. Three tours were planned for August, each comprising three different urban or semi-rural farms in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area. Afternoon presentations on topics such as the basics of grant-writing, new regulations on food safety for produce growers and business planning followed meals prepared using vegetables and meats supplied by the local producers. There was no cost for the tours.

Summer Fun Farm Tour Three, August 29, 2016 Green Dirt Farm owner Sarah Hoffmann founded the farm in 2002 after leaving the medical field.

Green Dirt Farm owner Sarah Hoffmann founded the farm in 2002 after leaving the medical field.

The first stop of the morning was Green Dirt Farm, Weston, Mo. Owner Sarah Hoffmann, who founded the farm in 2002 after leaving the medical field, met the tour participants at the road and walked them uphill to a building that housed the milking parlor.

In her introduction, Hoffmann described the operation as a grass-based sheep dairy and a cheese and yogurt-making business. The distinction was significant, she said.

“That’s unusual for dairy farming, and there are good reasons for it,” she said. “It’s hard economically to be grass-based because it’s a very inefficient way to do farming. It’s more efficient to keep animals in a barn and just move them short distances to be milked.”

The benefits of a grass-based operation trump whatever inefficiencies might exist, she said. A diverse grass-based diet concentrates more flavor compounds in milk, giving their dairy products more flavor, and it’s also more humane to the animals. “The animals get to be outside on pasture the way they evolved,” she said. In addition, intensive rotational grazing sequesters carbon in the grass, prevents soil erosion, protects the watershed and builds topsoil.

Eliza Spertus, Green Dirt Farm manager

Eliza Spertus, the farm’s manager, explains the twice a day milking process.
Currently there are fewer than 100 sheep dairies in the United States.

Hoffmann’s sheep are grazed on 150 acres, of which 60 acres are pasture consisting of various species of grasses, alfalfa, legumes, clovers fescues and forbs. The reasons for that diversity are twofold, she said. Not only does it protect the land from climate extremes, but it also provides more flavor to the sheep’s milk.

A sheep dairy is something of a rarity, Hoffmann said. Currently there are fewer than 100 sheep dairies in the United States.

“Cows can produce upwards of 10 gallons of milk per day,” she said, “but dairy sheep are low-volume producers, which is probably why historically sheep dairying never really caught on in the U.S. However, the U.S. imports 95 percent of the sheep dairy products that we consume, so there’s definitely a market there. We just have to figure out how to make it an economically sustainable market.”

Improving the production of their dairy herd would go a long way toward making the farm economically sustainable, she said, but for the past 15 years European borders have been closed to new genetics. (Hoffmann’s sheep produce only about a third of what European breeds do.) Change might be on the way, however. The Dairy Sheep Association of North America, of which the farm is a member, is spearheading the importation of improved dairy genetics from France.

“We’re going to be able to take advantage of those importations and improve the production of our flock,” she said.

Tour participants inspected the milking parlor and the production facility before heading back into Kansas to Leavenworth County and Oregon Trail Farm, owned by retired colonel Ken and Cindy DeVan.

Summer Fun Farm Tour: Oregon Trail Farm

Ken DeVan, Oregon Trail Farm, explains the irrometer he uses to monitor moisture levels
around his blueberry plants, which are especially moisture sensitive. The DeVans added a
drip irrigation system to all 27 rows of berries containing 1,000 plants including
five varieties of blueberries that bloom at different times in summer.

DeVan, president of the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Kansas, decided to specialize in berries after sampling you-pick farms from the East Coast to the Southwest and throughout Europe. The irony of returning to farming after a military career wasn’t lost on him, he said. “I joined the Army to get off the farm, and now here I am,” he said.

Blueberries are finicky, he discovered. They don’t like a lot of fertilizer, don’t like wet feet, don’t like to dry out, and they don’t like the encroachment of weeds. The military, however, had taught him logistics, so preparation for the beds began a year in advance. He amended the soil with a combination of horse manure from nearby stables and over 10,000 pounds of coffee grounds and chaff, and meticulously—“religiously” in his words—monitored the soil’s pH levels through soil sampling.

“Blueberries require acidic soil and are very sensitive to the amount of water they get,” he said. “Getting the pH right is critical for blueberries.”

Summer Fun Farm Tour: Oregon Trail Farm raspberries

Markers identify the 27 rows of berries at Oregon Train Farm,
a U-Pick berry operation near Leavenworth run by Ken and Cindy DeVan.

Weeds were a particularly troubling problem, especially because herbicides aren’t used. After deciding to lay down a barrier of wood chips to help block weeds, he realized he needed a lot of them—ultimately, thanks to the services of numerous tree trimming companies, more than 70 tons worth.

The application, while reasonably effective, was fairly short-lived, he said. Wood chips rapidly rot into compost, which while beneficial to the soil leave the plants susceptible to encroachment. Experiments in heavy-duty weed barriers showed promise, so DeVan intends to begin the slow process of lining the beds with a more permanent solution.

In 2013, DeVan added a drip irrigation system to all 27 rows of berries, which comprise 1,000 plants with five varieties of blueberries that bloom at different times of the year, and raspberries.

It’ll be another year before DeVan starts pruning, but he’s not in a hurry. One of the biggest mistakes people make is when they prune too early, he said. And anyway, there’s plenty of work to keep them busy. “We’re still knocking the blooms off blueberries because we can’t keep up,” he said.

Hillside Honey Apiary is a veteran family-owned and operated business based at Easton

Hillside Honey Apiary is a veteran family-owned and operated business based at Easton’s old high school.

The final tour of the day was in nearby Easton, where Ty and Shelly Martin’s Hillside Honey Apiary can be found in the town’s old high school. The original business, Hillside Honey, was founded by Ron and Beth Ward in 1990, who got Martin into beekeeping in 2007 after his second combat tour in Iraq. Plans for opening an indoor shooting range together fell apart when Ron was killed in an accident, Martin said.

“After I got back, I had no desire to do a gun range anymore,” he said. “We’ve always been interested in homesteading and gardening, we’ve always had chickens, and now we got into bees to take care of the garden.”

Following Ron’s death, his wife offered the business to the Martins. Overnight they went from owning three hives to 80.

At about the same time, they contacted the city of Easton about the possibility of renting out a portion of the old high school for a food cooperative to supply elderly people with fresh vegetables. It seemed like a win-win situation for everyone involved, but the city refused to consider a rental agreement. Instead, they offered to sell it to the highest bidder.

“We didn’t really want to be the owners of an old school,” Martin said. “Old schools are money pits.”

Nevertheless, they bid on the school and won. Seventeen thousand dollars got them a 90,000 square foot building with six acres. Since then, Martin learned that his initial observation was correct: “We’re about $55,000 into it now, so, yes, it’s a money pit,” he said.

Summer Fun Farm Tour: Hillside Honey

While most beekeepers direct market their honey, Hillside Honey seeks to produce a wide-ranging assortment of goods.

A commercial kitchen for the beekeeping business was first priority.

“Farmers markets are great for hobbies, but at a certain point you have to decide whether you’re going to just enjoy your hobby and get what you can out of it, or make it a business,” he said. “Now you have to have a certified kitchen, and they can cost a lot of money. Fortunately, we already had the building so that was the easy part.”

Most beekeepers sell their products from their desk or farmers markets or roadside stands, he said. Hillside Honey takes a different approach, one involving a wide-ranging and diverse assortment of goods.

“We have six or seven items in product development right now,” he said. “Some of it’s honey oriented, some of it’s service oriented. You have to diversify as a honey company. You can’t compete with honey that’s produced for a dollar a pound and sold on the open market from Brazil or Argentina. Last year Americans consumed almost 500 million pounds of honey, but America produced only about 136 millions pounds of honey. Thats a big difference.”

Summer Fun Farm Tour: Hillside Honey

Ty Martin, retired Army Major, said he plans to turn the schoolhouse into a heritage center where people can
learn about homesteading skills such as beekeeping, blacksmithing, canning, and animal husbandry.

Ultimately, Martin said, it all comes down to understanding demographics.

“At the end of the day, honey is a condiment,” he said. “No matter how good I think my honey is, or where it came from, honey is still just a condiment. Which means you have to tell your story. It’s not about the product, it’s about the experience. People want to meet the producer and hear how he got into the business. Sell them the local honey, but sell them the experience.”

That experience could include classes on blacksmithing, canning, animal husbandry, beekeeping and other homesteading skills, he said. Nearby Fort Leavenworth has a large contingent of active duty military who want to get into the homesteading arts and farming when they get out, he said, and the school would be the perfect location.

“That’s our long-term goal,” Martin said. “We may get there and we may not. Meanwhile, I have bees, and I’ll try not to get stung.”

Summer Fun Farm Tour: Hillside Honey hive

According to Martin, Americans consumed almost 500 million pounds of honey in 2015;
American beekeepers are no where near meeting demand as they produced only about 136 millions pounds.

The Summer Fun Farm Tour Series was 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.