Returning to the Land: Diversification, family, and community lay foundation for success

By Tom Parker

Jay Schwinn was living the American dream as a Merrill Lynch executive when the entire U.S. financial sector imploded in 2008. After being bought out, he called his brother, Joe, asking if he could use a partner on his small vegetable farm outside Leavenworth, Kan. His brother, while apologetic, was firm: no way could they could grow enough vegetables to support the two of them.

Fair enough, Jay thought, vegetables are out. But what about something else, something non-vegetative, something that would both complement the farm and enhance its profitability? With a half-formed idea percolating through his head, he booked a flight back to a life he thought he had left behind.

Jay Schwinn of Schwinn Produce Farm and Barn, slices watermelon for those on last month

Jay Schwinn, of Schwinn Produce Farm and Barn, slices watermelon for those on last month’s second Summer Fun Farm Tour.

Like Schwinn, Don and Loretta Craig, casualties of corporate consolidations, found themselves turning to an agrarian lifestyle that was both familiar and utterly baffling. As they settled into their new lives on a 20-acre hayfield in Basehor, their plans revolved around creating a homestead, not a farm, a distinction based upon an independence from everything they had worked for and believed in.

When Ed and Alice Theis founded April Valley Farms in 1956, they had 12 registered Angus females and six bred gilts, plus wheat, corn and hay under cultivation. As the farm expanded and diversified into row crop production, a registered Angus cow operation and a farrow-to-finish swine operation, three of their four sons—Mark, Jerry and Larry—are introducing new technologies that will make the farm more efficient and productive while still adhering to their father’s vision.

Their stories and their farms were the focus of the second 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.

April Valley Farms is a family diversified farming operation raising Registered Angus Cattle, crossbred hogs and crops of wheat, corn, soybeans, and hay in Leavenworth County.

April Valley Farms is a family diversified farming operation raising Registered Angus Cattle, 
crossbred hogs and crops of wheat, corn, soybeans, and hay in Leavenworth County.

For the Theis family, the secret to the success of April Valley Farms was diversification. In the beginning, though, hogs were the focus, said Mark Theis, who heads up the swine operation.

“Dad set up to market 30 hogs per week,” he said. “I was 14 years old when I learned to drive a truck of hogs to St. Joe, and we went every week. That was dad’s goal.”

Hogs, he said, provided a cushion against wildly fluctuating prices. “So you hit the highs, you hit the lows, the good, the bad, the high corn market, the low corn market—it was very unique.”

Every step of the operation is tightly managed to run on schedule, and has been since 1979. Sows are weaned on Mondays, bred on weekends, and alternated through a hot nursery to a floor-type pen for 21 days each and finished in a hoop house. “It’s like factory clockwork—boom, boom, boom,” Mark said.

The regimen, as well as carefully controlled artificial insemination and infrastructure improvements, has paid off. The farm has consistently earned premium prices on the hogs, he said.

The family has invested in facilities such as a 24-sow farrowing building with a caged nursery, a cattle handling chute equipped with electronic scales, and other infrastructure.

April Valley Farms buildings.

For the Theis family, the secret to the success of April Valley Farms was diversification.

The row crop operation is headed by Larry. Due to the size of their operation—they farm land for 48 individuals across several counties in addition to growing corn, soybeans and wheat on their own land—they’ve turned to technology to become more efficient. Grid sampling and yield monitors have allowed them to save money and time, he said.

Jerry Theis heads up the cow side of the operation but, in a pinch, everyone helps out as needed. “We’re all responsible in some ways for everything when it’s crunch time,” he said.

Having their children and grandchildren assist them has made the farm even more productive, he said. “There’s a spot for everybody, and everybody’s needed,” he said.

Schwinn Produce Farm equipment

Joe Schwinn outlines labor-saving equipment used in specialty crop production.

The second stop of the morning, Schwinn Produce Farm, is owned by the Schwinn brothers, Jay and Joe. It can best be understood as two separate businesses sharing the same acreage. Standing in the parking lot in front of a picturesque barn, Joe pointed to an area behind the tour participants.

“We grew up around 1,800 feet from here,” he said. “When I was five and Jay was eight, we started selling sweet corn and tomatoes on the corner. The new highway wasn’t there so this was the main road. Our first summer we each made $20 to take to the county fair. We thought we were big time.”

After Jay went to work at nearby April Valley Farms, Joe kept working the vegetable patch. “It was a 4-H project that just kept going,” he said. He earned a horticulture degree from K-State, built a greenhouse and borrowed money to buy a sprayer, just in time for a drought. It was his introduction to farming on a larger scale.

That was in 1991. Since then, a greenhouse and two hoop houses have been added for starting transplants and bedding plants. Most of the produce is sold at the Leavenworth farmers market, which, Joe said, has been a mixed blessing. “The good news is that the Leavenworth farmers market has gotten real good,” he said. “The bad news is that the Leavenworth farmers market has gotten real good. We don’t sell a lot at the farm anymore.”

The Barn at Schwinn Produce

The Barn at Schwinn Produce Farm is 4500 square feet and accommodates approximately 250 guests.

Branching off into pick-your-own strawberries and pumpkins has been successful, but again, not without conflicts—namely, the big barn that dominates the view.

The 4,500-square-foot barn was Jay’s idea, based on a similar idea of a friend’s. Named, appropriately, the Barn at Schwinn Produce, the timber frame and wood peg structure is the centerpiece of a wedding venue that includes a small cottage for brides, a photo-worthy sunflower patch and an outdoor ceremony area carpeted with turf. More than 80 weddings were held there last year, and this year every weekend is booked including others throughout the week.

Schwinn Produce Farm

The Leavenworth County farm struggles to balance its U-Pick operation and the barn’s special events.

“The barn’s been very good to us from a business standpoint,” Joe said, “but it’s kind of hurt us from an agricultural standpoint because we can’t do U-pick as much as we’d like to.” The single parking lot, while extensive, isn’t large enough to handle wedding parties and pick-your-own customers simultaneously, so the Schwinns are looking for additional ground for expansion.

First, though, Joe would like to see an improvement in the weather.

“I’d like to see a May and June where it doesn’t rain every day,” he said.

Prairie Garden Farm

Loretta Craig supplements the chickens’ pasture-based diet with sprouted grains at Prairie Garden Farm.

The third stop of the day was at Prairie Garden Farm, owned by Don and Loretta Craig. A long driveway leading to their home skirted a fenced field dotted with chickens. In the center of the field stood a large chicken tractor.

The Craigs, both West Point graduates and retired military veterans, were working in the private sector when the stock market crashed. After Don accepted a job offer in Basehor, they began looking for a suitable place to live. For them, the metropolitan area held no allure, nor did its clusters of subdivisions. “I knew I wouldn’t do well living in a subdivision because I wasn’t interested in spraying my dandelions,” Loretta said.

Prairie Garden Farm

Don Craig discusses the value of the farm’s BCS walk-behind tractor.

Becoming homesteaders wasn’t intentional, but an evolution triggered by a visit to a World War I museum. There, hanging on the wall, was an old poster depicting a woman scattering seeds through a plowed field, her flowing dress patterned with Stars and Stripes. “Sow the seeds of Victory!” the banner proclaimed. “Plant & raise your own vegetables.”

It was, Loretta said, something of an epiphany.

“I was already disillusioned by the financial crash and by how the corporate system failed us,” she said, “so when I saw that poster about how the U.S. government was trying to empower the average citizen to be self-sufficient, to be responsible for themselves, to be reciprocal to their community, I was like, this is life-changing.”

So life-changing, in fact, that Loretta’s immersion into Victory Gardens has made her something of an expert. She now offers presentations to groups and organizations who wish to know more or to incorporate them into their own lifestyles.

Victory Gardens were critical on the home front during the two world wars, she said, and their importance hasn’t diminished over the years. They were also more encompassing than their patriotic title suggested.

“Our gardens are a little bit of everything,” she said. Vegetables were only a part of the equation. Meat was a secondary consideration, and while the couple debated adding either sheep or cattle, they ended up with cattle and a sheep dog, followed in short order by chickens.

Prairie Garden Farm

After the loss of almost thirty chickens in one afternoon by a neighborhood dog,
the couple recently replace poultry netting with wire fence

Don had some experience on his grandfather’s farm in upstate New York, and he knew how to drive a tractor, but that was the extent of their farming knowledge. The learning curve was both exhilarating and frustrating. “It’s been like drinking water from a fire hose these past six years,” Loretta said. “We’ve done things wrong, but we’re learning.”

“Anything worth doing is worth doing wrong the first time,” Don quipped.

This year, the Craigs were awarded a grant through the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund which will go toward a U-pick blackberry operation.

“We’re still as passionate about it as we were six years ago,” Loretta said. “We couldn’t afford to do it without Don’s salary, and we still have to prove that it’s sustainable. But one thing we do now is sit down in the winter to a lot of meals where everything was raised by ourselves. And that is an empowering feeling.”

Prairie Garden Farm Turkeys

Pasture-raised turkeys are a recent addition to Prairie Garden Farm.

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.

2016-11-10T21:59:51+00:00