By Tom Parker
It’s one thing to sit inside a heated conference room for two days listening to experts, visionaries, politicians and entrepreneurs discuss new farm policies that boost entitlements and profits to big corporate farms while lessening support for family farms, the state’s tempestuous budget and how rural Kansas will bear the brunt, global trade agreements skewed toward making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and, on a more positive note, improvements in solar energy generation and rural economic development opportunities designed to keep small-scale producers viable, and quite another to venture outside to witness firsthand how Kansas farmers, ranchers, dairymen and livestock producers are not only dealing with changes in everything from the climate to the economy, but, in many cases, showing remarkable resilience and innovation. Which is exactly what a bus load of people did on a mid-December morning, and the outing was as refreshing as it was enlightening.
The tour, co-sponsored by the Kansas Farmers Union as the final segment of a three-day state convention held in Topeka, was a reality check that capped the convention’s theme of cultivating healthy rural communities. Other co-sponsors included Midwest Agency Insurance and North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, or SARE. The bus, filled with Farmers Union members, beginning farmers and others looking for advice, ideas and inspiration, departed the Ramada Inn parking lot on a circuitous route that took them to the Iwig Family Dairy in Tecumseh, the Lawrence Holiday Farmers Market, Bauman’s Butcher Block in Ottawa, the Brand N Iron Restaurant in Princeton, ANCO Poultry Processing and Bauman’s Farm Feeds outside of Garnett, Synergistic Acres near Parker and Grandview Livestock, also near Parker.
First stop was the Iwig Family Dairy. The dairy had been in business since 1910, but in 2004 owners Tim and Laurel Iwig took the farm to the next level by adding a dairy bottling and retail service that supplied fresh milk to local grocery stores. Recently the Iwigs shifted their marketing strategies by increasing direct sales of its products to consumers at three retail locations. In addition to bottled milk, Iwig Dairy sold flavored milks, butter and ice cream. Members were given a guided tour through the facilities and an update on the future of the business, which, Iwig said, meant a relocation to Wisconsin.
With only two weeks of Christmas shopping left, the Lawrence Holiday Farmers Market was the next logical destination. The state’s oldest, continuously-operated, producer-only farmers market was crammed into the Holidome with more than 100 vendors and uncountable numbers of Christmas shoppers. Members were advised that the bus had plenty of storage space in the hold, and then turned loose for about an hour. After the relative seclusion of the dairy, the market was a noisy, raucous affair that left members reeling from the whirlwind activity.
An early lunch was served at Princeton’s Brand N Iron. The family restaurant is part of a growing trend of businesses that use locally-sourced foods as much as possible. For instance, their meat is supplied by Bauman’s Butcher Block and the bread from a local bakery.
Following lunch, the bus made its way to Ottawa for Bauman’s Butcher Block meat-processing plant. The business, owned by members of the Bauman family, is closely aligned with nearby ANCO Poultry Processing—the state’s only on-farm USDA-inspected poultry processor—and Bauman’s Farm Feeds, which were also on the tour. The USDA-inspected meat processing plant is a relatively new endeavor for the Bauman’s, John Bauman told the group.
“It was a big jump for our family, but we have a really good crew, really talented,” he said. “This would be totally impossible without the children’s interest. We came together as a family and we all work together, but we have our own focus.”
The Bauman family’s various business enterprises are spread among the parents and six siblings, all of whom work full-time on the farm. Surprisingly, the family didn’t start farming until 2001, and even then it was with vintage or borrowed equipment. Their thrift and ingenuity could be seen in several inventive methods used in the chicken processing plant and the GMO-free grain hub, as well as a towering metal-sided barn that was just being applied the finishing touches. The barn was made from recycled and repurposed wood from another location, something that people said couldn’t be done.
“People said we couldn’t tear down a wooden building and reuse the wood, but we did it,” Bauman said. “Ivan, at 16, ran all new plumbing in the dressing shed, and he had never touched plumbing before. Like everything else on a farm, you just get started and learn your way.”
The Baumans credit their work ethic and business success on their faith. “We expect miracles to happen,” Bauman said. “When things get tough, we pray real hard and wait it out. Something usually happens.”
Farther south where the land opens up and the population thins to a scattering of houses sheltered in stands of winter-barren trees, the tour pulled into Synergistic Acres. Owners Jeff and Laura Hammons, with their two young daughters, met the group at the end of a long lane leading into their property.
The farm, according to Jeff Hammons, is a “Green Acres” story, referring to the television sitcom popular in the late 1960s where a New York city couple move to a rural farm. Prior to relocating to the country, both were teachers in Kansas City. Their quest for “good food,” which they define as something healthy that they personally wanted to eat, has so far found success in direct marketing and sales. They now raise heritage breeds of beef, pork and chicken and sell them to consumers at prices many people would have considered impossible. The ticket, Jeff Hammons said, was in finding the right customer.
“Our prices are higher,” he admitted, “but our job is to find the customer who’s right for the farm. We have a very transparent operation. Our customers have all been here and taken tours, and have seen what we do and how we do it.”
Overcoming the inevitable obstacles in creating a niche farm from the bare bones without any experience was merely part of the process, he said. “Where there’s a will, there’s way,” he said.
The final stop of the day was a few miles down the road at Grandview Livestock, owned by Greg and Ann Christiansen. They had shifted their focus to meat goats when nothing would grow but brush and weeds after the third drought in five years. Now, on an average year they have more than 600 commercial does kidding along with raising corn, soybeans, wheat, hay and cattle. Greg Christiansen is the author of “Raising Meat Goats in a Commercial Operation,” from which he draws on his 14 years of experience.
The tour returned to Topeka shortly after dark. Participants commented on the diversity of the farms, something Kansas Farmers Union member Mary Howell said was critical to the goal of the tours.
“Bus tours and farm visits are carefully planned to pair up farms with the needs of attendees so they can not only learn from those with more experience, but apply those techniques to their own farming endeavors back home,” she said. “The hosting farmers and ranchers are willing to share what they know and practice with those wanting more information.”
Bus tours also allow for extended discussion while traveling from place to place. Coupled with discussions with producers who openly share the good, the bad and the challenges they faced along the way, Kansas Farmers Union-supported bus tours are informational and inspiring.
“The path to success usually has a few obstacles to work around,” Howell said. “Often a rancher will see something on a tour and think, ‘Gee, I could do that at my place,’ and go home and try it.”