By Tom Parker
MCPHERSON, KS – Successful farming is all about timing, and for John and Karen Pendleton of rural Lawrence their start in farming couldn’t have been more auspicious.
It was, everyone said, one of the best years for agriculture they’d ever experienced. Fields were green and lush from plentiful rains that turned crops to gold and dreams to reality, prices high and markets good. “Remember this year,” neighbors told them, as if it were something rare and precious.
They were newlyweds, just returned to the family farm, both fresh out of college and ready for a new start. John’s father, while welcoming them, was blunt in agreeing to take them on. “I’d love to have you back at the farm,” he told them, “but if you don’t love it as much as I do, I’d rather not have you back.”
He needn’t have worried. John and Karen threw themselves into the place with zeal. They raised cattle and grains, irrigated their crops, watched the corn grow tall. That first year, 1979, was indeed unforgettable. It seemed they could do no wrong.
The following year was also unforgettable. The farm crisis struck, interest rates skyrocketed, grain prices collapsed due to the Russian embargo, rains stopped. For 21 days temperatures spiked to over 100 degrees. Fields browned and died. Irrigation kept their corn tall and green, but on closer inspection they found cobs without kernels. Everything went into silage to feed the cattle.
“It was a tough year,” Karen Pendleton told members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in Topeka in early January. Like so many other farmers hit hard during the crisis, they had to reinvent themselves while simultaneously thinking of new and innovative approaches to agriculture.
Their neighbors spoke of alternative crops such as strawberries or pumpkins or cut flowers, something that would get them through the hard times ahead. The Pendletons turned to asparagus. Why asparagus? “We liked it,” she said. And on that quirky, singular interest Pendleton’s Country Market took seed.
Their first half-acre was an eye-opener. They discovered that people either loved or hated asparagus, but those who loved it will drive a long way to get it. They also learned a few marketing tricks that propelled the business forward. By limiting asparagus purchases to ten pounds, they found that customers would rarely settle for less. In short order their acreage grew, and as it grew so did news of their operation.
In 1987 they were featured on the covers of Vegetable Growers and Country Woman magazines. While Pendleton would like to think it was due to their brilliant marketing strategies or her degree in public relations, it really had more to do with the nationwide plight farmers found themselves in. “In the middle of the farm crisis, every story was sad or bad about farmers,” Pendleton said. “We were a positive story in a negative world, so we received publicity we otherwise would never have gotten.”
Rhubarb became a second spring crop after customers kept asking to purchase more products. Hydroponic tomatoes were added when a neighbor retired and sold them his equipment, a move their extension agent cautioned against due to their youth and naivety. Ten thousand plants later, they were in the tomato business. They now raise about 500 pounds of tomatoes per day during season, with over 70 varieties including heirlooms and hybrids.
Bedding plants followed, but their next step—peonies—was another example of perfect timing. As their first crop matured, Martha Stewart published a gushing story about peonies as the perfect wedding perennial. Suddenly, peonies were the rage, and the Pendletons were the only ones around who had them. “We got in at the exact right time,” Pendleton said. “Now they constitute a third of our business, with the other two thirds in vegetables and flowers.”
With so many customers flocking to the farm for a real rural experience, the Pendletons instituted pick-your-own produce and dig-your-own sweet and Irish potatoes days. From there it branched out into agri-tourism, complete with a butterfly pavilion, seasonal pumpkin patches with their signature no-left-turn maze, workshops for dried wreaths and decorative projects and the all-time favorite: a stock tank filled with kernels of corn. “Kids love it,” she said, “but when adults get in it’s almost impossible to get them out. They’re like little kids again.”
Three years ago they started a CSA catering to preschools, Douglas County employees and others. Unlike traditional CSAs where customers get whatever the farm is producing at the time, punchcards allow customers to purchase produce from their booth at the Lawrence farmers market as well as through the CSA. “That way people get what they want,” she said.
Their three children were integral to farming operations, Pendleton said. The oldest daughter, Liz, focused on educational programs at the farm; she now teaches in Lawrence. Margaret was the salesperson of the family, outgoing and gregarious, and like her mother has a degree in public relations. Will, the entomologist of the family and the instigator of the butterfly pavilion, is a graduate student at K-State with a degree in engineering. None of them, however, have expressed interest in returning to the farm.
Like many other farmers whose children have decided to seek employment elsewhere, the Pendletons are searching for others, mostly young people and beginning farmers, to eventually take over operations to ensure the continuation of the farm. Their own experiences in non-traditional markets and specialty crops is something of a blueprint for what they’re looking for in likely candidates, but uppermost in their minds is the memory of what John’s father told them when they were first starting out.
“The idea keeps coming back whenever we talk to bring this up,” Pendleton said. “If you don’t love the farm as much as we do, don’t bother.”