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Archive for Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Farmers pool produce to meet needs of growing customer base

March 26, 2003

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For the past 10 years, a collective of diehard vegetable gardeners has been pooling their harvests to provide paid subscribers with a weekly bag of organically grown produce.

The Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance, which serves about 300 customers in the Lawrence and Kansas City areas each gardening season, is now a legend among gardeners in northeast Kansas. What incites envy among folks who have garden soil under their nails is that a group of people who love to garden could find a way to do it for a living.

"I'm not so much a farmer who's diversified as a backyard gardener who's gone crazy," said Bob Lominska, this year's president of the group.

Lominska and his wife, Joy, who grow their veggies at Hoyland Farm in southern Jefferson County, will collaborate in the Rolling Prairie effort with five other large-scale gardeners this year. In mid-May they will have bags of vegetables available for pickup twice a week at the Community Mercantile in Lawrence and at the Franklin Center and Food Bin in Kansas City, Kan.

Paul Johnson, one of the growers, gardens east of Perry Lake. He said some of Rolling Prairie's customers may be looking for organic produce, but that wasn't the main attraction for most people who buy subscriptions.

"I think the freshness and the seasonality of it is in every way as important as the organic," Johnson said. "The customers are happy to know and deal with the people who actually grow their food."

You get the feeling that the structure of the organization is relaxed. Lominska says that two of Rolling Prairie's growers are taking a sabbatical this year; the presidency is rotated. The group also is diversified in what the growers plant.

"We each have things that grow particularly well for us, for whatever reason," he said.

Growers who have more space will get the sweet-corn detail; others specialize in certain crops, such as Oriental vegetables, berries and salad greens.

But once you make a commitment to provide produce on a fixed schedule to hundreds of customers, Lominska concedes that a certain amount of flexibility disappears.

"It's different from the Farmers Market, where if you have a bad week, you just don't go," he said. "We've got to be able to give people their $12.50 worth of produce every week for more than 20 weeks."

Lominska said he and his wife increased five-fold the amount they planted after they made the transition from Farmers Market to Rolling Prairie. That is one bit of insurance against letting customers down.

"We overplant, for sure," he said.

The growers do multiple plantings of customer favorites, such as tomatoes and beans. That way, if one grower has a crop failure, others can compensate.

The problem with this strategy comes when everyone has a good crop and the growers have to scramble to sell their excess vegetables to restaurants and grocery stores. This concern gets factored into the planting strategy as well.

"Green beans are something everybody likes. They're a pain to pick a lot of, but you can always get rid of them," Lominska said.

The growers also have to ignore the weather. Last year's drought made watering a challenge, Lominska said, but with customers waiting, the growers still had to produce crops. For their part, the Lominskas drew pond water for irrigation.

In our recent conversations, I prodded a bit about whether having to meet the delivery schedule didn't take some of the pleasure out of gardening. Johnson acknowledged that his former hobby definitely had become more of a business, but he noted other rewards.

"To me, the passion's still there because of the relationships you build up over the years with customers and the enthusiasm they have for our produce," he said.

Rolling Prairie is enrolling customers now and information is available on the Internet at rollingprairie.net. Johnson is the contact for customers who want a full bag of produce and he can be reached at (785) 597-5858. Stu Shafer oversees the list of customers who want the economy bag, which costs $8.50 and contains about two-thirds the volume of the regular weekly allotment. His number is (785) 597-5510.

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