Farmers finding bigger profits by selling locally
On the street
Maybe half right now. We buy a lot of it at the Merc and some here. Of course it’s a lot easier to buy locally this time of year.
Kevin Irick doesn't envision fertile soil, nourishing water and bountiful sunlight to know his business is growing.
The farmer northeast of Lawrence simply looks at his increasing number of plants, compounding financial returns and - perhaps most important for the future - rising number of customers to understand that he's onto something.
Growing and selling local is the way to go.
"From what I started with, to what I have now, it's grown incredibly," said Irick, who established Irick Farms 14 years ago. "Every year we're doing something different."
And, throughout the Lawrence area and across the country, what's different is the climbing popularity of grown-close-to-home crops, produce and other agricultural products, peddled from roadside stands, at farmers' markets and through an expanding lineup of commercial accounts.
"It's keeping our money local," said Irick, whose products range from asparagus to zucchini, plus 25 varieties of flowers and a handful of different fruits. "And people want to know where their food is coming from. I'll just keep incorporating more land and getting out more product. That's what it's all about."
Among factors driving the movement's momentum are forces both strictly economic and largely personal.
Rising fuel prices have escalated the costs of production and distribution for many industries, and agriculture is chief among them. Farmers are finding that being able to sell their products either at their fields or otherwise nearby cuts costs considerably, and reduces markups that may come from transporting produce more than 1,000 miles to sale.
And customers increasingly are turning to locally grown products, as concerns mount about chemicals used in production or along other points in the process. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urged restaurants, grocers and others to pull certain types of tomatoes from their menus and shelves, after tracing an outbreak of salmonella to certain roma, plum and red round tomatoes.
Unable to pinpoint where the tomatoes carrying the bacteria came from, FDA officials narrowed the possibilities and sent out warnings. The infections started in mid-April in Texas and New Mexico, and by the beginning of June had spread to 145 people in 16 states, including Kansas.
Nobody's pointing a finger at the Downtown Lawrence Farmers' Market, where Irick and others sell their tomatoes grown for sale to friends, family and other locals.
'The sky's the limit'
Such markets offer farmers more than a personable, convenient outlet to sell their goods, said Bill Wood, agriculture agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. They also afford them a viable opportunity to boost sales for their businesses.
"The sky's the limit here, as far as what we're looking at," Wood said.
Farmers are taking note. In Douglas County alone, some 880 farms - locations that produce at least $1,000 in agricultural products in a single year - operate nowadays, up from 809 a decade ago, Wood said. Statewide the number of farms is 64,000, down from 70,000 a decade ago.
"A lot of people (here) are trying to raise their own food or make a little money on the side," Wood said.
Trudy Rice, director for the county extension office, figures that there's plenty of room for more. She's been meeting with local producers who are forming the Lawrence Future Food Network, a group of growers interested in returning to the Kaw River region's roots as a hub for produce and other products.
The region - Douglas, Jackson, Johnson, Jefferson, Leavenworth, Shawnee and Wyandotte counties - now has nearly 2,000 acres in production for growing vegetables, potatoes and fruits, according to data compiled by Rhonda Janke, of Kansas State University. That's down more than a third from three decades ago, and well behind the 27,621 acres available for such uses back in 1910.
If the region wants to get back to growing local and selling local efforts, Rice said, the potential is there. Now it's just a matter of finding ways to help both sides thrive.
"We have farmers that want to grow locally," she said. "We have consumers who want to purchase locally. We can strengthen the ties between the two."
Irick figures he's doing his part.
For an operation that started with an "itty bitty" garden covering, at most, a quarter-acre back in 1994, Irick now has 10 acres for growing produce, plus a five-acre orchard with several hundred fruit trees. Then there are the two greenhouses that allow him to grow hydroponic tomatoes year-round, and flowers that bloom regardless of conditions outside.
He's also paying more than $4 a gallon for diesel fuel, up from the 99 cents he was spending per gallon in 2000.
But he's not turning back, not with more people lining up to buy his home-grown products - whether it's through commercial contracts with Free State Brewery, Wheatfields and Community Mercantile Co-op or face-to-face transactions at the Downtown Lawrence Farmers' Market.
Making friends. Meetings needs. Growing strong.
"That's what I like," Irick said. "It's an adventure to me."