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Farmers trying to keep up with local demand

Lee Quaintance, who operates an organic farm in Edgerton, grows, stores, mills and markets his wheat, and he is one of few farmers in the state who has an organic flour mill.

Lee Quaintance, who operates an organic farm in Edgerton, grows, stores, mills and markets his wheat, and he is one of few farmers in the state who has an organic flour mill.

September 2, 2008

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From field to flour

Organic wheat farmer Lee Quaintance is a rare find in Kansas. On his farm just south of Edgerton, Quaintance not only grows the wheat, but stores, mills and sells it directly to the consumer. He is among the growing number of farmers who are accommodating a growing trend of shoppers who want to know the producers behind the food they eat. Enlarge video

LJWorld.com/Green

Welcome to our ongoing project, LJWorld.com/Green. Here you can find tips on how to make your life environmentally friendly and read stories about what others in the community are doing to live a more green lifestyle. Eat local, conserve resources, be green.

On the street

What’s your favorite locally-grown fruit or vegetable?

Tomatoes. I eat them like apples. I can’t get enough of them.

More responses

JCCC offers crop class

In an effort to educate more farmers, Johnson County Community College is offering a class on local crop production. The three-credit-hour class, taught by JCCC professor and vegetable grower Stuart Shafer, is geared toward prospective, beginning and experienced market farmers. Topics will include how to better grow, prepare and sell produce.

The weekly class, starting Wednesday, will be taught at Centennial School, 2145 La. For more information on the class, call 842-1157 or enroll online at jccc.edu.

Even in a state where seas of wheat grow each summer, Lee Quaintance and his crop are a rare find.

Quaintance, a bearded man with a punch line for almost everything, farms organic wheat just outside the city limits of Edgerton. What makes him unique is that he grows, stores, mills and markets his wheat. He knows of one similar operation in the region. After that, the next closest organic flour mill is Heartland Mills, a farmer's co-op in Marienthal, about 50 miles from the Colorado border.

For people living in Lawrence, Quaintance's farm - 40 minutes away and inside the Johnson County border - is as close as it gets to buying flour made from local wheat.

Quaintance's grain goes to nearby bakeries, to people who drive to his farm to pick up the cloth flour bags for themselves and shoppers at local food expos.

He also sells beef to direct buyers, chicken feed to people up and down the Kansas/Missouri border and soybeans to Lawrence manufacturer Central Soyfoods.

Quaintance ventured into organic wheat after the herbicides stopped working on a farm he bought more than 15 years ago. Milling the wheat followed.

"At that point, I got a flour type of product, so it was why not sell it to the local people instead of shipping it to God knows where and then back," said Quaintance, who is among a growing number of farmers who choose to market their goods.

From 1997 to 2002, direct market sales for Kansas farmers jumped 134 percent to $9 million.

Eating local

In the past few years, the movement to eat local foods has gained traction.

For some it's about buying food that tastes better, has more nutrients and is fresher. Others see it as a way to keep dollars in the local economy and support local farmers. There are those who gain a sense of security from being able to eat what is grown nearby. And some people see it as an environmental choice, arguing that eating local reduces carbon emissions needed to transport goods.

According to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, food travels an average of 1,500 miles before landing on your plate.

Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center, said people are starting to look a little closer to home for their food sources.

"Study after study shows that people want more transparency in their food system," Pirog said. "At a local farmers' market or at the local food section, you have always known where it comes from. That is what differentiates it: the fact that that information is available and there."

The center sees an uptick in public interest local foods every time there is a food scare or recall, such as with tomatoes earlier this year.

Farmers have noticed this trend.

Pirog sees small dairy farmers who stay in business by building their own processing plants, local chicken farmers offering eggs minus the antibiotics and small-scale livestock producers custom processing their meats.

"It's a way for farmers to get a higher share of that food dollar and they can capture more than they can if they are selling wholesale," Pirog said.

More fruits and veggies

In Lawrence, the demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables is already higher than what farmers can provide. The increased interest is seen at The Community Mercantile, Lawrence Farmers' Market and a service where subscribers pay in advance for a season's worth of produce.

"It has taken on a life of its own," said Stuart Shafer, a Jefferson County farmer who sells his fruits and vegetables for the Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance.

"There are too many markets for what I can produce, and there is so much demand, producers can't keep up with it," he said.

Shafer, whose day job is a sociology professor at Johnson County Community College, is teaching a course this fall for people wanting to grow and sell locally.

The class is one way to cultivate more farmers.

While the Midwest might be the nation's breadbasket, Kansas is far from self-sufficient when it comes to growing fruits and vegetables.

Rhonda Janke, associate professor of horticulture at Kansas State University, has spent the past few years studying the subject.

"If for some reason the interstate shut down and we couldn't get trucks in, we would eat plenty of wheat, but we wouldn't have fruits and vegetables," she said.

Janke looked at the 10-county region that comprises the Kansas River Valley. In a area that has 50,000 acres of irrigated crop land, a little more than 2,000 are used for growing vegetables. To meet the needs of today's population, it would take 25,297 acres.

Turning over wheat fields to vegetables won't happen overnight, or even in a year or two. Increasing production could take up to five years.

But Janke said the notion is an attainable one. In 1910, the region had 33,000 acres dedicated to growing vegetables. Those were years that saw more than a million quarts of strawberries and raspberries picked and fame as the sweet potato capital of the Midwest.

Labor costs remain the largest obstacle for vegetable growth. Janke said local producers can't compete with the low wages paid to farm workers outside the country. The average wage nationally is $7.45 an hour.

Finding seasonal labor can be a problem for Shafer, who has been able to attract workers with the incentive of helping teach them how to grow vegetables.

Janke said it would help if farm subsidies went to vegetable farmers or if there were a national health care system for them.

Gasoline prices will have go considerably higher before the cost of trucking produce over long distances outweighs those of local labor, Janke said.

"Some days I'm optimistic; some days I'm pessimistic about the future of local foods," she said.

Comments

localbird 6 years, 3 months ago

The Casbah Market is a great place to get local veggies and fruit as well as the locations listed in the article. The Market is right downtown at 803 Massachusetts. They even have a garden across the street, the garden provides produce for the store. It doesn't get more local than that.

Ken Lassman 6 years, 3 months ago

I think it's great that Stuart Shafer and Johnson County Community College is stepping into the knowlege void that KU and KState have so far ignored: developing the skills necessary to produce local produce for local markets. I think it would be great if the Chamber of Commerce joined up forces with the KState Extension and set up some "incubator farms" in the Kaw Valley for young (or old for that matter) folks interested in developing those skills. Lawrence has been very kind to many local food projects that have succeeded here when it couldn't elsewhere: the Wheatfields idea struggled in Salina until it moved to Lawrence; the Merc is the largest food coop in the region; the Rolling Prairie Farmer's alliance is the largest in the state. I'm firmly convinced that incubator farms for teaching local production of food would be a real lure to the Lawrence area and be an excellent use of one of the world-class assets we have: the Kaw Valley soils--some of the best on the entire planet.

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