ABOUT THIS SERIES
“Farm Inc.” is a multi-part series exploring the hurdles and joys of trying to be a full-time farmer in and around Lawrence.
Picture rows of crisp greens, tomato plants waving in their cages and a sturdy house with the kind of porch that makes one’s blood pressure drop instantly.
That’s Moon on the Meadow Farm in a nutshell.
It’s an urban farm, just on the eastern edge of Lawrence, where Jill Elmers has made her home, naming it after her favorite Girl Scout song. And with lyrics like “We will return here one lucky day/our hearts will guide us they know the way/people in cities don’t understand/falling in love with the land” it’s easy to understand why.
The lyrics are not only as beautiful as the 3.5 acres on which the farm sits, but they also mirror the technical systems designer’s journey to Moon on the Meadow and beyond.
The beyond being her newest venture, Common Harvest Farms. At 35 acres and two doors down the road, Common Harvest, a business cooked up with Lawrence Farmers’ Market coordinator Tom Buller and his wife, Jenny, will allow Elmers to grow even further into food production and, therefore, closer to the possibility of making a living on nothing but food.
“Both he and I, we both want to be full-time farmers,” says Elmers, 41. “And so, this is really going to allow us to expand how we think we need to expand to do that.”
The bucket list
Expanding into enough farm land to go full-time has been something a decade coming for Elmers. Trained as an engineer and a designer of professional sound and audiovisual systems for the past 16 years, Elmers always had an interest in organic farming. Burnt-out with her job at an acoustical consulting firm in Kansas City, Elmers took a summerlong sabbatical to learn from Mark Lumpe at Wakarusa Valley Farm.
“One of the things on my bucket list was to work on an organic farm,” Elmers says. “We got to the end of the summer and I said, ‘You know, I like this.’ So, I went back to my job and said, ‘You know, I like working for you, but I like this, can we do something?’ And we negotiated to where I work part-time and I farm part-time.”
That was in 2000. Soon, Elmers began leasing land from Lumpe and contributing to his community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription service and founded Moon on the Meadow, named after a song she learned while working Girl Scout camps during summers away from Valparaiso University. Right away, the CSA model was something that seemed to Elmers like an especially attractive way to sell fresh produce. Not only would she as a farmer get a set amount of customers, but the customers would also make a unique investment in their food. When setting up Moon on the Meadow’s CSA, she made sure that in addition to pickups in Kansas City, she also had a on-farm pick-up day in Lawrence so that customers could see their investment — and next week’s dinner — in person.
“There’s a real connection there that you don’t necessarily get at market,” she says.
“Plus, the on-farm folks, they get to come out here every week and they love that, because they get to watch things change and see things.”
And what’s changed most recently is the expansion. Elmers and Buller have known each other for years and decided six months ago that it might be possible for them both to work toward full-time status by working together.
“Common Harvest is a sort of partnership between me, my wife and Jill,” says Buller, who had been renting land and selling through CSAs, including Moon on the Meadow, on top of working for the market. “We had been looking for land for quite a while and the opportunity came up to buy that, and she wanted some more land and it was close to her, so it worked out well that we could kind of do something together.”
They closed on the land in late April, but made a deal that allowed them to begin planting on the land April 1. That allowed them to get the type of perennials into the ground for which neither had previously had the land to spare — asparagus, rhubarb, berries, fruit trees. She says they’ve planted so much that by their calculations the harvests on the new land could be huge — for example, they’re expecting 10,000 pounds of rhubarb.
In a word, a lot of pies. And a lot of time. Right now, Elmers estimates she averages a 70-hour workweek, and that’s with the help of part-time workers and volunteers.
“It’s not easy. I will admit that. I spend 30 hours a week working at my other job. And 40 hours a week working here, at least,” Elmers says. “So, it is a bit of a juggle and a lot of times I find myself running from place to place, throwing on different clothes as I go. That’s not how I would like it to be, but it is the way it is now.”
Still, even with the land and all the work that comes with her weekly CSA allotments and sales to groceries, restaurants and from her farmers’ market stall, Elmers isn’t especially ready to give up her cubicle job.
“I think the scariest things for me ... the health insurance is a big one. And granted, I am 40 years old, I’ve never had a prescription in 16 years, and I don’t go to the doctor very often, I’ve never been sick, knock on wood,” Elmers says. “But there’s something about, as I get older, especially now. Like, if I was 30 years old, I’d be like, ‘Forget it, I don’t care.’ But as I get older, there are so many things I don’t have control over. Cancer, things like that. And if I don’t have health insurance, that’s a big one for me. And then the risks involved, in terms of Mother Nature.”
So, for now, she controls what she can control: her farm. She’s in her third-year of being certified organic by the USDA and she’s making plenty of plans for both Moon on the Meadow and Common Harvest — a larger CSA (hers stands at 75 subscribers this year), a farm-based produce stand, farm dinners and figuring out how to sell all that rhubarb.
“We have lots of plans,” she says, explaining even more ideas to grow commodities for market like flour and beans — diversify, diversify, diversify. “I plan to do this forever, I love it.”