Fully grown: Growing Lawrence provides education to farmers, would-be farmers

Charlie NovoGradac trim trees and weeds around his grove of chestnut trees on his 20 acres of property north of Lawrence. NovoGradac is a member of Growing Lawrence

Jerry Wohletz picks tomatos at his farm, Wohletz Farm Fresh. Wohletz Farm Fresh sells under the name Tomato Allie at the Lawrence Farmers' Market and is a member of Growing Lawrence.

Growing Lawrence

When: 7 a.m., First Wednesday of each month.

Where: The Chamber of Commerce Offices, 646 Vt.

What: A meeting of local farmers and farming enthusiasts discussing topics relating to practicing agriculture in Northeast Kansas. The Aug. 3 topic is agritourism.

For more information: www.growinglawrence.com

2011 members of Growing Lawrence

Ad Astra Alpacas, 168 E. 1700 Road, Baldwin

Beisecker Farms, 351 E. 1950 Road, Baldwin

Bismarck Gardens, 1616 N. 1700 Road, Lawrence

Blessed Thistle Farm, 17309 37th St., McLouth

Blossom Trail Bee Ranch, 669 E. 2100 Road, Baldwin

Buckets of Berries/Vesecky Family Farms, 1814 N. 600 Road., Baldwin

Buller Family Farm, 1577 N. 1550 Road, Lawrence

Chestnut Charlie’s Organic Tree Crops, 1840 E. 1450 Road, Lawrence

Clark Family Farm, 759 E. 1100 Road, Baldwin

Davenport Orchard, Vineyard, and Winery, 1394 E. 1900 Road, Eudora

Downtown Lawrence Farmers’ Market, 824 N.H., Lawrence

Earth Flowers, 248 N. 1700 Road, Lecompton

Enright Gardens, 2351 N. 400 Road, Edgerton

Evening Star Pines, 9820 Evening Star Road, Eudora

Gasper Family Farm, 21600 Golden Road, Linwood

Gieringers Orchard, 39675 W. 183rd St., Edgerton

Goddard Farm, 1801 E. 335 Road, Lecompton

Greenbriar Farm, 1518 E. 250 Road, Lecompton

Homespun Hill Farm, 137 E. 1400 Road, Baldwin

Lawson Brothers Farm, 1862 N. 700 Road, Baldwin

Le Petit Garden, 3009 Riverview Road, Lawrence

Lone Star Bison Ranch, 588 N. 300 Road, Overbrook

M.A.D. Farm, 966 E. 800 Road, Lawrence

Mike Garrett Farms, 1563 E. Highway 40, Lawrence

Moon on the Meadow, 1515 E. 11th St., Lawrence

MWB Produce, 1247 N. 900 Road, Lawrence

Pendleton’s Country Market, 1446 E. 1850 Road, Lawrence

Peters Family Farm, 1086 N. 800 Road, Baldwin

Prairie Elf Christmas Trees, 765 E. 750 Road, Lawrence

Red Tractor Farm, 974 E. 850 Road, Lawrence

Rees Fruit Farm, 2476 K-4 Highway, Topeka

Rocky Hills Elk Ranch Inc., 12818 Wellman Road, Winchester

Schaake’s Pumpkin Patch, 1791 N. 1500 Road, Lawrence

Spring Creek Farm, 1841 N. 150 Road, Baldwin

Strawberry Hill Christmas Tree Farm, 794 Highway 40, Lawrence

Sundance Emu Ranch, 11872 246th St., Lawrence

The Henrys’ Plant Farm, 248 N. 1700 Road, Lecompton

The Iris Place, 1578 N. 962 Road, Lawrence

Tomato Allie, 1831 N. 1100 Road, Lawrence

Vertacnik Orachard, 1403 E. 1850 Road, Lawrence

Wagon Wheel Orchard, 15380 Edgerton Road, Gardner

Wakarusa Valley Farm, 965 E. 1000 Road, Lawrence

Wild Onion Farm, 966 E. 800 Road, Lawrence

It’s been around almost 30 years, but it’s been just recently that Growing Lawrence has blossomed into something out of the ordinary.

No longer just a loose conglomeration of food and plant producers, the organization has branched out to become a sort of educational roundtable on all things farming for both its members and anyone in the general public with an interest in farming.

“They would meet once a year and have a speaker come in and do some networking, but they weren’t meeting all the time,” says Jennifer Smith, a Douglas County K-State extension agent and a facilitator for the group of Growing Lawrence’s former structure. “This winter we started talking about getting the group more proactive, especially as younger farmers are starting to get involved. And we got some new people that are coming into the field that we figured could learn a lot from the people who have been around a lot longer.”

Since January, the group has been meeting at 7 a.m. the first Wednesday of each month at the Chamber of Commerce offices, 646 Vt., to discuss the sorts of issues that come up often in the farming world. That means everything from sharing seed sources and wholesale outlets to talking about insurance and land practices. Anything goes, as long as its constructive and instructive to the group. The next meeting, open to the public like all the meetings, is Aug. 3.

“To me, at first, it was just advertising, just the directory was the whole thing, but now, just this year, it’s gotten to be more like an organization,” says longtime member Charlie NovoGradac of Chestnut Charlie’s, who has become a regular at the monthly informational sessions. He rattles off the topics like a kid listing a class schedule. “There was one on direct marketing through Internet and social networking, that’s all been kind of eye-opening to me. We had an insurance agent come and speak to us about farm insurance and that was interesting. We discussed employment and … how people get workers and how much they’re paid, and what’s a good way to recruit and what our responsibilities are.”

Interestingly, the new focus on education brings the group back to some of its founding goals. When it formed in 1983, Growing Lawrence was a reaction to the specialty crop producers that sprang up after the 1980 farm crisis says Karen Pendleton, one of the group’s founding members.

“Between ’80 and ’83, there was a big push in what they called alternative crops,” says Pendleton, who says conventional growers were looking to diversify to avoid foreclosure after many farms shuttered thanks to poor weather, poor crops, poor prices and huge debts in 1980. “Everything went real bad, real fast. And so everybody was looking for an alternative crop. There were a lot of people putting in Christmas tree farms at that time, Schaakes got into the pumpkin patch business big time, Bismarck Gardens got into strawberries, we got into asparagus.”

The new “alternative” producers banded together as a way to learn from and support each other with educational sessions shepherded by the extension office and through a directory of growers, which had its first printing within a year of the group’s founding. Starting initially with fruit and vegetable farmers, the group expanded over time, adding those who produce meat, dairy, Christmas trees, ornamental flowers plus area pumpkin patches and greenhouses.

“A lot of the issues are the same. Because we talk about marketing and growing — growing and marketing are often the same for any crop,” says Jozie Schimke of Earth Flowers, an ornamental plant producer based in Lecompton, about the group’s diverse membership. “We have just as many insect problems with flowers (as food) … we all suffer from the same weather troubles.”

As the years went on, the group transitioned into being a loose conglomeration, with each member attending a yearly meeting and receiving the name of his or her business in all Growing Lawrence promotional materials including its annual directory and on its website, www.growinglawrence.com.

But that all changed at last year’s annual meeting, when, thanks to an interest in local food and farming, the group began gaining newer, less experienced members, the idea of returning to the groups educational roots by setting up monthly meetings with set topics that the members voted on at the annual gathering. The group’s members also felt a public educational component would set the organization aside from the numerous farm guides popping up in accordance to the same renewed interest in local food that was bringing in new farmers.

“As to not get lost in the crowd, what is it that we really need?” Pendleton says of the central quandary. “And everybody said, we used to get together and meet and have dinners and discuss things. What we decided we really needed was a networking group, so that we could get together and talk.”

Since January, members have been sharing information on all sorts of topics — see NovoGradac’s list — and have several more to come, including government-aided high tunnels, zoning and land use, good agricultural practices (GAP) certification, and the group’s topic for its next meeting, agritourism.

“Highly recommend it to anybody who’s just thinking about getting into it. Because there’s just a wealth of information. … You’ve got people with years of knowledge to help you out,” says Jane Wohletz of Wohletz Farm Fresh and Tomato Allie. “It eliminates a lot of trial and error when you listen to other people’s (stories), what they tried and didn’t work.”