Lawrence farmer wins statewide honor; diversification has helped him thrive
photo by: Contributed photo
Scott Thellman doesn’t fit the mold of a young farmer working the multigenerational family spread.
Instead, the 28-year-old Douglas County resident is a first-generation farmer and sole proprietor of Juniper Hill Farms, LLC, north of Lawrence.
He was recently named Kansas Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer and Rancher of the Year during a statewide conference in Manhattan.
“He is definitely not the average young farmer; he is pretty unique,” said Edie Doane, director of Young Farmers and Ranchers and collegiate programs with the Kansas Farm Bureau. “He has clearly done it well and has made a lot of sacrifices with his time. But he has big goals and dreams and is working at them incrementally.”
photo by: Kansas Farm Bureau
Thellman grew up in the country north of Lawrence, with his parents, Scott and Nancy Thellman. However, it wasn’t a working farm.
His parents leased the land for cattle grazing. As a child, he was fascinated as he watched the work done to care for the cattle.
“I caught the ag bug,” Thellman said, during a telephone interview with the Journal-World.
Farming neighbors began to serve as mentors. By the time Thellman was a sophomore in high school he bought his first hay equipment, including an old Ford square hay baler – all for under $1,000.
He operated the haying business through high school. After graduating from Free State in 2009, he held off going to college so he could learn more about farming by working for neighbors. He built his first high-tunnel greenhouse to grow vegetables.
“That’s when I got more serious about the business,” he said.
A year later he headed off to Iowa State University, where he majored in agribusiness and minored in agronomy and agricultural entrepreneurship. When he graduated he was offered jobs, but he knew what he wanted to do.
“I decided to come home and be a poor farmer,” Thellman said, laughing.
Now, eight years later, Thellman owns 50 acres in the Kansas River valley where he raises vegetables, half of them organic.
He custom bales about 1,000 acres. He also grows 400 acres of hay and about 100 acres of organic and conventional row crops, on rented ground.
Thellman sells specialty crops, including organic spring mix, lettuce, watermelon, pumpkins and winter squash. Plans are to add a new greenhouse for tomatoes this year.
“Checkers is a huge local buyer. I am very thankful for them in my life,” Thellman said of the Lawrence grocery store. He also sells to The Merc and a number of Lawrence restaurants, as well as to the Lawrence school district and 15 grocery stores in Kansas City. Plus, some of the farm’s vegetables are shipped out of state.
In the growing season he counts on about five employees, but during the winter months, he employs only three people who help with the multiple parts of the operation, including ordering seeds and supplies, bookkeeping and marketing.
“I have been learning quickly what works and doesn’t work on the farm,” Thellman said.
He has experienced his share of hard times. This past year he took a $40,000 hit from a hailstorm in mid-May that wiped out all the spinach, Swiss chard and bok choy. He also suffered through a drought last summer and then an early freeze that hurt winter squash.
However, he worked out a deal to broker produce for five Amish farmers in Missouri and three fruit farmers in the area, which helps keep his refrigerated produce truck full.
Thanks to diversifying, the year ended profitably in 2018.
“Getting into farming is difficult, especially for first-generation farmers,” Doane, from the Kansas Farm Bureau, said.
Along with all of the risks, there is the necessity of capital.
“There are challenges you can’t control, and he does a good job finding the best options,” Doane said. “That is the common thread with successful young farmers who make the best decisions in the long run.”