A lesson in food

Oskaloosa’s Stu Shafer looks back at his mower as he works on his farm in July. Shafer splits duties between the farm and Johnson County Community College, where he teaches classes in sociology and sustainable agriculture.

Stu Shafer


“Farm Inc.” is a multi-part series exploring the hurdles and joys of trying to be a full-time farmer in and around Lawrence.

Back in the late 1970s, Stu Shafer attended an educational institution called The School of Homesteading.

Today, he might as well be the headmaster of The School of Market Farming.

Shafer has taken those homesteading skills and spun them into a life of tending to the land when not tending to students as a professor of sociology and sustainable agriculture at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park.

During the spring, summer and fall, he runs Sandheron Farm in Jefferson County, where producing fruits and vegetables is pretty much a full-time job. During the school year, he teaches food-minded students in classes such as commercial crop production and the sociology of food. When his jobs overlap in the spring and fall, he easily can find himself in the weeds, in more ways than one.

“I’m working pretty long hours, that’s for sure. I’m afraid to actually keep track, but I’d say 80 is a pretty good guess,” he says, laughing.

But that’s all worth it to Shafer, who is committed to teach the next generation how they can have a hand in their own everyday eating and how they can help others eat well in the process.

“Really, the local food demand and movement have grown much faster than, at least in an area like this, than there are producers to provide it,” says Shafer, who has both official students and “students” who learn while they work as employees of his farm. “It’s really satisfying to see some of them go on and be successful at … building their own farms.”

From homesteading to farming

Shafer built his farm in 1989, when he moved to Jefferson County with his wife, Patti, and two children. The couple bought 30 acres of bare land and built an eco-friendly, self-designed home. They created an orchard of peaches, pears, apples, plums and cherries and tilled up land for a vegetable garden and raspberry patch. They called their little patch of bliss “Sandheron” — creating a mythical bird while borrowing from their children’s middle names.

Shafer’s initial reason for hitting the fields? Good, old-fashioned self-sustainability.

“When I was a young pup, I decided I wanted to live a life that was as close to the source of what I needed to live on as possible, and so I had to regain those skills,” Shafer says. “I didn’t grow up on a farm, so I had to relearn what my grandparents knew.”

He considers himself part of what was called the “back to the land” movement that was prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. The movement’s prevailing idea was to learn the skills necessary to be self-sustainable and reduce dependency on others for the most basic of all human nourishment: food.

To get that knowledge, Shafer both attended the aforementioned School of Homesteading and worked on a blueberry farm in Michigan.

“What people were mainly concerned about were growing things, providing for themselves, so (a) self-sufficiency kind of deal. And that’s what I thought I would do initially,” Shafer says. “But as markets started growing and people started looking for this kind of produce — and I knew that I could produce a surplus — I moved into more of a commercial kind of (model).

“About that time, organic foods and local foods and CSAs and co-ops were growing in importance and I thought that was a good social contribution to make, and so I started farming for other people then.”

To that end, soon after building Sandheron, Shafer moved into partnering with Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance to sell produce, which he’d also sold to restaurants and The Community Mercantile, 901 S. Iowa.

Ironically, his move into commercial farming effectively killed his chances to be self-sustainable.

“The interesting thing is that because that’s a trade-off, I probably sell things that we could use ourselves. And when you spend time on marketing, you don’t have time for preserving, and so instead of spending time in the kitchen, canning and freezing and drying things, I’m marketing them,” Shafer says. “I think we could be pretty self-sufficient on vegetables — undoubtedly, we could have all the fruit and vegetables we need as a household in a year.”

Future farmers of America

So instead of living that sustainable dream, he’s teaching others the ins and outs of a lifestyle he had to learn himself.

“Our program is a market gardening, market farming program to start out with. That was the first certificate that we developed, so it’s this kind of farming: relatively small-scale, intensive vegetable and fruit production,” Shafer says. “And it’s sustainable, so we teach them organic methods, but we also teach them about conventional (farming) — use of chemicals — in an integrated kind of way so that you’re not just willy-nilly spraying stuff.”

He says JCCC students have worked for him in the past at Sandheron, though he doesn’t have any right now — which is just fine with Shawn Carney, who loves having a spot as a worker there. Carney says not only does he enjoy the work, he enjoys the added bonus of getting lessons from a man who wears two hats as a farmer and professor.

“I was thinking about getting into organic farming, but all the programs and stuff have been too expensive for me to even think about getting into,” says Carney, who notes Shafer will take workers aside and give tutorials on botany and techniques.

“I just wanted to come out here, get some fresh air, work. People are too far removed from where their food actually comes from.”