Local farmer buys North Lawrence greenhouse business; it will expand nursery, add fresh produce sales

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Owner/operator Scott Thellman sorts through some of the early season garden stock at his new business, Pine's Garden & Market, 1320 N. Third Street, on March 12, 2024.

At least on one particular day more than a decade ago, Lawrence’s Free State Brewery surely had the shiniest, cleanest radishes in all of Kansas.

New farmer Scott Thellman had sold 20 bunches of the radishes to Free State’s kitchen, and it was the very first sale for Thellman’s Juniper Hill Farms. He was so nervous and so much wanted Free State to be pleased with its purchase that he remembers he and another employee “spent half a day washing them.”

That’s the way it was in the beginning for Juniper Hill, which operates on farmland in the Kansas River Valley north of North Lawrence. Thellman would measure his orders by the bunches. Eventually the business grew to the point that he would measure them by the boxes, and then by the pallets.

Today, Thellman measures them by the truckload as Juniper Hill has become one of the largest produce growers in the state, and serves as a distributor for about 12 other regional farms.

But soon, Thellman will be back to bunches or even smaller orders. That’s a good thing, he said, and what makes it even better is that he’s going to use a more than 60-year-old Lawrence business in the process.

Thellman is the new owner/operator of the North Lawrence staple previously known as Howard Pine’s Garden Center and Greenhouses, 1320 N. Third St. Thellman quietly took over the operation in November and has changed the name to Pine’s Garden & Market.

The reason? You guessed it, Thellman is going to start selling large amounts of freshly grown produce at the business, in addition to continuing to sell all the flowers, plants and other items that Pine’s has been known for.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Pine’s Garden & Market, 1320 N. Third Street, is shown on March 12, 2024.

Beginning in June — when fresh-grown produce starts to be ready for picking in the area — the indoor retail area of Pine’s will be converted into a full-fledged produce market. The merchandise will change as the growing seasons change. Look for heirloom tomatoes, kale, squash, pumpkins and other such produce to come directly from the approximately 60 acres of fields that Juniper Hill tends to. But look for every other type of traditional Kansas produce — from asparagus to zucchini, Thellman said — to be at the market as well.

That’s possible because Juniper Hill already has distribution agreements with many farms stretching as far east as eastern Missouri to as far west as central Kansas. Thellman said he loves having as much produce from Douglas County as possible, but he said he also believes in supporting a regional food system, which he defines as anything within a day’s drive. He said such a system seems to be the sweet spot between being environmentally friendly by keeping shipping distances reasonable while making it more feasible to have a wider variety of produce at better prices.

“Nobody really wants to pay $4 per head for kale,” he said.

Such a system also creates a sweet spot on the plate, as in produce picked near its premium point of ripeness.

“Many of the items we distribute have been picked the day before or just a few days before,” Thellman said.

As for how the longtime Pine’s Garden Center business ended up playing a role in all of this, Thellman said he had been around the business forever as someone who grew up near North Lawrence. In fact, he once lived in the house that is on the garden center property after graduating high school, he said.

The business dates back to 1962 when Howard and Leta Pine started the greenhouse business after the Kansas Turnpike took a large amount of the farmland they had used for a produce truck farming business that had been in operation since the late 1940s.

That’s when the business started relying more on traditional nursery products. The couple’s son Jerry took over the business in 1982, and grew its offerings of flowers, garden plants, house plants, shrubbery and other annuals and perennials. All those items will continue to be a focus of the business going forward, Thellman said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The greenhouses at Pine’s Garden & Market were full of color on March 12, 2024.

Being able to sell both nursery items and produce was one of the ideas that appealed to Thellman when he was deciding to purchase Pine’s, he said. The busiest seasons for plants and nursery items generally are spring and fall, while the busiest times for produce sales generally are the summer. Additionally, the greenhouses at Pine’s can be used early in the spring to begin growing the vegetables that then will be transplanted to Juniper Hill Farms.

“I saw this as an opportunity to vertically integrate Pine’s Garden & Market with Juniper Hill,” he said.

That doesn’t necessarily sound like standard talk on the farm, and indeed, Thellman isn’t a standard farmer. For one, he’s a first generation farmer, which is rare these days.

Thellman and Patrick Leach, general manager of Pine’s, are both first generation farmers, in fact. Recently, they were discussing how they ended up in agriculture. Leach relayed a story of how he grew up wanting to be an ethnobotanist, searching the jungles of the world for plants that could be used to cure diseases. Then, he began to realize that he likely could have a simpler and satisfying career by growing plants.

I asked Thellman whether his journey to agriculture involved such an exotic twist as ethnobotany.

“No; I was just a kid with ADHD who liked running around,” Thellman said.

He explained that his parents — a physician and a minister — moved to a 100-acre piece of land north of North Lawrence when Thellman was eight. They did not move with the intention of getting into the agriculture business. But they did rent much of their property to a local rancher. The young Thellman often would offer to carry feed buckets or do anything else to hang around with the old rancher.

One day, he even got permission to miss school and travel to the Flint Hills with the rancher to participate in a cattle roundup. That’s the moment that Thellman thinks he “fell for agriculture.”

“I realized, wow, this can be a job,” Thellman said of his time at the roundup.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

General Manager Patrick Leach and owner/operator Scott Thellman are in one of the greenhouses at Pine’s Garden & Market, 1320 N. Third Street, on March 12, 2024.

By high school, he was in the FFA program at Free State High, and was growing and harvesting hay crops on the side. He ended up attending Iowa State University to get a degree in agribusiness, and looked destined to become a grain trader on the commodities market.

The job shadows of grain traders, though, didn’t seem as much fun as a day at the roundup.

So, he returned home with the idea of becoming a farmer, but there is a reason that first-generation farmers are now rare. Unless you are joining a family farming operation that already has land secured and equipment purchased, starting a new farming venture can be very difficult.

“With combines, tractors, semis, it is incredibly capital intensive for a low-margin business with row crops,” Thellman said of the typical wheat, corn or soybean farming operations.

But fruits and vegetables can be a bit different. While there are more labor costs involved in such produce operations, the equipment expenses are lower. There’s also more income potential per acre of land. Thellman estimated an acre of tomatoes can generate upward of $100,000 in income compared to $800 to $1,000 per acre for traditional row crops.

Now, as ventures like his daily produce market become more visible, he thinks there is a chance more people might explore how they can get into agriculture much like he did. While land in Douglas County can still be expensive to acquire, he thinks some of the traditional farmers in the county might become more open to using some of their land for such produce-growing operations.

“I think a lot of them are very interested in how I got where I am at today,” Thellman said. “You have a lot of 4,000- or 5,000-acre farms in the family who maybe have four or five folks working there. They maybe have another family member who wants to come back to the farm and that acreage can’t support another salary for a good livelihood.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

An employee at Pines Garden & Market tidies up the outdoor sales area on March 12, 2024.

But Thellman also said any such transition in the future likely will happen slowly. In the meantime, people certainly can get into agriculture through their backyard gardens. Thellman said expanding that side of Pine’s business is important. He said the retail space of the store, which he has approximately doubled with the rearranging of the building, will stock more specialty items for growing. That could be certain types of crop covers or irrigation devices that are commonly used by produce farmers. He said Juniper Hill is already buying such products, so it only makes sense to stock them at Pine’s going forward.

The other item that will remain in stock is advice. Being a first-generation farmer adds a new element to that advice. It makes it easier to communicate mistakes to avoid, because he’s likely stumbled into many of them.

“I’ve had people come in and ask how do I grow an onion,” Thellman said. “That’s great. I’ve grown acres of them in my life, and I have grown them horribly, and I’ve grown them pretty well too.”

Now, he’ll be able to do everything from give some advice to sell an onion to perhaps help make a new first-generation, radish-polishing farmer.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Buds from a “Bleeding Heart” flowering plant are shown at Pines Garden & Market on March 12, 2024.


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