Produce growers goes from sales to soil
Stephanie Thomas let out a sign of joy Friday morning when she opened the doors to a greenhouse on the Spring Creek Farm she and Tom Maiorana own south of Baldwin City.
It was both a response to the warmth built in the greenhouse on the chilly but sunny morning as it washed across her and to the robust health of the peas it contained.
“We got skunked on peas last year,” she said. “I didn’t want that to happen again, so we grew some in the greenhouse this year. This year is going to be an awesome year for peas.”
That’s good news for the community supported agricultural members who will get weekly fresh produce grown on Spring Creek Farm’s 20 acres and in its four greenhouses. Sugar snap peas will be among the early produce the members will get with root crops such as beets, radishes and turnips.
In blue jeans, T-shirt, hiking shoes and cap, Thomas was dressed far differently than she was a little more than half a decade ago when she worked in corporate sales. But her interest in fresh, natural food predates any career and traces by to her youth when she followed her Air Force officer father to Germany, Italy, England, Pakistan and India.
“Most of those places, we went to market a couple time of week,” Thomas said. “Fresh food was really fresh food. They brought it out that morning.”
When she returned to the United States as young adult in the late 1970s, she found a much different food culture dominated by supermarkets. To compensate, Thomas gardened and canned for her and her family’s use while making her livelihood as a salesperson for Dolly Madison and later Nutrisystem.
“I got them fat, and then I got them thin,” Thomas said.
She also became more aware of the shortcomings in the American diet and the lack of availability of wholesome, fresh food that sustained health, Thomas said. As she continued to work at various sales positions, she began to think of how she could help address that need on the 20 acres she had owned since 2001.
“I finally decided what I wanted to do was have a commercial garden,” she said. “I decided I really didn’t want to mow 20 acres. What else were we going to do with it?”
Although Maiorana said he never forgot the farming skills he learned growing up on a small Maryland farm, Thomas needed mentoring to make the transition from sales to soil. She turned to the Kansas City Growing Growers Program.
“It allows people who wanting to learn how to farm to work 1-on-1 with farmers,” Thomas said “I was an apprentice in 2005, and I started my farm the next year. We’re now a host farm for the apprentice program.”
Thomas spent her apprentice year on the farm of Katherine Kelly, now the executive director of the Kansas City Center of Urban Agriculture. Like Kelly, Thomas would use organic guidelines to grow produce on her farm.
Although it can’t be called organic because the farm lacks USDA organic certification, no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or treated seeds are used on Spring Creek Farm. Instead, Maiorana and Thomas enrich soil with two-year-old compost or through planting crops such as Austria peas to stimulate the soil’s nitrogen. They rotate and sequentially plant a variety of crops to keep pests at bay.
“People ask me how do we deal with squash bugs,” Thomas said. “The best thing you can do is plant squash three different times. It’s a lot more labor intensive, but the payback is your not injecting your body with chemicals.”
When apprenticing with Kelly, Thomas became acquainted with the community supported agriculture concept by helping pack the weekly deliveries from that farm.
Still, Thomas didn’t start directly marketing her own produce in that manner until her second year. The farm’s first year, 2006, she took produce to the Baldwin City and Lawrence farmers markets and started building her client list that now includes Baker University and the Merc Community Market, Local Burger and Wheat Fields in Lawrence.
“We don’t do as many restaurants any more,” she said. “Probably more than anything, we sell to Baker and the Merc. They buy in bulk; it just makes more sense.”
The community supported agriculture effort started because of the operating cash its upfront payments provided the farm, Thomas said.
“I realized in 2007, I had no cash,” she said. “The year before, I saved four months of paychecks to get started. By operating CSA, the money they pay me upfront goes for seeds, equipment and labor. It’s cash before I ever go to market.
“CSA members get the cream of the crop. I fill CSA bags before I ever go to market. That’s the payback because without the CSA money, I would be strapped for cash.”
A limit number of memberships are still available for this year. Those interested should call Thomas at (785)633-5292.