If one thing stands out among the farms in the 2007 Kaw Valley Farm Tour this past weekend (Oct. 6-7), it’s the remarkable variety of plants and animals raised.
Livestock ranged from big bison to bitty bees, with chickens, turkey, elk, emu, goats and cattle in between. And even this late in the season, we still saw tomatoes, berries, and grapes on the vines plus mushrooms, lots of pumpkins and locally grown trees (a "crop" I never thought about before the tour).
The bounty is in contrast to most people’s vision (if they have one at all) of Kansas as flat, gray, and barren. (Thank you, L. Frank Baum.) While it’s true that large portions in the west are flatter and drier (though nothing like, say, Florida for flatness), the eastern part of the state, including the Kaw River Valley, gets more rain and is relatively verdant. Hilly, too. (Check out this moderately large but interesting PDF that tells the story, with historical photos, of Kaw Valley agriculture.)
But on to the tour: I suppose it’s possible to cover all 13 farms on the tour in a day or two, but if you want to spend some time, as my friend and I did, you might not hit them all. Let’s look at three.
Wakarusa Valley Farm (no website, email wakarusafarm /at/ yahoo): Co-owner Mark Lumpe claims he’s got the best soil anywhere in his flat, clay-free location near the Wakarusa River, a Kaw tributary. This certified organic farm uses that land to produce mesclun and mushrooms for Lawrence area restaurants, the Community Mercantile grocery and the Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance CSA. He also pointed out to visitors a small field of volunteer buckwheat in bloom, amazingly prolific tomatoes and blackberry brambles in his fields. The array of crops on this single small farm, which also sells mushroom "spawn" and growth medium for people who want to grow their own, was impressive.
Vesecky Family Farms. This multigenerational family farm, in business since 1866, raises pastured chickens and heritage and white turkeys. Those heritage turkeys most definitely gobble — and in unison. They were quite the show-offs. The Veseckys also raise cattle, elk, guineas (which John Vesecky said do a great job of debugging the strawberry fields without eating the fruit) as well as berries and sweet corn. They put different breeds of birds in pens at the front of the yard so that kids (and adults) could examine them up close, and they included eggs to try to guess which kind of bird laid them.
Pendleton’s Country Market. Karen and John Pendleton have to be the Energizer Bunnies of Douglas County farming. Not only do they operate a decent-size, diversified farm, growing everything from commodity crops (corn, wheat) to asparagus to bedding plants to cut flowers, but they also are ceaseless promoters of local agriculture, including their own farm, of course, and active in 4-H. I don’t know where they get the energy. A new addition since the last time I was at the farm is their Butterfly Bio-Villa, which not only provides a fascinating educational opportunity about local butterflies but also a little bit of income for the farm. Karen was in the "villa," butterfly net in hand to catch monarchs passing through weeks beyond their usual migration, pointing out the freshly deposited butterfly eggs and swallowtails’ defense mechanism. Visitors also could buy bedding plants, pumpkins and assorted other items.
I’m convinced that the hardiest creatures of all on the tour, though, are the farmers themselves. They’re supplying our food, many of them with organic and sustainable practices, in a place where the weather is so unpredictable that no one is surprised when there’s a 20-degree difference in high temperatures from one day to the next. Last spring’s especially unusual freeze came up time and again in farmers’ discussions, but they carry on, bless them.
To top off the day, I went to a neighbor’s birthday party, which was catered by Local Burger (owned by another neighbor — I live a cool neighborhood), and chose an elk burger from among the selection of local burgers offered, with meat supplied by a farm tour rancher, Rocky Hills Elk Ranch (no website; email credmonds /at/ yahoo), and some of those Wakarusa Valley Farms salad greens.