If you weren’t hungry when you arrived at the Market of Farms event in Lyons on the last Saturday in April, that almost certainly changed within a matter of minutes.
The tantalizing aroma of beef and sausage being grilled, so many food samples within the Celebration Centre that warehouse stores might be envious, and a vast array of jams, jellies and natural snacks greeted the hundreds of people who converged on what resembled a farmers market on steroids in this town 30 miles north of Hutchinson.
More than 30 vendors from all over the state had booths, including ranchers, farmers, a beekeeper, even an entrepreneur who makes organic pet food from scratch. Hundreds of people from nearly twenty counties converged on the event, which is an outgrowth of Shop Kansas Farms, the direct-to-consumer startup that blossomed during the COVID pandemic in 2020 when shutdowns and distribution issues led to empty grocery store shelves and people scrambling for ways to feed their families.
When Rick McNary’s wife came home from the grocery store three years ago and commented how many shelves were empty, he recognized something needed to be done. With meat packing plants closed by the pandemic, farmers and ranchers had no place to take their livestock. Hungry consumers were wondering where they were going to get meat and vegetables.
He launched Shop Kansas Farms on Facebook to connect producers and growers with consumers. Within a month, it had more than 130,000 members.
“It’s crazy how it blew up overnight,” Jeff Jones says of Shop Kansas Farms. “It shocked me how much interest there was in it.”
Jones Premium Cattle near Seneca, about 75 miles north of Topeka, had been selling some bulk beef for more than a decade prior to the pandemic, though most of its business was in retail cuts. The retail business vanished when the pandemic shutdowns occurred, however, so Jones turned to Shop Kansas Farms.
“It’s been real sustainable for us,” Jones says. “Our customer list is growing every year.”
About 75% of his business is now direct to consumer. Jones Premium Cattle used to sell bulk beef to a handful of regular customers a year. Now he sells to about 100, even as the retail cuts side of the business has resumed and expanded.
“That is growing crazy too,” Jones says.
What started as a side hustle for Jacquelyne Leffler has essentially become a full-fledged business.
“I’m thriving,” says Leffler, who farms near Americus, just north of Emporia. “I’ve just been gaining more customers, and it’s been really good for me.”
Besides selling bulk beef, Leffler has begun selling hamburger and beef by the cut. She sells to a store in Council Grove, where people like to buy hamburger and steaks on their way to the lake, and to a brand-new restaurant in Manhattan.
Soaring inflation has led to some of her regular families backing off on purchases, Leffler says, but the emerging business with restaurants and grocers has helped offset those reductions.
The success of Shop Kansas Farms did not go unnoticed. Several other states have borrowed the template and established their own versions.
Shop Kansas Farms has about 170,000 members now in its Facebook group and a separate Facebook page. There is a direct mail list with 4,500 subscribers, and the organization’s updated website drew 10,000 visitors in its first month, including customers from as far away as Denver and Chicago.
Like others, “We thought maybe this was just a pandemic-related, flash-in-the-pan moment,” Kansas Farm Bureau CEO Terry Holdren says. “When the supply chain has returned more to normal, that we’d see a decline in interest – we’d see folks return to more normal habits.
“We’ve really yet to see that in the operation of Shop Kansas Farms. Our members continue to report strong sales, consistent traffic on the (Facebook) pages, and now the Shop Kansas Farms website continues to be significant in ways that would indicate we’re probably beyond a trend at this point in time to a place where folks have said, ‘We want to acquire food this way.’”
Trying to juggle a full-time job and manage Shop Kansas Farms proved to be too much to handle by himself, so McNary reached out to the Kansas Farm Bureau with an offer: Would you be willing to buy it?
McNary had written articles for the organization’s magazine and knew the staff well. It had been assisting McNary with Shop Kansas Farms since its earliest days.
Farm Bureau officials agreed, on one condition: McNary had to serve as a consultant for at least the next five years.
“I wouldn’t have sold it to anybody else,” McNary says. “I just felt like they were the right ones. Friendships and relationships mean a lot to me. They know me and I know them, and it’s just a wonderful synergy.”
While taking on such an effort was outside the organization’s historical mission, Holdren says it seemed like a natural fit, “especially when you look at it in the context of all of the things that happened over the course of the pandemic, where everything was disruptive. I think we all began to look at how we do the work we’re supposed to do” to help farmers and communities.
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of Shop Kansas Farms, Holdren says, was the three phases of development McNary envisions for the concept. The direct-to-consumer branch is the first phase, and Market of Farms is the second.
The third phase is the creation of sustainability hubs around the state, through which local growers, farmers and ranchers produce pretty much all the food the region needs, while being processed locally.
McNary has already developed a “franchise” concept for the Market of Farms for communities to use. Lyons has hosted two of the events, Manhattan hosted one a year ago and Caldwell will host one in March 2024. Talks are at various stages to host an event at several other cities around the state, Holdren says.
Market of Farms will allow “Caldwell an opportunity to showcase itself, and show what we have to offer here in the way of tourism and commerce,” says Phil White, president of Vision Caldwell. “We recognize there is a future for Caldwell, and we need to make sure we are equipped for it. Our ultimate goal is to increase the number of people who choose to call Caldwell home. But we know that people are going to live where they can have a good quality of life, so that’s what we’re focused on here.”
The first Market of Farms in Lyons in 2022 attracted 1,400 people – almost all of them from somewhere other than Rice County.
“The people in Lyons said: ‘We knew they weren’t from here, because they parked in the parking lot wrong,’” McNary says with a laugh.
People came from five different states, research revealed. Part of that was a sheer desire to get out and about after being cooped up by the pandemic for so long, McNary says, but it also showed how far people are willing to travel for locally grown food. It remains true today.
“That part always blows me away,” Holdren says.
The opportunity to potentially connect with new customers is what makes Market of Farms so appealing to Caldwell leaders.
“It’s such an easy day trip (to Caldwell) from so many areas,” White says.
The third phase of Shop Kansas Farms is “a longer-term play for us,” says Holdren, who called it “a community conversation around food systems that are more resilient.”
One of the most surprising and disturbing lessons from the pandemic was how quickly the supply chain for food and other basic products broke down, Holdren says. That collapse revealed a need for production, processing and distribution on a local level.
“How do we make sure this stuff is on the shelves at the grocery store or served in our local restaurants?” Holdren asked.
The Farm Bureau is well-positioned to help communities address those questions, Holdren says, because it has a team of people and the resources to help communities identify grant dollars or other funding sources, as well as to facilitate conversations among local leaders on how to mobilize interest and overcome obstacles.
One such effort is already under way.
In Lyons, they have launched The Harvest Hub, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to connect producers to consumers. The hub has secured a $143,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is working in partnership with a local group converting the kitchen in the former Bushton High School building, about 23 miles away, into a commercial kitchen licensed by the Department of Health and Environment.
The intent is for local producers to use the kitchen to make their salsas, jams, jellies and other products. McNary hopes to see commercial kitchens open all around the state for entrepreneurs and producers to utilize. They’re expensive to build and must be licensed by the state, he said, but they open wide the doors of opportunity.
“It was really interesting to see the amount of energy that people brought to the table as far as what direction we wanted to go,” says Chad Hook, a farmer near Sterling who is president of the Rice County Farm Bureau and was tabbed to be president of The Harvest Hub. “We’ve got some very good entrepreneurial people … in our group.”
The Kansas Farm Bureau still has an obligation and a strong desire to support the producers who are growing large amounts of commodities such as wheat, corn and soybeans, Holdren says, “but at the same time, if we can’t feed ourselves at home, we’re missing a critical part of that picture.”
There is a growing interest in the bureau’s membership to start something new or expand current operations to tap into new opportunities, he says.
“Some of the things that we’re talking about are high-value products that can be grown on fairly small acreage” such as fruits and vegetables, Holdren says.
More and more growers are looking into vertical farming, which is the practice of growing crops in vertically stacked layers. While commonly utilized in greenhouses, the practice could also be adapted to shipping containers, buildings, tunnels and anywhere controlled environments are possible.
It’s not economically viable to grow wheat on only five acres, he says, but produce such as strawberries, carrots and lettuce are a different story. What isn’t sold locally could be marketed to surrounding states, who wouldn’t have to pay the same distribution costs as produce coming from California or other distant states.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for lots of different things, if we’re strategic about it,” Holdren says.
After a steady flow of customers during and after the pandemic shutdowns, Chad Gilliland of Next to Nature Farm has seen business slow somewhat as consumers responded to soaring inflation. They’re getting cheaper honey from large chain stores, he says, not realizing they’re getting significantly less value for their dollar  .
Why? Because honey is put through a heating process that extends shelf life but removes nutritional value, Gilliland says. Additives extend shelf life but reduce quality. You end up, Gilliland says, with a product that provides flavor but only a bare minimum of health benefits.
“Shop Kansas Farms isn’t just a food network,” Gilliland says. “It’s an educational network as well.”
He has launched monthly tours of his farm apiary near Tonganoxie, 30 miles west of Kansas City, and he sees agritourism as another step in expanding his revenue base.
“They can see the processes of how we harvest our honey and how we make our products,” he says.
There are workshops and classes for adults and a butterfly house for all ages.
“We’ve got all kinds of things that draw people from miles around as a destination location,” he says.
Before the pandemic struck, Eric Castle raised “show hogs” for young people in 4-H on his farm near Pleasanton, about 40 miles south of the Johnson County suburbs. That business remains strong and has even grown. But he began getting so many requests for bulk pork when the shutdowns occurred that he doubled the size of his sow herd to 30 and hopes to expand it again in a year or so.
While the number of customers has dipped – likely due to inflation, he says – his remaining customers are ordering more, resulting in greater overall demand. Castle also sold about 500 chickens a year for meat during the pandemic, and he expects that number to reach 1,300 this year. With interest in farm-raised eggs so high, he plans to add laying hens to the farm this year as well.
He’s now selling to two nearby stores and a restaurant in Kansas City and has added jerky and seasonings to his product list. By the end of the year, Castle says, he hopes to be shipping to customers all over the country.
Shop Kansas Farms has helped farmers, ranchers and producers reimagine what’s possible, Holdren says, and the ripple effects are enormous.
“There’s a huge opportunity for producers, with or without Shop Kansas Farms, to create the next iteration of what Kansas agriculture looks like,” Holdren says.
This digital-only article is being published in conjunction with the Summer 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.