Ag project aiding growers, envisions fiscal boost for Stafford County

STAFFORD - Outside Sarah and Lucas Stoeltings' home, snow still lingers and, except for winter wheat, most everything else typically green during the summer has long dried up and died.

With no ties to Stafford County and the county's population waning, the young couple admits they've considered leaving their little farmstead. When Lucas' job contract wasn't renewed, they thought about moving to where the job market might be better.

Yet, on this cloudy day, while everything else outside seems cold and drab, lettuce, carrots and kale grow inside a year-old high tunnel greenhouse. For the Stoeltings, this has given them a reason to stay.

"We have an opportunity help the county and there is the idea this has financial possibility to help, too," Lucas Stoelting said.

The Stoeltings' high tunnel is part of a nearly $42,000 grant from the Kansas Department of Agriculture in an effort to spur rural development in a county that hasn't grown since 1910. Stafford Economic Development Director Carolyn Dunn calls it one effort of many that could make a difference and reverse Stafford County's downward spiral, which, in 2010, had a population of 4,437 people.

The Stoeltings were one of five Stafford County residents awarded a high tunnel through the grant last spring, Dunn said. The project provides assistance for local growers to extend their growing season.

The ultimate hope is to create potential business ventures in a county that already has a number of specialty crop growers, including a Christmas tree farm and a hydroponic lettuce operation. The 20- by 70-foot space can extend the growing season 10 months of the year.

"We encouraged them to seek commercial channels that could support a year around business," Dunn said. "A lot did sell to farmers markets, as well. One sold to restaurants and Great Bend Regional Hospital. One sold to schools. One sold to a grocery store."

 

Growing trend

High tunnels are becoming more popular. Their growth is spurred, in part, by a federal incentive that began about four years ago. Since, the Natural Resources Conservation Service has provided financial assistance for several seasonal high tunnels across Kansas through the agency's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, said Erin Batman, with Kansas NRCS.

This month, the Kansas Rural Center announced plans to offer educational programming for farmers interested in expanding specialty crop production on their farmers.

KRC's "Tunnel to Table" project, funded through a Kansas Department of Agriculture specialty crop block grant, includes a series of workshops through the 2014 growing season on both high and low tunnels.

There is plenty of economic potential. According to the Kansas Rural Center, of the $760 million Kansans spend annually on fruits and vegetables, only 4 percent is produced inside the state. Kansas-grown specialty crops amount to about $32 million each year - or about 0.3 percent of Kansas' total agricultural sales.

Stafford County resident Heather Zehr said she is hoping to begin benefiting financially from her high tunnel. Zehr, who majored in botany, said she and her husband, Richard Kearney, learned about the Stafford Economic Development grant when they were thinking of moving back to Zehr's hometown of Stafford.

"I wanted my son to be raised in a small town," Zehr, 37, said of 3-year-old Darion.

The couple moved from Kansas City in January with Kearney finding a job as a store manager in Hutchinson. Moreover, by March, the couple, with the help of Zehr's father, Danny, was constructing the high tunnel.  

Zehr said they grew cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes in 2013. She took the produce to farmers' markets, as well as sold and delivered items to private individuals. She hopes someday to expand the operation.

 

Growing the market

Sarah Stoelting said she grew up in Emporia. When her husband got out of the Army, they settled on Kansas.

"We decided on Kansas, hoping we would have property," she said. "My husband and I were dreaming of having chickens and a garden and a space for kids to play."

Sarah, a stay-at-home mom who home schools daughters Elsie, 6, along with Adelyn, 3, says the high tunnel operation help boost the family's single-income - Lucas working as a safety officer at Barton County Community College.

They grow a variety of produce, including cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and peppers. They marketed to farmers markets and sold produce to a restaurant in Seward, said Sarah Stoelting, 36.

Activity in their high tunnel will expand in the next few months, Lucas said. For now, they are growing a few winter-type vegetables, which they keep covered with netting.

Their tunnel includes drip irrigation system. They considered going organic, but noted the time and paperwork it takes. For now, they try to be as natural as possible.

In bigger cities, some producers are making $7,000 in gross income for a season per tunnel - or about $5 a square foot, said Lucas, 38. One issue for Stafford County growers, however, is the distance to big markets like Wichita.

"We both decided it can be profitable," Sarah Stoelting said. "Our biggest challenge, however, is to find the market - what is the big sellers."

The Stoeltings, however, continue to look for ways to expand and profit. Sarah Stoelting said are talking to other area growers about starting a CSA - or community support agriculture program - that would bring multiple growers together to market produce.

"I don't know if it could be a full-time job, but it could be supplemental income," she said. "We have big dreams that it could take off."