MKC Blog > December 2020 > Boosting Their Bottom Line

Boosting Their Bottom Line

December 21, 2020

Opportunities to buy agricultural products directly from farmers are commonplace in America’s rural towns. Farmers markets, roadside stands and U-Pick farms have continued to rise in popularity across the heartland, mostly due to the growing consumer interest in obtaining fresh products directly from the farm. These outlets allow consumers to learn where, how and who produced their food and enables farmers to develop a personal relationship with their customers.

Across the state, MKC member-owners have capitalized on direct-to-consumer sales as a supplemental source of income, whether it be in addition to their traditional row crop operations, as a value-added product or as a seasonal commodity.

Gaeddert Farms Sweet Corn
boosting-their-bottom-line.jpgThe start of summer in central Kansas is highlighted by the distinctive green and yellow Gaeddert Farms sweet corn stands sprouting up in parking lots across the Wichita and Hutchinson area. The business, operated by sisters Julie Ball and Tonya Martisko, sells homegrown sweet corn and a variety of other farm-fresh fruits and vegetables.

What started as a half-acre patch for extended family to pick corn has grown into a 100-acre business with 11 retail stands in seven cities, including Hutchinson, Newton, McPherson, Salina and several Wichita locations.

“We grew up in the sweet corn business,” Martisko says. “Our parents have been farming for over 50 years. As kids, Julie and I, along with our cousins Jason Gaeddert and Heather Martens, would sell corn on the sidewalk in front of our grandparents’ house in Buhler. We were happy to get ten customers a day.”

As the two grew, so did the business. Both graduated from Buhler High School and Bethel College in North Newton, and later would take vacation from their careers to manage the two-week season during the summer. Prior to the first stand opening in Hutchinson in 1996, corn was only sold from the family farm located just east of Buhler.

“We have had a lot of growth since our first stand in Hutchinson,” Ball says. “We quit our jobs in 1999 to put all our efforts into making this a full-time business. That same year, we added locations in Wichita and built the canopies we use today.”

The planting season begins as early in the year as possible and multiple plantings are staggered to get fresh sweet corn for a six-to-eight-week summer season. The duo partners with MKC Strategic Account Manager Chris Thompson for expert agronomic advice.

“Chris is a big help for us,” Ball says. “He has given us a lot of advice on chemicals and conducts research to come up with different ideas for our operation. He does a lot for not only our sweet corn, but our entire farm.”

Once the corn is ripe, it is mechanically picked at 3 a.m. each day with a machine driven by Martisko’s son, Zachary. Martisko’s other children, Nicholas, Hannah and Tyler also have roles in the operation, from working at stands to sorting and boxing corn at the farm.

“It’s enjoyable to work together as a family business,” Martisko says. “I enjoy being able to see my kids grow up in the business and learn how to work and have a good work ethic. It shows in other things they accomplish.”

Gaeddert Farms employs approximately 50 summer staff, many of which are students and teachers. The staff begins each day at 5 a.m. by packaging boxes of corn to ship to each stand to sell for the day. Corn that is not sold by the end of the day is donated to local food banks.

“We’re proud of this business we have built,” Martisko says. “We take pride in the fact that we are known for our quality and integrity. We provide customers with an outstanding product as well as an honest, family-oriented atmosphere.”

Three Varner Girls Goats
boosting-their-bottom-line2.jpgThe Varner sisters have always been business minded. At a young age, Amy Varner convinced her parents, Calvin and Carla, that owning a few dairy goats would be cheaper than buying milk replacer for bottle baby calves. Her sisters, Tara and Shelby, started showing dairy goats in the following years. Three goats turned into more and ten years later, the sisters have built the Three Varner Girls Goats brand by genetically improving their herd and selling value-added goat milk products.

The Varner family farm is now home to over 180 meat and dairy goats, with breeds ranging from Boers to La Manchas. Most meat goats are sold to youth as 4-H projects while dairy goats are used for milk production and are shown through American Dairy Goat Association sanctioned shows.

“A lot of this operation started through a 4-H project,” Tara says. “Now we breed our own meat goats that we sell to 4-H members. It has all come full circle.”

The sisters oversee the maintenance of the herd, including nutrition, breeding and milking each goat by hand.

“We’re always outside by 7 each morning,” Shelby says. “It takes about 45 minutes to milk the 20 does that are in production.”

In addition to milking, morning chores include feeding grain to all of the pens, feeding the milk to the baby animals and making sure everything has hay. In the evening, the does are again milked by hand.

“About 10-12 gallons of the milk is used back on the farm as milk replacer for the kids and bucket calves,” Tara says. “The rest we use to make cheese, soap and lotion that we sell at craft fairs. I also sell cheese to a local person that dehydrates it and sells it as dog treats in Washington and Oregon.”

The Varner sisters work with Brent Floerke, MKC agronomy sales and service specialist at the Benton location, to order grain and concentrate for the herd.

“Brent always calls to ask if we need more grain when they send in an order,” Tara says. “He even personally went up to Manhattan to pick up our concentrate for us when the truck stopped delivering due to COVID-19.”

Through all of the growth and changes over the years, the sisters have learned more about each other and how to work well together.

“We spend a lot of time in each other’s pockets,” Shelby says. “Everything we do is together, whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. We’ve built a strong family unit.”

Pedro’s Corn Chips
boosting-their-bottom-line3.jpgLeon Winfrey wears many hats. In addition to his notable cowboy hat, Winfrey wears the hats of farmer, food scientist, accountant and marketer for his business, Southwest Tortillas.

Winfrey and his family have grown food grade white corn on their farm in southwest Kansas since 2001. Southwest Tortillas’ fresh corn tortillas are sold to restaurants throughout Kansas and Oklahoma, where they are fried and served to customers in bottomless baskets. The Winfrey’s also sell bagged corn tortilla chips, marketed under the brand name Pedro’s Corn Chips, in small-town grocery stores in the area.

The idea for a tortilla business came when corn prices were low and Winfrey had a desire to boost their farm’s bottom line.

“In the early 2000s, corn was under $2 a bushel,” Winfrey says. “A bag of chips was sometimes double or triple that. I knew we had to do something that added value to our corn.”

Winfrey traveled to a tortilla factory in Texas to learn the process from farm to fork. He found that it all starts in the field with a quality kernel.

“I want the best quality kernel I can get,” Winfrey says. “It has to be solid with no cracks. We looked at growing an organic variety of corn as a specialty market, but frankly, organic isn’t necessarily the best quality.”

Winfrey relies on MKC Strategic Account Manager Adam Froetschner to make accurate recommendations on crop inputs in order to grow the highest quality of kernel.

“We meet with Adam to go over our fertilizer, fungicides and whatever other chemicals we need to use to grow our crop,” Winfrey says. “I expect salesmen to know the products they are selling and what they do, and Adam is very knowledgeable about his chemicals.”

Every kernel is harvested and stored at the farm, then cleaned and sized before being brought to town to cook at the factory, an unassuming blue tin building on the north side of Plains. The corn is cooked and steeped in hot water for 12 hours before it is ground into dough.

“The cooking process is what makes the chip,” Winfrey says. “I had to become a scientist when I learned the pH of the cooking water was important. We have to control the pH of our water here in order to have a product that will fry.”

The ground corn, or masa, is then pushed into rollers to make the tortillas. Each tortilla is cut into quarters to create a chip, then fried 24 hours later. The chips are then put into 19 oz. bright, colorful bags to be peddled to area grocery stores. Winfrey worked with an expert from the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas, to learn about ingredient labeling, and another marketing expert to learn about grocery shopping habits of consumers and how to ask for prime shelf space to compete with larger chip companies.

“I had to learn a lot about branding and marketing,” Winfrey says. “I learned that you don’t grocery shop, you grocery buy. You’re scanning and know exactly what you’re looking for, so I have just a few seconds to get your attention.”

Winfrey has seen this lesson firsthand while stocking shelves.

“Four years ago, I was having health problems and was ready to quit. I was at a store in Kiowa putting boxes on the shelf when I heard a little girl say, ‘Oh Pedro’s!’ Her mom explained they had been out for a week and couldn’t live without them. I called my wife and said, ‘I guess we’re not done yet.’”

Winfrey says what he enjoys the most is knowing that he is directly feeding the consumer.

“Our slogan is ‘from our field to your table’,” Winfrey says. “It’s satisfying to know that is exactly what we are doing. Especially during this pandemic, people are finding out their meat, toilet paper, milk and eggs don’t come from the grocery store. They’re learning that maybe farmers really do produce our food.”

Posted: 12/21/2020 4:38:05 PM by Kelli Schrag | with 0 comments

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