I was given the opportunity to take part in a 3-day Kansas farm tour this fall, and the education was real! Here’s the lowdown on farm-to-table, Midwest-style!
How often do you think about how your food gets to your table? The farm-to-table movement is definitely a hot topic in the United States nowadays, but our farmers are terribly under-appreciated and truly taken for granted.
There’s no better way to be educated about our food than by stepping on a real farm! It’s also a great way to dispel a lot of misconceptions about where our food comes from, what is (or isn’t!) done to it, and discover just how passionate America’s farmers are about what they do.
I’ve been on farm tours before, but the #FarmFoodTour was a truly eye-opening trip.
The Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Soybean Commission pulled out all the stops, inviting myself and nine other bloggers from various backgrounds (a dietitian, a lifestyle expert, travel gurus, and even a couple farm gals) out to The Sunflower State on an all-expenses paid trip. We all had one thing in common – we are all hardcore, unforgiving foodies.
One day one, we hopped on a bus with our luggage and coolers full of snacks and set off on our Midwest adventure. Over the course of the week, we visited eight different family-owned farms – each one representing common types of farm in Kansas.
Not one farmer hesitated to answer our hard questions.
Day One – Veggies, Pork & Wine
Our first stop was a visit to Scott Thellman, a first generation farmer, at his modest 49-acre Juniper Hill Farms in Lawrence.
I was immediately enchanted by the classic red barn on the property, being reminded of the Fisher-Price version I had as a child. The barn dog and cat threw a little love my way, and once I found the hammock, I knew I’d have a hard time leaving.
Juniper Hill is a conventional-organic, non-GMO, open-air fruit & vegetable farm. Scott & his staff grow various types of peppers, green, tomatoes, winter squash, beans, and corn, among other things. 90% of their products are sold within a 100-mile radius of the farm, to local restaurants and the school district.
They even have a private label for the produce sold to the public, so consider yourself lucky, Kansas folks.
The hard questions for Scotty all related to organic farm classification.
What is Organic Farming?
Organic farming is a farming method that involves growing and nurturing crops without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms (GMO) seeds.
This type of farming instead relies on ecological agricultural principles like crop rotation and grafting, grade soil sampling, organic waste, biological pest control, and mineral & rock additives.
That being said, natural pesticides and fertilizers are still used in organic farming – so don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise. For the 50% of his crops that are grown organically, Scott opts for cover crops and crop rotation over expensive treatments to keep the soil rich and healthy between growing seasons.
A short drive then took us to our next stop, Good Pig Farm in Olsburg. Craig and Amy Good are well-known and loved (Scott even sent a box of fresh veggies with us for them!), running their established farm since 1981.
Corn and soybeans grown on their land, but their specialty is raising hogs and cattle.
The Goods work with Heritage Foods USA, raising Tamworth, Duroc, and Gloucestershire breeds mainly for high-quality restaurant sales. The pigs at this farm are lovingly cared for by Craig, who also harvests and administers artificial insemination of the sows.
After giving birth, his sows spend three weeks apart from the herd, recovering in roomy gestational pens. The newborn piggies are kept safely in a covered barn, fed a specially formulated diet until they’re old enough to be given room to roam and run in the large piglet pen – which we observed with delight for a solid 20 minutes.
Wee piggies are so cute!
While on the farm, we enjoyed an out-of-this-world lunch, catered by Valerie Visser of The Fork In The Road.
Born into a farming family, Valerie has expanded her business from a roadside food truck to catering to a brand new market store in Riley.
Everything sold in the shop, from the fresh vegetables to the frozen pork to the packaged pre-cooked lasagna, is produced on her farm and in her kitchen. As an avid baker, she even sells homemade cookie dough, signature cinnamon rolls, and a variety of freshly baked pies!
I’m so jealous of anyone that gets to go there on a weekly basis! Send me a pie!
What kind of pork should you look for at the store?
Craig laid some serious pork-buying knowledge on us during our delicious lunch in their guest house. “Redder is better” – even though pork is known as the other white meat.
You want to find a cut with plenty of marbling, and very little moisture and bleeding in the sealed cryovac bag. The more leaked moisture in the bag means less moisture in the pork.
After a bit of a respite in our hotel rooms, Liquid Art Winery & Cidery in Manhattan was our dinner stop – and arguably my favorite farm…because wine.
You may not think of a winery as a farm, but it absolutely is! After spending a week in the Napa & Sonoma areas of California earlier this year, I was so surprised to see a winery like this in flat Kansas.
The land David and Danielle Tegtmeir built their first vineyard on is located in the heart of the Flint Hills, where the soil and topography are very similar to those in Bourdeaux, France.
David, a native Kansan, used his degrees in Enology and Viticulture outside of his home state, working at a winery and several cider companies to hone his skills. His heart always belonged to Kansas, so he and Danielle made the decision to return and make a name for themselves.
And so they have – Liquid Art now includes a tasting room (that also serves delicious pizza), a beautiful event space, and they produce thousands of bottles of wine and cider a year. Not only can you buy their products locally around Kansas, they also ship to 37 states!
Dave and Dani continue to expand their business, having created a vineyard development and management company in 2018. With so much overused land in Kansas, it can become unsuitable for crops or livestock. Dave and Dani help turn that land into vineyards, which benefits the landowner as well as Liquid Art.
(Dave was unfortunately involved in an accident at the cidery in 2018 that resulted in chemical damage to his eyes, leaving his vision impaired. His prognosis is positive, and he’s been able to develop his other senses to produce even better flavors.)
Day Two – Fiber, Beef & Commodity Crops
Our sunrise stop on day two was Rowantree Fiber Farm in Abilene, a Pygora goat and sheep farm. Animal farms aren’t only for food – they can also provide textiles like wool and fiber.
Colleen and Mike McGee started Rowantree as a hobby farm with a small herd of Pygora goats, whose wool is known for its similarity to cashmere.
The farm produces a fairly small amount of fiber each year, so they team up with other local farmers and artisans to sell and trade their goods. Large fiber mills generally refuse to work with them because of their size, or make negotiation difficult, so the local niche market is a much better option.
A bit of good news for the fiber farmers – the United States Army is returning to 100% wool uniforms because of their breathability and fire resistance. This means they’ll be contracting with only U.S. based fiber mills!
The morning was very educational, and was a little reminiscent of a school field trip. Of course, Colleen and her fiber farmer friends often host schoolchildren at the farm, so the feeling was intentional.
We watched a beautiful black goat get her bi-annual shearing as she munched on a bowl of endless food, then were able to feel the wool from raw to processed via a variety of products.
Some of us even got to try spinning our own yarn from fresh fiber – which is a lot harder than you’d think. I admire our ancestors, who didn’t have the fancy machines we have today!
We also got to venture out into the goat pasture and feed and frolic with the friendly animals! I made quite a few fluffy friends.
Lunch was in Lindsborg, a Swedish community right in the middle of farm country. The Swedish Crown is run by the students of Bethany College, and serves a variety of authentic Swede delicacies. Think IKEA but not commercial.
The town itself was absolutely adorable, complete with old converted buildings (like this coffee shop in an old blacksmith & wagonshop), cobblestone streets, and a freaking Swedish telephone booth.
With Abe’s profession being so ingrained in beef, I was most interested in our stop at the Tiffany Cattle Company – and also the most concerned. Run by first generation cattle rancher brothers Shane and Shawn Tiffany, this finishing farm, established in 2007, is where cattle spend the last months of their life before being processed.
You so often hear about the debate between grain and grass-fed beef, and which is better for the consumer as well as the environment. There are documentaries all over Netflix and such about the horrors of ranching and the effect on climate change, the treatment of animals, the use of growth hormones…
I was very relieved after our 2-hour visit with Shane, who got arguably the hardest questions of the entire trip.
The first thing I noticed was how clean and free of flies the farm was. It was obvious you were around cattle (since that smell is so unique), but in spite of the heat of the afternoon, I was never uncomfortable. Tiffany employs the use of parasitic wasps, shipped in weekly, to kill the flies and keep the cattle comfy and clean.
Another thing we all soon realized was how quiet the cattle were. As they roamed, slept, and munched on their specially formulated blend of grass and grain, there were no unhappy groans, no fighting – only an occasional ‘moo’ from a curious cow. It was almost peaceful – exactly the kind of life I’d want to live.
How are cattle treated at a commercial feedlot?
Between their two lots, Tiffany finishes between 20,000 and 28,000 heads of cattle a year, mostly providing Certified Angus Beef® brand-quality product to high-end restaurants.
The NHTC-verified (Non-Hormone Treated Cattle) cows are conventionally fed a natural, whole foods diet which is adapted from their grass-fed roots to include plenty of vitamins and minerals to keep the animals healthy as they grow. Their newly arrived calves are fed grass and hay, and their food blend gradually introduces distillers grain and corn, which is also grown on their farm.
While Shane prefers to feed his animals to better health versus medicating, he explained that farmers do have a moral obligation to treat any sick animals with antibiotics. Any cattle treated are returned to their original living conditions (as they are creatures of habit and anything otherwise would put stress on them), but are tagged and sorted separately at the time of production so they can be labelled properly.
The Tiffany brothers are committed to the health and comfort of their cattle, believing comfort yield performance, which yields profitability. Shane, as CEO of the company, is as invested in the success of his animals as he is in his business, and he is passionate about giving his customers the best quality money can buy.
All of the cowboys at Tiffany are BQA-(beef quality assurance) certified. This certification ensures that the animals are treated humanely, and put under as little stress as possible from lot to slaughter. They know their animals well, and can spot any abnormalities with little more than a glance. Tiffany boasts a .7% death loss, which is half of the industry standard – demonstrating their commitment to better management techniques, food safety and quality.
With the load of information from Shane on our minds and lips, the bus took us to Baldwin Farms in McPherson – the farm our traveling farmer, Kim Baldwin, manages with her family. This 4000-acre farm employs some high-tech scientific methods, taking soil samples to determine crop yield production.
Vast fields of commodity (traded) crops – soybeans, sorghum, wheat, and field corn – are grown on their no-till land, which mostly depends on rainfall for watering versus irrigation.
Wheat, corn, and soybeans are a few of the commodity crops grown in Kansas, and the Baldwins are a top producer of them.
Commodity field corn, a much dried version of the sweet corn you’re used to eating at cookouts, is sold as livestock feed or for manufactured good (like corn syrup and cornstarch).
Certain breeds of field corn, called Indigen, (you often see a black, blue, or purple-colored kernel or two on each ear that signifies this) are used to produce ethanol, a type of auto fuel. Soybeans are also sold as a biodiesel product.
The apple of Kim’s eye is their mushroom popcorn, Papa Baldy’s Poppin’ Snacks Popcorn, a fluffy, round type of popped popcorn.
She sent all of us home with a bag of it, and even though the TSA almost confiscated it from my carryon, I managed to get it home and have enjoyed many batches of kettle corn with it!
The Baldwins also grow consumer crops, one of them being white sorghum which I learned is a naturally gluten-free ancient grain.
Certain breeds (red) of this drought-resistant crop are also converted into ethanol on a commodity basis, but food-grade white sorghum, widely known of as being used in sorghum molasses, can also be ground into a flour.
Kim has found all kinds of uses for it, including substituting it for rice in gluten-free risotto and rice pudding!
We spent so much time asking questions that we headed straight to dinner in McPherson. Courtyard on Main was a little spot of elegance that I wasn’t expecting after two days of hoofing it (pun intended)!
I immediately felt smelly and underdressed when we walked into the pretty space.
The limited-availability restaurant, run by a mother-daughter team, was open just for us, and it was absolutely charming. Our farm-to-table trip continued to make its full circle, as dinner included local butter and bread, an apple-pecan salad, a lovely strawberry parfait. and plenty of wine.
The main event was a scalloped potato medley with quite possibly the most delicious beef tenderloin I’ve ever had. The ingredients for the dinner were sourced locally, with the beef coming from Tiffany Cattle Company!
Day 3 – Dairy, Grains & Grass-Fed Cattle
We weren’t up as early as Byron & Heidi Wells of Wells M&M Dairy Farm, who being every day at 3am by milking their 150 Holstein cows. The time-consuming process is done by machine, but still takes about four hours – and is repeated again at 3pm.
Dairy farmers know no weekend or holidays, especially since there are now fewer than 500 of them in Kansas – a far cry from the 500 that were located in Milton County alone in the 1980s.
The cows that produce milk are ones that have recently give birth, and they will continue to lactate for the better part of a year – over 300 days!
Each dairy cow produces between 6 and 9 gallons of milk per day, after consuming 35 gallons of water and 100 pounds of food! Thankfully, the Wells provide their own silage (food), grown on their 1500-acre farm.
The newborn calves are separated from their mothers (an important part of the weaning process), but are still given their mother’s milk for the year while being cared for by the farmers. The Wells keep any female calves born to employ in the “family business”, and send off the males to a family farm down the road that raises them for beef finishing.
The milk not fed to the calves goes into a temperature-controlled, 2000-gallon tank which is picked up by a tanker every other day to be sent to a processing plant. Each tank is sampled and tested for abnormalities by the truck driver before being accepted, ensuring no cross-contamination happens.
Abnormalities? Tell me about antibiotics in our milk.
The cows at a dairy farm are treated with antibiotics when they’re ill (much like at Tiffany), but they are marked and their milk is held separate from the milk in the bulk tank. This milk is never sent to be processed, as it is illegal.
If any farm does send antibiotic-tainted milk (usually by an oversight), they are required to pay for the cost of the entire disposed tanker (around $8500) and their pickups are suspended until they can be inspected and evaluated.
As a member of the DFA Gold Standard Dairy Program, dairy farmers are required to keep detailed records, treat their animals humanely, and submit to inspections at any given time.
You might have even consumed some of the milk from Wells’ cows – the majority of their milk goes to make Chick-Fil-A ice cream, as well as shelf-stable milk for the military.
The Kitchen in Wichita was our stop for lunch, and it just seemed fitting, after a chilly morning on a dairy farm, to enjoy a triple grilled cheese sandwich with a bowl of tomato soup!
Ugh, seriously, it was so good. And enjoying the slice of to-go chocolate cake on the bus was the perfect nap-inducing treat.
Our longest ride was to Leffler Farms in Americus, a 100% family-employed farm. The Lefflers grow field corn, soybeans, and wheat, along with pasture-raised black angus cattle that are sent off to be finished at places like Tiffany Cattle Co.
4th generation farmer Jacquelyne Leffler also raises her own brand (Leffler Prime Performance) of prime grass-fed cattle for private purchase. Imagine what gorgeous Cast Iron Steaks and Pot Roast these would make!
The farm follows sustainable practices, such as planting cover crops on no-till soil, spot spraying for weeds to prevent killing grass, and controlled burning of pastures once a year.
Even with these tried-and-true practices in place, Jacquelyne’s unique knowledge and use of ag tech is notable. A Kansas State University graduate, she actually majored in sports medicine.
After an accident left the farm patriarch, her grandfather Wayne, out of commission, she discovered her passion for family farming.
Her intent was to change majors while in college, but her sports scholarship prevented her from doing so. Her family, as well as the Kansas Farm Bureau, helped her master the parts of farming her non-ag education didn’t provide.
An avid listener of podcasts and a Twitter-holic (farm Twitter is HUGE), Jacquelyne is constantly learning of new ag tech, and uses it to improve the farm’s conditions and yield.
One example is their use of a state-of-the art tractor with satellite technology. The tractor has extra-wide flotation tires, helping them to work fields that are still wet (crucial in this last rainy season) with minimal soil impaction.
The day ended with a true BBQ fit for a king in the giant Leffler storage barn (which was so clean you could eat off its floors).
BBQ brisket, homemade mac and cheese, cheesy potatoes, and all the sides you could want were on the menu. Beer, wine, and fresh snickerdoodles were passed around, between the Leffler family and all of us – the perfect ending to a truly wonderful farm tour.
You may never have the chance to tour a farm like I did, but if you ever have any questions about where your food comes from, don’t be afraid to find a local farmer and ask! These folks love what they do, and you’re guaranteed to find the answers you’re looking for – and maybe even a box of produce to go with them.