Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Growing an Entrepreneur Farmer

Today I’d like to share an unusual and inspiring story of entrepreneurial spirit, originality, creativity, and, perhaps most important, perseverance.

Scottie Thelman grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, the son of a doctor and a minister. Although Lawrence is a smallish town (and home of the 2022 NCAA Champion Jayhawks – just sayin’), it’s not a completely rural community. Lots of wheat and other fields around, however, and Scottie was originally inspired to focus on the business side of agriculture.

After graduating with an ag business and finance degree from Iowa State University, Scottie was headed for a career in commodities trading, which many times means spending an entire career in one commodity. He soon found himself drawn more and more to being outside, hands in the dirt, raising a variety of crops, and being much closer to the consumer.

His parents had purchased land just outside of Lawrence as a retreat, but Scottie envisioned a real operating farm, complete with produce fields, a hundred-year-old barn, and a farmhouse named “Juniper Hill Farms”. Unlike so many farmers who have learned from and are able to draw on the wisdom and experience of parents, grandparents and previous generations who walked the rows of crops and tended the livestock just as their fathers always had, Scottie is a first-generation farmer and the quintessential entrepreneur – he had to figure it all out for himself!

First order of business for Scottie was transitioning his land to be able meet the strict growing, processing, and manufacturing standards required to raise and sell “certified organic” produce. Working with the USDA and Kansas Department of Agriculture, Scottie went to work planning the crops, reinvigorating the soil, and building a farm and a business.

While wearing his farmer hat to work with the certification process while at same time keeping his land productive, he never took off his entrepreneurial hat to make the enterprise actually profitable as well.

Scottie experimented with, but ultimately—mostly—eschewed marketing to farm-to-table restaurants (chefs are apparently pretty fickle, and tend to move around a lot) and farmers’ markets (small sales volumes) in favor of bigger opportunities with stores like Whole Foods. When Harvesters, a Kansas City-based food bank, received a grant from the state to provide fresh, locally grown produce to its network, Scottie was there to fill the warehouses with Juniper Hills beets and other organic vegetables. A great steward of his land but also an astute businessman, Scottie is always looking for, and usually finding, ways to grow both the farm’s productivity and profitability.

And believe it or not, the story gets even cooler from there! Scottie’s mom Nancy - obviously the entrepreneurial apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – recently retired and saw opportunity in the market for fresh, locally grown products, while also leveraging love for one of humanity’s greatest creations - pizza.

Together with Scottie, Scottie’s dad, and Scottie’s partner, she converted the Juniper Hill barn into a small restaurant overlooking Scottie’s fields and the rolling Kansas prairies. A local stone mason built a wood-fired pizza oven, laying each stone by hand. Nancy navigated the various building codes and permits, and applied for a liquor license - in fact she received her Medicare card and liquor license the same year! Now she serves up the most amazing pizza, salads, and grilled shishito peppers on Thursday nights on the farm.

Together with Scottie, she strives to use almost 100% ingredients sourced right there at Juniper Hill Farms. One notable exception is the flour for the pizza dough – a particularly specialized flour sourced outside the farm - but everything else comes from Scottie and other local growers. Here again this entrepreneurial mom and son show their business acumen – considerations of available supply and labor makes being open one night a week the best business decision (and makes dinner at the restaurant a highly sought-after reservation). And Nancy shuts down in August. For those of you outside the Midwest, it’s really hot in Kansas!

No comments :

Post a Comment