A first-generation farmer growing a niche farm business in a pandemic year

“I went from 1/800 of an acre my first year to 40 to 50 acres today.”

When Scott Thellman took a job at a local sweet corn farm when he was in junior high, he never imagined it would lead him to farming full-time on his own. From that summer on, he was going to do whatever he needed to, to make his new dream a reality.

The 30-year-old now farms on his first-generation farm of 1,200 acres of hay, alfalfa, row crops and 40 acres of a variety of fruits and vegetables outside of Lawrence, Kansas.

“When I realized I wanted to farm, I started saving up money,” says Thellman. “I was able to save enough to purchase a mower, rake, and baler throughout high school, and that turned into a fairly sizable hay operation by the time I graduated.”

Thellman went to Iowa State University, received his degree, and returned home to the farm. When he graduated from college, he decided to diversify his hay operation, purchased a refrigerated truck, and starting growing and selling fruits and vegetables.

“I went from 1/800 of an acre my first year to 40 to 50 acres today,” says Thellman. “In my mind, I really saw the need for local food systems and the opportunities there to develop them. It just took somebody willing to find those markets.”

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Thellman says the last two years have allowed him to expand strategically, including putting up a 49,000-square-foot high tunnel, which has let him move into the organic heirloom tomato market.

Growing with COVID-19

Right at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March of this year, Thellman and a local meat distributor launched Sunflower Provisions, an online grocery store. There are nearly 200 items available with at least 120 local items. Today, Thellman says they’ve filled well over 6,000 orders.

“Frankly, this joint venture has helped save our businesses as a large chunk of our produce businesses were restaurants, school districts, and hospitals,” says Thellman. “When COVID-19 hit, hospitals shut off deliveries beyond their main broadline distributors, the school districts shut down, and same with the restaurants – so we lost a lot of markets very quickly.”

Like most small businesses, Thellman was worried what the pandemic would do to his business. However, he says tapping into the direct-to-consumer opportunities ultimately saved his vegetable business as well as his first-generation farm.

“When I started the vegetables and brokering them, it was about diversifying the farm in case our enterprise didn’t do well, so we’d have other options to fall back on,” says Thellman. “This year was that year. Although we might have some enterprise that may not end up being profitable like the hay or row crops, we’ll still come out doing all right because we diversified.”

This year, Thellman also found a strong value in the Farmers to Families Food Box as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

“It’s been a powerful program to help support local and regional food systems and has also served the most vulnerable in our community in a time when there needs to be a strong safety net,” he says.

Continued growth in 2021

Thellman is currently working to develop a processing kitchen since their 4,000-square-foot stock house is overcapacity. This would allow Sunflower Provisions to buy more select bell peppers and No. 2 vegetables.

“I’m really hoping our restaurants survive this,” says Thellman. “We know more people are cooking at home, so we’re working on how we can extend our seasons to create additional value in product that would otherwise go to compost.”

Thellman is also eager to build more greenhouses, expand the loading dock, and move the online store to its own facility away from the farm in the coming year.

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