Aug 28, 2023
By Jody Shee
Amid the challenges of farming, some soy industry leaders find joy in side jobs and hobbies. These pursuits are not merely distractions but serve as a way to make a positive impact on their communities and raise consumer awareness about the importance of farming.
Here we talk with three industry leaders who have rewarding side gigs.
Ronnie Russell chose to grow a shorter sunflower variety that makes for better selfie photos.
Ronnie Russell, who farms 1,700 acres in Richmond, Missouri, always felt like there was a disconnect among those outside of agriculture. “They lack an understanding of where their food comes from and how it’s produced,” he says.
In 2016, a solution hit him while visiting a popular Kansas sunflower farm. “I thought, this might be the hook I’ve been looking for—a reason for people to come out to our farm,” he says. So, on a whim, he planted 20-35 acres of sunflowers, just to see if he could.
He picked a handful of his first bloom, took a photo and posted it on Facebook. “It went viral with an amazing number of responses,” he says. Today his Facebook page, Russellsunflowerpatch, has 15,000 followers.
The sunflower patch creates a buzz for the two weeks in August when the flowers are in their prime. Professional photographers visit to capture the yellow spectacle, and the sunflower patch has been featured on a Kansas City television station. “The first blooming weekend, I’d say we have 5,000 people over a three-day period,” Russell says.
The shorter sunflower variety he grows, which only reaches about 5-feet tall, is strategic, so visitors can see over the sunflowers while allowing them to better take photos with the flowers—but Russell’s hidden mission is to explain the soybean element of the farm. He visits with the tourists and explains the importance of soy and all the unimaginable things it is used for.
“I don’t have bounce houses or a hayride. None of that,” he says. “I want the visitors to enjoy the pristine area that it is. It’s a quiet place.” Except that refreshment is necessary in August, so a vendor with an old, converted Airstream trailer operates a snow cone/shaved ice respite on the property, called the “Snow Station.” For that, he provides a canopy and haybales for comfortable seating.
Russell doesn’t charge admission but rather features a secure donation box. He makes a comparable profit as if he planted soybeans or corn, he says.
The popularity of the sunflower patch warrants city of Richmond agritourism treatment by the Chamber of Commerce. In the past few years, it has devised a brochure to distribute at the sunflower patch in which local restaurants can advertise to capture extra business.
In time, Russell harvests, cleans and packs the sunflowers as birdseed that is sold in 11 retail locations in Missouri and Kansas throughout the winter.
“I do all this because about 98% of the population is several generations removed from where product comes from,” Russell says. “I’m doing something that has generational importance.”
Kate Lambert and her family grow 34 pumpkin varieties at their Uptown Farms in Linn County, Missouri.
Though Kate Lambert, vice president of marketing for FCS Financial, Jefferson City, Missouri, didn’t grow up on a farm, her family raised sheep on their four-acre property 60 miles west of Chicago. She always enjoyed visiting farms for pumpkin or berry picking and fancied doing a similar, fun agritourism business like that herself one day.
Her dream revived after marrying and moving to her husband Matt’s family farm. She and Matt of Uptown Farms grow about 2,200 acres of row crops, mainly soy and corn, in Linn County, Missouri, in the small town of Laclede.
“One year [Matt] said we would plant pumpkins. We had no big, thought-out business plan. We just grew them, picked them and sold them,” she says.
The next year they planted pumpkins and corn for a corn maze and opened the farm up to visitors to come pick the pumpkins. This fall will be the sixth year of what has become a thriving fall destination for their community lasting six weeks, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
For $8, visitors get a hayride to the pumpkin patch, where they can pick from among 34 pumpkin varieties (the pumpkins are not included in the admission price), visitors can also feed goats, walk through the corn maze and hang out in a corn pit crib and on playground-type equipment including slides and tractor tires.
The Lamberts converted an old barn on the property into a store where visitors can buy beef and lamb from the refrigerator as well as t-shirts and hand-made crafts supplied by local artists.
They also added a school field-trip element for school children to go through the corn maze and pumpkin patch, do a scavenger hunt, visit the goats and calves, and play in the play zone areas. The Lamberts contract with a person to lead the weekday field trips. Last year, they had about 25 bookings.
For the weekend festivities, Lambert uses Facebook to target grandparents. She figures that parents are more apt to drive their kids further distances to bigger cities on weekends, whereas grandparents would rather drive a shorter distance for a day activity with the grandkids.
To attract adults, Lambert partners with clothing and wine shop Unwind in nearby Brookfield. “People can go into Unwind and buy a packaged meat and cheese tray, bottle of wine, two disposable wine glasses and two passes to the pumpkin patch. They bring it out here and have their cheese and wine,” she says. On weekends when the pumpkin patch holds concerts, Unwind brings its wine slushy machine for adults to purchase an adult cold treat.
The Lamberts want to be the trusted voice and influence locally in conversations about agriculture. While only a fraction of their business is the pumpkin patch, that is the element the community identifies with. “One thing that amazes me is how many kids are far removed from agriculture,” Lambert says. “They are surprised that pumpkins grow in dirt.”
She has learned that pumpkins are a finicky crop. “Three years ago, the crop was huge. Then two years ago, it was wiped out with bugs and disease, and we had to replant everything,” she says. “Once the crop is planted, people ask how they are coming.” It has led to conversations about the risk associated with growing crops. Lambert tells them that all crops are like that. The popularity of pumpkins makes crop conversations much more impactful, she finds.
Fairs are a family affair for Charles Atkinson. He enjoys the merry go round with his grandson, Lincoln Atkinson.
Farming is etched into the ancestry of Charles Atkinson. He is the sixth generation farming around 4,000 acres in the Southeast Kansas town of Columbus. His son, Matthew, is now farming beside Charles’ father, Marion, to one day take the family farm and the cattle ranch over as the seventh generation.
Farming soy, corn, sorghum, wheat and a few other crops is only part of his identity. For the past 32 years, Atkinson has also served as president of the Barton County Fair and is executive director of the Kansas Fairs and Festivals Association.
“Our family has always been about being community oriented. Fairs are something my grandparents and parents always did as a family. And so, we grew our family up into that.” Fairs provide a sense of community belonging and instill good work ethics in kids.
“It is stressful but rewarding at the same time.” Stress comes in many forms. One year, a torrential rainstorm dumped six inches in less than three hours. Then there was the COVID-19 experience when the county fair had to be done virtually.
Through his county fair work, Atkinson has learned to be organized and how to work with people. “Plus, my wife and I work as a team on everything,” he says.
Each county in Kansas has a fair, and as kids qualify through 4H or FFA, they can participate. In addition, there’s an “open class.” Atkinson explains, “It is open to anyone from ages three to 90 and beyond who is not enrolled in one of those organizations. Artists, woodworkers and hobbyists of all sorts come and display their creativity,” he says. Each year presents animal shows and such events as concerts, corn hole and volleyball tournaments, and an antique tractor pull, for example.
Atkinson’s job is to organize the five-day function, book events and participants, bring in a carnival and other entertainment and help set it all up—with the help of 15 board members. He also calls on a group called Fair Friends for help. These volunteers handle the themed design and decorations. “The week prior to the fair, we have other volunteers we oversee,” he says. “It takes a year to plan. Afterwards, we take a two-week break and start on the next year.”
Keeping the next generation of kids interested in the fair is as challenging as keeping them interested in farming. He finds it’s far more effective to invite them to the fair than to simply explain what it is. “Some come out and get interested and get hooked,” he says.
“We hope we’re engaging the next generation. We need them to continue in the careers agriculture offers, educating the public about agriculture and keeping our county fairs alive.”