For Kay Neff, farming runs in the family. She is a sixth-generation farmer, noting she has always had a heart for it.
Once her husband got out of the military, the Neffs found some land outside of Sedgwick in 1981 and have been growing and selling various produce out of Neff Family Farm since 1990.
The Neffs went into the business endeavor with the intention of being, predominantly, a tomato farm. Once they began growing, though, they found there was a lot of extra room in their first greenhouse, so they began experimenting with herbs.
"My idea in the beginning was just to grow our own tomato plants and it was so big with those few tomato plants and I thought, 'oh, well, I'll put some herbs in it,'" Neff said. "In two years, the herb business overtook the tomatoes."
Neff and her husband now grow 150 different types of herbs that are sold at local farmers' markets, as well as various agricultural events like the Harvey County Home and Garden Show and the upcoming FloraKansas sale at Dyck Arboretum in Hesston.
Seeds for the idea to work with herbs were planted in Neff's mind after a fortuitous trip to the Country Doctor Museum in Bailey, North Carolina, with her father (a chemist).
"My dad and I, of course both being medical, were very interested. They had the apothecary; they had all the old tools and everything, and then we walked out the back door and they had the medicinal garden that the old doctor had used and grown all his herbs in. It was set in a wagon wheel pattern, and I was in love. I just thought that was the best thing ever."
Once Neff and her husband bought their farm, she noted her mother gave her a wagon wheel as a birthday gift — and the herb business has simply taken off from there. The Neffs sell both fresh cut herbs and the plants themselves, with the latter making up the majority of their business. At their busiest (typically on Herb Day in early May), Neff noted about 100 flats of herbs can be sold at a time.
Whether pertaining to the vegetables grown at the farm (ranging from potatoes to radishes to Swiss chard) or the herbs, Neff said she's not just concerned with making sure her customers get a quality product, but that they also know how to maximize the value of that product.
"A lot of what we do as far as growing is also education, so I'll have flyers that tell people about the herbs. We maintain a website that has about 20 pages of recipes on it so they can figure out what to do with their herbs, and I will preach til the day I die, don't plant your tomatoes and basil too early. It is not time," Neff said. "We work really hard on not only providing a good healthy product for our customers, but a lot of education to back it up."
In addition, the products from Neff Family Farm are carefully selected with Kansas growing seasons in mind — a big advantage, given that the Neffs are selling their herbs to customers to grow in their own gardens.
"By buying from us, people are getting locally grown vegetables and transplants that are grown for our growing season," Neff said. "We try to grow varieties that will do well here."
Currently, the Neffs are preparing for the unseasonably cold conditions prior to the first day of the farmer's market season. While heaters are traditionally used in only one of the four greenhouses (where the seedlings are kept), measures are being taken to make sure there is added warmth in all of the greenhouses this weekend.
Typically, Neff said she will start the herb-cutting process in October while the seeding process begins after Christmas. As both Neff and her husband work full-time jobs, they normally juggle the daily routines in treating the produce and herbs.
Neff noted she is particularly fond of working with basil given the different varieties and how suited it is for the Kansas environment.
On top of the vegetables and herbs, the Neffs also sell eggs and, during the offseason, pottery (as Neff is also a fourth-generation potter) that can be used for both growing and cooking.
While it is a business for Neff, she is hopeful that selling a product that inherently requires some investment from the buyer is, ultimately, an enjoyable process for all involved.
"The joy of seeing something that you planted grow, it's very satisfying, and (we love) seeing people excited when we go to farmer's market," Neff said. "We want people who choose to grow their own food to be successful, so we hope that we can help share in that experience by providing healthy plants and the education behind it; when to plant, how to plant it."
For more information on the products sold by Neff Family Farm and where to find them, visit www.nefffamilyfarm.com.