Kansas profiles: A country market
“Bring your best.” Perhaps you received that advice from a schoolteacher or coach. Today we’ll meet a rural Kansas farmer who has built a business by bringing the best of his family’s products to farmers markets.
Gail and Sue Johnson are owners of Johnson Farms Country Market, which specializes in producing and selling produce, canned items and baked goods at local farmers markets. Gail grew up on a farm near Bennington. Sue’s family lived at Burdick and Enterprise before she and Gail were married.
Sue became a nurse, and Gail worked as a lab technician at a plant in Salina. In 1999, they bought a farm near Hope.
“Our families both had big gardens growing up,” Gail said. They put in a garden at their new place. One day they stopped at the farmers market in Abilene. “We thought that would be fun to do.”
They set up a stand to sell their garden vegetables at the weekly farmers market in Abilene, and it went well. Then they added some jams and jellies. When they wanted to make and sell pickles from their cucumbers, they needed a license and an approved kitchen.
“Our first commercial kitchen was in 2015,” Gail said.
Sue’s mom and grandma had an old German family recipe for bierocks, and people said they were good enough to sell. The bierocks are now their No. 1 seller.
The business is called Johnson Farms Country Market, with products sold at a series of community-based farmers markets throughout the year. The Johnsons go to a regular circuit of farmers markets. Salina has a market on Tuesday, Abilene has a market on Wednesday, Junction City has a market on Thursday, and on Saturday there are markets in Abilene and Manhattan.
The Johnsons also sell products at the Prairieland Market, a cooperatively owned grocery store in Salina, and the Hoffman Grist Mill in Enterprise.
Today, Johnson Farms Country Market sells bierocks, cinnamon rolls, cookies, maple bars, banana bread, fruit pies, salsa and more.
“These days, most of our produce is needed for our baked goods,” Gail said. “We source everything we can locally.” Fruit pies include such flavors as strawberry, rhubarb, gooseberry, peach, blueberry, red raspberry and more.
“The chocolate chip cookies are our own recipe.".
One of their cooking secrets is to use a mix of cake and bread flour.
“We might make a hundred dozen cookies in a week,” he said. That also meant that Sue might be up baking until 3 or 4 in the morning before the market.
“We had a family meeting and had to decide if we would try to expand further or not,” Gail said.
They chose to pursue the growth opportunities. In early 2020, Gail retired and went full-time into the business. A new 42 x 64 Morton building was constructed to house an expanded commercial kitchen with space for delivery vans.
“Our five kids all help, plus a daughter-in-law,” Gail said. Their daughters also produce arts and craft items.
When COVID-19 hit in spring 2020, farmers markets and other businesses shut down. Then food workers were deemed essential, and markets reopened, with added sanitation and socially distanced spacing.
“Andrea from A&H Farms is our market manager in Manhattan, and she’s done a great job,” Gail said.
What is the key to success in direct marketing through farmer’s markets? “You have to offer a really good product and be at the market consistently,” Gail said. “Almost everything we make from scratch. My wife will not cook anything out of a can or a box. People love our pie crust.
“My wife is very picky about what comes out of our kitchen. We pride ourselves in bringing the best products that we can to the farmer’s markets.”
That’s key to this business near the rural community of Hope, population 368 people. Now, that’s rural.
“Bring your best.” It’s good advice for farmers markets and for life. We commend Gail and Sue Johnson for making a difference with their crops and kitchens, and for bringing out the best.
— Ron Wilson is director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University. The mission of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development is to enhance rural development by helping rural people help themselves.