INMAN -- For Kayla and Troy Koehn, growing lettuce and tomatoes comes naturally. Having both grown up on a farm and been raised with a garden, the Kohens enjoy both growing and the selling.
Two days a week, the couple and their three youngsters head to farmers markets in McPherson and Wichita. There they sell their produce, speak with customers and explain how to prepare their fresh-from-the-farm vegetables.
Four years ago, the Koehns started Tin Bucket Farms, a one-acre vegetable farm in Inman, Kansas that grows onions, carrots, tomatoes and all types of greens.
"We jumped in feet first," Kayla said. "We didn’t know what we were doing. You learn so much along the way."
The Koehn’s, who currently have three children seven and under, with one of those under one, were hungry for new techniques. They wanted to be as holistic as possible and avoid pesticides and other chemicals. A friend from Nebraska suggested they take an online course from Growing Farmers, which is run by Michael Kilpatrick, a farmer in Germantown, Ohio.
Through enrolling in the course, the couple met other farmers from across the United States. Kayla said speaking with other farmers is a comfort.
"He (Michael) would give us hints and tips," Kayla said. "It’s been very helpful."
One of the tips Kilpatrick gave them was to have their tomatoes grow up, as opposed to out. Once they get too tall, the Kohen’s can lean them over and they can continue growing vertically. The Koehns are proud of their 10 varieties of tomatoes, including big beef, Cherokee purples and bumble bee cherry tomatoes.
Because the heirlooms are harder to grow and produce less output, the Kohens and other farmers are able to charge more for them. This year, the couple is raising their tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in a tunnel, which they were able to purchase through a grant from USDA NRCS.
Kirkpatrick’s organization, Growing Farmers, helps farmers learn to organize and increase their businesses profit margin.
"I provide coaching and support to farmers so they can have a profitable farm to build the life they love," Kirkpatrick said from his Germantown, Ohio farm where he grows produce and root vegetables. He also wholesales hibiscus. "They learn which systems are the most profitable."
Through his Small Farm University, Kirkpatrick teaches produce, poultry and dairy farmers about financial skills, crop rotation and marketing plans. In addition to the classes, he maintains a virtual library, financial documents and access to a network of farmers from across the globe.
Many of Kirkpatrick’s students are beginning farmers. Most are younger than 40. They are a growing number of young farmers who are making a living with small acreage farming.
"The majority of young farmers do operate smaller farms, largely because that is the acreage they can afford without inherited farmland," said Jessica Manly, a spokesperson for the National Young Farmers Coalition. "According to our 2017 national survey of young farmers, more than 80% of first generation farmers were farming on less than 10 acres."
Kirkpatrick emphasizes that farmers need to focus on profitable commodities that customers want. Troy and Kayla, who grow every vegetable from seed, specialize in lettuce and what would go into a salad.
The couple stopped raising most of their crops, as they were too labor intensive, Troy said.
"It’s (farming) a lot of work when you do this," Kayla said. "But it’s very rewarding to see your customer happy."