Pearl Family Farm explores wholesale marketing
When you meet Mike Pearl, you learn from the start how passionate he is about his fourth-generation, 131-year-old Pearl Family Farm. Mike’s great grandfather David Pearl, freed from enslavement, bought the original 87 acres in 1890. Today Mike raises vegetables for sale direct to consumers and restaurants from the Platte County farm northwest of Kansas City. He is also considering wholesale local food sales through the Kansas City Food Hub, a cooperative of farms focused on consumer demand for local foods.
Cristina Jopling helps farms market. I visited Mike earlier this month, and we took a farm tour. From the fields where he plants potatoes, you could see for miles the neighbors surrounding him growing soybeans, corn, and wheat for larger-scale commodity markets. Mike determined, after 30 years away from the land, that he could make more money planting higher-value vegetables on a smaller amount of acreage. He sees it as the best way for him to keep the farm in the family now and into the future.
Mike offers subscription boxes of produce, or CSA (community supported agriculture) shares, to area residents. Already a mainstay for his farm, CSA shares increased tremendously through the COVID-19 pandemic. Farmers across the nation experienced the same surge in local direct sales as more families tried to reduce their dependence on global food supply chains and support local farms for future food resilience.
Mike also sells vegetables to surrounding restaurants. One is Noah’s Cupboard in Weston, MO. The statewide FEAST magazine recognized Noah’s Cupboard in 2018 as one of that year’s best new restaurants. For some of Mike’s commercial accounts, however, the pandemic had the opposite economic effect. Sales slowed as his customers’ businesses slowed.
Farm to School. Finding new sales outlets is one reason Mike is looking into joining the cooperative of farms that market local foods together as the KC Food Hub. Speaking with Mike for the first time, I mentioned that he would be a great asset to the KC Food Hub. It is seeking new farmer members to help the group supply strong and growing local food demand.
For example, the KC Food Hub is currently expanding its farm-to-school sales. The Lee’s Summit R7 School District, in the southeastern part of metropolitan Kansas City, has added six more of its schools to wholesale orders from the KC Food Hub.
Winter production on the Pearl Family Farm could add to the year-round supply of vegetables the KC Food Hub can offer schools and other buyers, including retail sales to neighborhood groups.
Winter Production. Mike currently has one high tunnel on his farm in which he grows tomatoes. He has also recently added two more high tunnels in response to changing weather and market demand. High tunnels are unheated greenhouses that help farms produce crops earlier and later in the season and, in some cases, through the winter. The two new high tunnels will house more tomatoes and other vegetables, which Mike will be able to start seeding earlier in the season, getting a head start on production.
Pearl Family Farm’s root vegetable production, from potatoes and garlic to sweet potatoes, could also strengthen the food hub’s supply of products, especially in the winter season. Pearl Family Farm’s sweet potato production is featured with the Baldwin City, KS, Spring Creek Farm in a new “Demystifying Wholesale” video series produced by the Beginning Farmer Wholesale Project at West Central Missouri Community Action Agency.
Mike keeps it local when feeding his crops, too. Laughing as he told me about what he uses to fertilize the high tunnels, he said he buys “zoo poo” from the Kansas City Zoo. Thinking he may just call it that, I looked at the Kansas City Zoo’s website and found composted animal manure sold as “Zoo Manoo.” It costs just $25 per truckload and helps in the zoo’s conservation efforts. The program diverts 75 percent of the zoo’s animal waste, or 1,200 tons of manure annually.
When I visited, Mike was planting garlic for next year and doing some winter clean-up around the farm. Like all farmers, he was also seeding hope, months ahead of crop yields, for good weather and sales. I asked him what advice he would have for a beginning farmer, someone just heading into this agricultural world that has sustained his family on the land for four generations.
He said: “Relax. Get it done exceptionally. Make a positive difference!”
This sums up Mike’s personality perfectly. We look forward to seeing how the Pearl Family Farm continues to make a positive difference in our local food system in the years to come.
Cristina Jopling is Food Value Chain Coordinator with the Food Systems Program at West Central Missouri Community Action Agency. She focuses on making local and regional food markets work well for people and places by connecting and supporting farm and food businesses. Contact her at <cjopling @ wcmcaa.org>