Fourth- and fifth-generation legacy farms were getting harder and harder to find in the age of factory farming. But Leavenworth’s Salt Creek Valley Farms is not only still going strong through five generations, it is now a farm-to-table operation that offers picking sessions for the public.
The farm’s long history in the community was well known when Jessica (Hund) Smith, her husband Brian and Jay Schwinn and his wife Patti decided to offer a more interactive approach to understanding where the food you eat comes from.
The farm is still owned by Jessica’s grandmother, Elaine, Jay’s aunt. Jessica's grandfather, Johnny, and Elaine farmed this property for many years until Johnny passed away. Now Jessica's dad Jack farms the majority of this beautiful 300 acres.
As people become more interested in eating fresh, healthy food, farm-to-table products are thriving.
A recent study in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology showed that Amish children living on farms have about a 50 percent reduction in allergies, asthma and gut-related disorders compared to kids growing up in sterile environments.
And for those who visit farms for picking sessions being ‘dirt happy’ can result in many health benefits such as lessening of depression, lower blood pressure and stress hormones plus an improvement in cognitive function and other health bonuses.
Dirt happy might also explain how the release of dopamine in our primitive ancestors’ brains when they grew and harvested food has been hardwired into us to crave healthy food.
The idea for the picking sessions at Salt Creek Valley Farms came up during an autumn evening when Jessica and Jay reminisced about their experiences growing up on the farm. “A majority of kids today are more than two generations removed from the farm,” said Jay. “The concept of a place to go without a smartphone or iPad to experience the simpler farm life was born.
Additionally, as more and more consumers become health aware, knowing the source of your food becomes even more important. We have noticed the increase in farm-to-table restaurants. However, this typically means ‘expensive.’ We wanted to create a place that focuses on agriculture, education, and hands-on experience.”
The first day the picking sessions were offered the owners were amazed and overwhelmed by the response. “We were a bit surprised at the reaction and very humbled by the fact that so many people drove from all over Kansas City to check it out,” said Jay. “It certainly helped that we had fresh coffee from MAPS coffee in Lenexa, and fresh baked goods available. We have had a very steady stream of new customers, an overwhelming amount of repeat customers, and great interest and sign-up for our Pickers Club program.”
The farm’s owners let the vegetables tell them when they are ready for picking sessions. “Joe Schwinn of Schwinn Produce Farm does all of the growing,” said Jay. “Joe has been in this business for years and is known as an expert across the state. He inspects all of the produce and tells us when something is ready to be harvested. Additionally, we don’t want to compete with the Farmers Market, so we make sure we are open when the veggies are ready, and when we won’t take business away from the Farmers Market in town. Typically, we are open Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturday afternoon and Sunday.”
The farm offers favorites such as sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, but non-traditional choices are also offered like eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. Feedback from customers is valued and next year suggestions such as onions and potatoes will be added.
Pickers Club members receive weekly specials.
For city kids who have never had the opportunity to visit a farm, visiting Salt Creek Valley Farms can be a valuable learning experience - food doesn’t originate in supermarkets.
One of the farm owners’ core principles is educating kids (big and small) about where their food actually comes from.
“The Kansas Department of Health & Environment does an amazing job of making resources available to help educate the public,” said Jay. “We make sure to have info for each and every vegetable we plant. Additionally, we host a special family event every Friday focused on youth education. We’ve had events where kids come out and help pull weeds to understand what it takes to keep a field growing.”
The farm also focuses on ‘big equipment’ events where kids learn about farm equipment through hands-on contact with tractors, planters, balers and other machinery.
The farm is also planning educational field trips for fall. “We’ve already started booking and the teachers are very excited about a place to come learn about food supply and farming in our region,” said Jay.
Autumn activities will include a 4-acre corn maze, pumpkins, hay rides, climbing attractions such as tire mountain and straw mountain, (which will be constructed with 60 bales of hay). The educational aspect of how and why the different materials such as straw are utilized on the farm will be emphasized.
Goats and bunnies have been the official greeters at the farm and soon there will be hands-on interaction with barnyard animals when the appropriate precautions are put in place, such as fences and hand-washing stations.
There is also a three-year-plan for added attractions for children, plus a full spectrum of special events such as morning yoga classes, farm dinners and educational partnerships with local universities.
“Jessica’s dad (Jack Hund) farms the land where our corn maze is located,” said Jay. “So planting the corn was no problem for him. The planning and design sessions started last winter when we began researching companies who specialize in custom maze designs. We wanted a high-end, local-themed maze, which could be challenging enough for grown-ups and little ones.”
One of the most important missions for the farm’s owners is to give people the opportunity to leave their cellphones and iPads in the car and enjoy the beauty of nature and family bonding. Jay emphasizes, “We are definitely a no wifi zone. The two things we hear most often is how gorgeous the view is, and how quiet and peaceful the farm can be. We often tell parents, this is a place to let your kids get dirty. Bring your outdoor shoes and enjoy our farm.”
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is instrumental in providing resources for the farm to provide nutritional information and healthy recipes. Schwinn Produce’s expertise in the growing process is also important in educating the public on the source of their food. “It’s pretty rare that someone can go to a grocery store and ask, ‘where was this planted?’ That’s the type of experience we look to create. One of the things we really enjoy is having our Salt Creek Valley Bakery provide baked goods, directly from our fields. This allows us to show parents all of the things they can create with the vegetables growing 5 feet away.”
The bakery offers homemade cinnamon rolls and a variety of flavors of fresh fruit scones, fresh baked cookies and special items made from the produce picked that morning. As the farm continues to grow, a full retail bakery and creamery are planned.
The farm’s owners have also conducted a test on flower picking. “Lots of people want this, and there just aren't any options in the KC area,” said Jay. “We plan on having a variety of u-pick flower options next spring.”
Salt Creek Valley Farms is truly a family affair with input and support from the oldest to the youngest. “My mom, Pat Schwinn stops by every day to get something from the bakery. One of our sons plays guitar in the fields (he thinks it helps the ears of corn), and the other carries bags out to cars. Our daughter spends time explaining the goats to other 5-year-olds, and has a lemonade stand. Being able to share time with our family, and the families that come visit has been amazing,” says Jay.
All the family members are reveling in the satisfaction of watching families interact and learn about the importance of fresh, healthy food.
“I had a child ask why the cauliflower was yellow. Explaining to them, that fresh field-grown cauliflower is yellow because it s not artificially bleached or treated is extremely rewarding,” said Jay. “Also to hear that children and adults alike are trying and enjoying the vegetables they picked themselves on the farm, it is all very rewarding.”