Farmers Growing Keep America Going

JET Produce and Meats

By Peggy Bair

Up on a quiet hill in Tonganoxie, KS, morning breaks over JET Produce and Meats Farm, pouring sunshine over the rich earth, stirring young shoots to spring forth, slowly turning over a brown landscape to a glistening pale green.

Parking in the drive in front of the little two-room store, one can pause for a moment to appreciate the fresh air and the rolling pastures dotted with cattle. It’s a warm reassurance to see a familiar blanket of landscape – a welcome escape from the barrage of fearful news on the internet, television and radio.

While Governor Kelly was issuing Executive Orders to stymy the spread of a threatening worldwide pandemic, here on hillside in Northeast Kansas, the tender pale green grass blades pierced through the black dirt, bringing signs that life is going reassuringly forward. There’s not time to worry and fret when there are chores to be done.

Teen workers on JET Farm put up pepper plants in one of JET Farm’s greenhouses.

Teenagers hired to work the farm were out of school early and set themselves to the task of putting in plants in the greenhouses, rounding up the hogs and unboxing baby chicks.

In the above photos, Jacob Thomas holds a day old chick. On the right, the chicks are two weeks old and have more than doubled in size. A hen sits on eggs in a nest box in the chicken house where she is free to come and go inside or outside to the yard during the day. The author scored a “double yolker” (two yolks from the same egg) from one of the eggs purchased at JET Farm. Lower right: Eggs vary in color which is explained in this link.

For Jacob and Jennifer Thomas and Jacob’s parents, Dale and Chris Thomas, everyday is brimming with activity as new life requires attention from all directions. There’s lambing and hogs and cattle that need tending. Chickens are laying eggs to go to market and customers are driving up to the JET Farm Store.

“Everybody is worried out there about this virus – and the only thing on my mind is ‘when is the rain gonna stop?” said Dale on one of the author’s visits in late March.

Dale Thomas and his son Jacob inspect pieces of Tall Prairie Grass that grows in parts of the farm.
The grass is harvested and baled for the farm’s animals.

In the above photos, Jacob’s mother, Kris Thomas points out the various crops in one of the greenhouses. These are grown for earlier yields of lettuces, cabbage and radishes. The original intention was to have plenty for farmer’s markets. But the markets have been thrown into question at the moment as concern over social distancing issues are sorted out. Fortunately for JET Farm, the store is at least an outlet for sales.

It’s spring and – despite the daily barrage of news press conferences – the world is not only still turning, but it’s about to go full throttle into the Kansas growing season.

People have to eat and now more than ever is a great time to live in the Heart of America where farming is still a respected and thriving occupation.

The next day of sunshine, they’ll be planting, they’ll be repairing two greenhouses that got some wind damage last month – and get the crops going for this year’s small farm markets. Hard work and even hard times are a part of life for farmers but the rewards are greater than the challenges.

While grocery stores are crowded with lines of shoppers, those who buy directly from the farms enjoy not only freshness but familiarity – buying food from the farmer friends they know and have known for years – who live and work in (and for) the community.

The store at JET Farm Store is a two room shop that includes meats, produce, dry goods and a separate greenhouse.

JET Produce and Meats is one of dozens of small farms across Kansas that feed people in most times. In these times, though, they’ve seen an uptick of demand. JET had three parking spaces. They’ve added two more.

JET sells its own beef, pork, chicken and lamb, as well as chicken eggs and chicken stew meat. JET grocery store is stocked with locally produced cheese and jams and jellies and honey from surrounding towns, like Leavenworth and Paola, KS. 

JET Produce and Meats also carries products from other area food producers such as Jake Creek Pecans from Paola, KS.

Farmers like the Thomas’s are gearing up for the critical six months that sustain them all year long: April through September. The fields of produce are already planned, planted and growing. Many are already being harvested.

With farmer’s markets possibly in limbo due to concern over gatherings of people, there is a little bit of consternation but not a lot of time to devote to worrying about it at the moment. The Thomas’s have their store but they still do count on the going to the markets to reach the most customers.

Jennifer Thomas runs the JET Farm Store

The family may spend up to nine hours on a day of selling at the markets – even though the actual selling hours might be only three or four hours. The preparation time, the break down and the after sales work makes for twice as much time as the actual time they are at market. This year, Jacob said he’s concerned for the other smaller farmers who won’t have a place to sell. At the moment, many farmer’s markets are looking for ways to hold sales safely so that customers can buy but also so they can maintain safe distances.

JET has an online ordering system where customers can order and pay, then the items are boxed for pick up on the customer’s chosen day.

The JET Store does sell products from other farms. The two-room storefront has a display freezer for the farm’s own lamb, beef, pork and chicken meats. The refrigerator is stocked with freshly picked lettuce, chard, lettuce green and spinach as well as fresh eggs and specialty cheeses. There are jellies, jams and preserves from The Bean Patch in Leavenworth, Hemme Brothers cheeses out of Sweet Springs, MO and local honey from Next to Nature Farm. Beth’s Kydz Sudz soaps from Leavenworth, KS are sold as well as dry goods from other vendors. The store is tended by Jacob’s wife, Jennifer.

The family farm includes the house where Dale Thomas was born and raised. His father, a military man who was stationed at Fort Leavenworth back in the 1950s, bought the land but unfortunately died when Dale was only 14 years old. Making the land into a farm was a decades-long endeavor that has resulted in the popular farm that yields produce and meats on thriving 32 acres. JET is an acronym which stands for Jacob E Thomas, Dale’s son.

Jacob holds two farming degrees, one for crop farming and the other for animal farming, and, as his father Dale said, “Couple that with my 40 years of experience…” his voice trails off but his message is clear: this is no amateur “hobby” operation. There are gambles with the weather and the markets as well as expected and unexpected losses. The challenges are met with a combination of intelligence, perseverance and resolve.

Sometimes, it rains too often or a freeze comes later than expected. Sometimes an owl grabs a chicken or, worse a coyote gets past the farm’s sheep dog, Rifle, and snags a lamb.

This year may have been tougher than that: the recent death of an expensive bull. It wasn’t just the bull lost, it was the breeding and the lost offspring would have resulted.

“It is what it is,” Jennifer said, sharing the news with a hesitant, broken sigh. “Unfortunately, this is the nature of farming.”

Also true, though: The sun will rise in the morning. It WILL stop raining too much and the freeze will pass along. The crops will continue to grow and be harvested. The JET Store will be stocked. Customers will continue to order.

And the Thomas’s at JET Produce and Meats will continue to deliver.

Jacob E Thomas and his border collie Pistol are often companions while working at JET Farm in Tonganoxie, KS


All text and images by Peggy Bair ©2020 All Rights Reserved