From Their Family to Yours

A Season in the Life of Jirak Family Produce

by Peggy Bair

Any given day out in Cummings, KS, Mark and Theresa Jirak will be getting dirty. The Jirak Family Produce farm is never short on chores as it produces slicing tomatoes, grape tomatoes, green beans, eggplant, sweet corn, watermelon, cantaloupe, zucchini, yellow straight neck squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, peppers, winter squash and honey. When people throw around the phrase, “We’re all in this together” – well, for the Jiraks, that’s always been the case.

The 100 acre family farm that starts with bare soil in the spring, bears forth the produce that appears at several local farmers markets, including St. Joseph, Leavenworth and Atchison, KS. It’s all done with combination of love and precision as delicate starter plants are stuffed gingerly into their beds in the spring and will become hefty watermelons and cantaloupes by July. Tender pepper and tomato plants in April will be laden with colorful and fat, ample harvest in mid-summer. Sweet corn will rise and be plucked – to be sent on its way to a plate and a butter knife.

This is a family that knows physical workouts – because the work here is hard. It’s farm hard, meaning walking in or sitting in fields under an unrelenting sun, heat and dripping sweat. The bags of harvest are heavy. Time is always of the essence.

The weather can be merciless. The late freezes in the spring of 2020 cost some farmers some or all of their crops. Some friends of the Jiraks lost their entire crop of peaches this year. Despite their friends’ efforts, the weather was just too freezing for too long. Mark said that the most difficult part of farming is the weather.

“It seems to always drive our decisions and ability to work. It effects produce quality and quantity,” Mark said. “This year is better than last year. We are getting things planted on time. However, lately, it has been cold and slowed things down,” Mark said, speaking of the situation in Spring, 2020.

But for other crops, that were put in later, the timing was good, the weather overall in 2020 was mild and cooperative. The crop yields were strong and, despite a nervous start – markets were mostly favorable. The uncertain start at the Farmers Markets due to the COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings no doubt hurt and caused concern among those whose yearly livelihood is tied to the six-to-eight months of market selling. But there was a surprising flip side: less crowded open air farmers markets held a new appeal over going to crowded indoor grocery stores. “Food supply chain” became a new catchphrase as restaurants temporarily closed and eating at home became not just a trend, but a necessity.

As grocery shopping became complex to navigate, people in the Midwest became keen on other options. They began to look at the sourcing of their foods while farmers began to look for solutions to directly sell to the consumer – a perfect meeting point. A Facebook page called Shop Kansas Farms gained an instant following. Farmers Markets suddenly had a whole knew audience – a group of food consumers who were waking up to the rich bounties in their own Midwest surroundings. Welcome to Kansas, where everything you want just might be in your own backyard.

Mark Jirak not only works for Syngenta but has been raising produce for the past 17 years. The Jiraks bought their current farm in Cummings, KS three years ago, where they have four 96X30 high tunnels as well as row crops.
©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Although there was some initial uncertainty with Farmers Markets opening, the markets figured a way to get back into a new groove. For farmers like the Jiraks, whose livelihoods depend on these markets, there were real concerns at first.

“We’re concerned if the customers will come,” said Mark Jirak back in May before the markets were allowed to open. “COVID-19 is likely to change the sanitation and handling of markets this year.”

It did change things.

The fields were planted, the crops set in the high tunnels. But the markets changed. The Jirak sell in three farmers markets. But they also sell to schools and food service.

“Due to delayed openings and virtual classrooms, our business with schools is down dramatically,” said Mark.  “Also, the food service customer we have, Bon Appetite, that runs office cafeterias have been impacted with employees working at home.   Therefore our business has been impacted dramatically with this segment,” he said.

“The bright spot is the farmers markets with sales up significantly at all locations.    Customers are coming out and buying much more from us than last year or historically – to the point where they have made up most of the lost business at schools and food service,” Mark said.  “Only two species have fallen behind in sales due to schools lowered demand: watermelons and snacking peppers.”

The Jiraks are both from long time farm families. Mark and Theresa grew up in Marion County, KS on family farms. Mark has a degree in Horticulture/Fruit and Vegetable Production Speciality. He is one of 12 siblings and had originally raised vegetables with his brothers. Theresa received her RN degree from the University of Kansas. The couple has been married 34 years and they have six children. They bought the farm in Cummings three years ago and built a house there. They also farm on 12 acres south of Doniphan.

Mark said the couple has lived all over the U.S. but they moved to the Atchison area 17 years ago after living and working in Granger, IA. Mark has worked 35 years for Syngenta and legacy companies in agriculture. He has several informative youtube videos about farming.

Grafting is used on some tomato plants to join best traits of two different types of plants. Mark brings a high degree of knowledge, experience and expertise to his tomato houses. This plant, shown in the spring at its earlier stages will yield a plentiful crop in a few weeks. The grafting provides better yield (more tomato) with a better root system and disease resistance, Mark said.
©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
The farm has four high tunnels erected by an experienced Amish crew from Jamesport, MO.
©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

The farm is a work of love for the entire family. “Theresa has home-schooled the kids most of the way,” Mark said. “The children earn their college funds from working on the farm.”

On May 6, 2020, the Jirak family teamed up with the Rziha family, forming a planting force of 15 that would set up a field of cantaloupes and watermelons on about three acres of the Jirak Family Produce farm. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
The tiny melon plants are safeguarded by cones at first planting. The cones also keep the plants a bit warmer to protect them from frost, Mark said. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Putting in a crop of cantaloupes and watermelons in the spring takes a coordinated joint effort with experienced hands and a sense of rhythm. “The kids all have experience and know how and what to do. They seemed to all fall into their roles easily,” Mark said.

This level of organization has taken a lot of practice and adjustments over the years, though.

“You should have seen us back when we first started,” laughed Kalynn, the Jiraks’ oldest daughter. “[Planting] was a day-long process! And now we’ve got it down to it’s just an afternoon.”

There were three acres of watermelons and cantaloupes to put in the ground the first week of May. Two families joined forces to put in 2400 plants in two hours. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
Efficiency has trickled down to even the youngest as Agnes Rziha, 6, carefully finds the placement for a melon plant.
©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

“It’s been fun to see it unfold the way it has. We [the kids] grew up doing this in the summer. Our parents have always been really good about encouraging us in that way,” said Kalynn. “Especially with manual labor. There’s nothing like it. I work in an office now. It’s not my weekend job that I’m doing produce [anymore],” she said. “It’s funny how I crave that. I will come out and work on the weekends and have them save different tasks for me, just because I miss getting my hands dirty,” Kalynn said.

Two families of children – the Jirak and Rziha families – work with precision together to place 2400 plants in two hours on the three acres of cantaloupes and watermelons. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
Mark Jirak shuttles cones and plants the workers as the families coordinate together to get the cantaloupes and watermelons in the fields in a timely fashion during an early May planting. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
Rows of protective cones line the field of cantaloupes and watermelons at the early May planting.
©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
About 8 weeks later, the dirt field was covered with lush vines inbetween rows of corn. Planting took place May 6, 2020 and the above photo is July 3, 2020. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

With the plantings in, the acres of melons lapped up the good weather of the 2020 summer. In the midst of all the work, a pleasant break took place for the Jirak family in July when their daughter Kalynn’s wedding took place on the Benedictine campus. The florist for the wedding took great pains to gather wagons of flora from throughout the local natural landscape and incorporate it into all of the floral arrangements for the weddings. It was a fitting homage to the Jirak Family Farm.

In addition to native plants from around the property, the reception table settings also included other produce grown on the farm and the dinner included fresh produce offerings from the family fields.

Colleen Monroe, with Floraloom Studio wanted to capture the story of the wedding for her brother John Monroe and Kalynn Jirak. “I love to use natural ingredients,” Colleen said. “I’ve been picking wildflowers and incorporate that.” She also uses some other techniques, including spray painting to create her floral designs. The concept that Kansas has a boring landscape is something she would dispute.

Colleen Monroe
(Contributed Photo)

“There’s so much beauty here!” she said. “I think every space across the country has its own beauty. You just need to look closer to tell a story that is unique and special to that space, whether it’s Kansas City, whether it’s Los Angeles, whether it’s Oklahoma, whether it’s Connecticut – everyplace has its own story to tell. And I think we captured that. I really like to tell stories through my designs, incorporating the story of the farm into the wedding.”

Kalynn said it was important to her to integrate the family’s farm life into her wedding day. “It’s bringing us together as a family. It’s just beautiful that this is something that brought us all together and brought us so much joy and peace during all of this (pandemic). I’m just so blessed we can get married this weekend – and on top of that have all of these layers that make it so personal to us.”

Cantaloupe blossoms began to open in by midsummer. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
Sweet corn is a local favorite at the Farmers Markets and among the clients for whom the Jirak farm produces. Mark and his sons harvested one the afternoon right before a Farmers Market, so it was freshly picked from the farm to table.
©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
Picking sweet corn in 90 degree weather to fill 40lb bags in mere minutes is the work that it takes to make farm to table possible. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Andrew and Joseph Jirak worked one recent afternoon picking produce, including sweet corn and peppers. The Jirak children bring their experience and knowledge to the farm operation from the time they are young. They are experienced with planting and harvesting all the produce the farm produces. At this age, Mark can trust his sons to make the best picking choices. ©2020 Photos by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Mark loads a bucket of freshly picked sweet corn into the truck that will be brought to a Farmers Market later that afternoon. They picked 90 dozen ears at that one harvest that they know will sell out at that day’s market.
©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
Tomatoes do well in the high tunnels with less fruit cracking and also because it increases the marketable yield. Tomatoes are very popular at Farmers Markets so they have a strong, high return. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
Theresa prepares several hundred ears of corn for a local restaurant order while she also keeps an eye on customers at a Farmers Market in Leavenworth, KS. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
The cantaloupes and watermelons, fresh from the field, are popular items at the markets. Mark assisted a customer with one of each at the Leavenworth Farmers Market. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

When the family arrives at the Farmers Market, their tables lined with the day’s bounty, they are met with welcome smiles appreciation from customers who value the quality of their products fresh off the vines and out of the fields. With all its challenges, 2020 still turned out to be a year of some blessings for Kansas farm families, their loyal customers – and the new customers who have discovered them.

Theresa Jirak helps customers July 29, 2020 at the Leavenworth Farmers Market. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
Katherine Jirak, helps a customer Saturday, September 5, 2020 at the Leavenworth Farmers Market.
©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

This season-long series of images is presented by HeartKC in hopes that this story will to bring buyers a more in-depth look at the efforts that go into bringing fresh, fragrant produce to local markets. Special thanks to the entire Jirak family for allowing us to tell their story. Please feel free to share the link to the story. This story has been updated from its original version – adding updated seasonal sales information on the Jirak Family Produce business from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Words and photographs are protected by copyright ©2020 HeartKC Peggy Bair

Peggy Bair

Peggy Bair is a Midwest journalist and photographer covering human interest stories throughout Middle America.

I am an alum of the English Department of the University of Missouri – Kansas City. I am a member of the American Society of Media Photographers, the National Press Photographers Association and Professional Photographers of America. I have worked on the staff of six different newspapers throughout my career and specialize in people stories.Your support of local journalism helps keep bringing these stories to uplift your spirits.

Although my business has been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not accepted any payment, grants, government assistance or unemployment for my journalism during this pandemic. If you would like to donate to support honest storytelling, you can contribute to my PayPal by posting any amount to my PayPal donation link. Sharing the link to this story with others helps spread the positive, share the happiness that is HeartKC.

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