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This Kansas City, Kansas, family farms lavender with the help of addiction survivors

A woman in a baseball cap and checkers tank top holds a handful of lavender stems, trimming extra leaves form the plants before bundling them up with a rubber band.
Roxie Hammill
KCUR 89.3
Jenny Steineger strips the extra leaves from the stems of lavender plants.

The Steinegers are part of a wave of nontraditional farmers in Kansas and Missouri who taking chances on niche crops — motivated by spirituality, tourism and simply giving back to their communities.

The sun was taking a break on a recent morning in July, as Joe and Jenny Steineger and their son, Ben, worked the lavender field.

Picking the best lavender stems from their 1,600 plants on a steep hill in Kansas City, Kansas, is a labor intensive job, full of stooping and bee encounters. Afterwards, there are long sessions stripping extra leaves from the stems, made a little more difficult on this morning by the rain they got the night before.

But for the Steinegers, the hard work is outweighed by the benefits. The lavender has been a healing force beyond its reputed medicinal qualities. The four hillside acres have proved a balm — for the pain of having to get out of traditional farming in the 1980s and for the survivors of sex trafficking and addiction who frequent the farm to work and socialize.

“When Jenny and I first got married, it was all about farming. We were going to make our life as grain farmers just like everybody else in my family,” says Joe. “Sometimes your life takes a turn you never saw coming.”

Miles of corn, soybeans and especially wheat are likely what comes to mind when people reference agriculture in this part of the Midwest.

But in the margins between the mega farms, an alternative agriculture exists. Often these farmers are operating on plots of land miniscule by modern agricultural scale.

Many are vegetable and herb gardeners. But there are also farmers willing to take a risk on crops not as typical of Kansas and Missouri.

Lavender seems to be an emerging trend. The fragrant perennial herb most often associated with the south of France has generated a lot of interest among older growers in the Midwest who don’t mind waiting three to five years for a respectable harvest, says Mike Neustrom, past president of the United States Lavender Growers Association.

Neustrom, who lives near Salina in Bennington, Kansas, had one of the first lavender farms in the state in 2002. He estimates there are now around 30 farms in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Iowa.

There are all kinds of reasons for the interest in specialty farming — for a rice farmer in Pomona, Kansas, it’s a connection to his spirituality. For the Steinegers, it’s a desire to give something back to their community. But it’s difficult work. Many farmers are also trying to keep farming with limited land and money to invest.

Two men, one in a white baseball cap and checked button-down shirt, the other in a black tank top, black shorts and a black baseball cap, pick lavender from a sloping field.
Roxie Hammill
KCUR 89.3
Joe and Ben Steineger pick lavender from their farm in Kansas City, Kansas. The Steinegers sell they plans at the City Market in Kansas City, Missouri.

Bringing the 'righteous' chestnut to the Midwest

As is sometimes the case with specialty crop farmers, Charlie NovoGradac and Debbie Milks went into it without much farming experience. NovoGradac was an attorney and Milks, a CPA.

The couple had been living in Micronesia until 1994, when Charlie came back to help his parents with their Christmas tree farm near Lawrence, Kansas. The eventual result was Chestnut Charlie’s Tree Crops.

Chestnuts interested NovoGradac because they could be grown organically, the nuts were relatively healthy and because there was an unmet demand for them. A chestnut blight had wiped out most American chestnut trees, but Chinese and hybrids were still available.

“Here was an opportunity to fill a gap,” he said. “We would be bringing something that was traditional and completely natural and righteous and wholesome back into the American diet.”

The couple began interspersing chestnuts with the Christmas trees, eventually ending up with 20 acres of about 1,500 trees. In their biggest year, they produced 30,000 pounds of chestnuts. They now are a supplier to Whole Foods and regularly sell out everything they can produce, he said.

Their transition to farming wasn’t something they could have predicted, Milks said. They had been Peace Corps volunteers who had taken jobs on a Pacific island so they could travel around the world.

“A lot of it was naive,” she said of the chestnut idea. “It was, oh, you plant trees and come back every fall. How hard could it be?”

Chestnut farming has a learning curve. Visions of pairing chestnuts with Christmas tree sales vanished after the couple learned that the very perishable nuts are freshest in October and lose quality after Thanksgiving. The trees also don’t love the alkaline soil of the area.

But there are upsides. Chestnuts are harvested off the ground and don’t need expensive tree shaking equipment. The isolation from other chestnut groves also helps keep chestnut weevils away.

The farm makes money, but that’s not the sole reason for doing it, he said. A profitable farm can be a model to encourage others to get into farming, too, and make a positive impact on the environment.

“It's something we can grow without poisoning the environment. It makes oxygen. All the good things of trees plus it makes food that’s good quality,” NovoGradac said.

 A tin bin holds unrefined grains of rice before husking and hulling.
Roxie Hammill
KCUR 89.3
A bin of rice awaits the husking and hulling process.

Rice ... in Kansas?

Susan and Koji Nakao came to grow rice in Kansas because of the Bomb. Koji was only 18 months old when the atomic bomb was dropped about 20 miles from his home in Hiroshima Prefecture. The mountain between his home and ground zero likely saved him, Susan said.

He grew up to become a leader in Sukyo Mahikari, an international spiritual organization. But he never forgot the post-war years of food scarcity, when most meals were of sweet potatoes and there was no rice.Susan met Koji through her own involvement with the organization. By the time they married and settled in Kansas, Koji was talking about trying to grow rice.

“I kept saying you cannot grow rice in Kansas. We did not have water,” Susan remembers. But Koji was determined and so in 2012, they decided to learn together, she said.

What resulted was three terraced ponds on a slight slope. The top one collects rainwater and well water so it can warm in the sun and be released into the lower paddies. In good years the rice harvest from 2,400 square feet exceeded 250 pounds, she said.

Planting was behind schedule this year, though, because a stroke has made it difficult for Koji to push the tiller and there were issues hooking up another tiller to a tractor.

 A man sits in front of a small table, with a handful of unrefined rice in his hand. Next to him are machines to husk and hull the rice.
Roxie Hammill
KCUR 89.3
Koji Nakao operates a husking and hulling machines.

It’s an expensive undertaking, and not only because of the water. Susan said. Rice demands special equipment to hull and polish and small-scale versions of that equipment are hard to find outside of Japan.

But making money was never the point. The Nakaos don’t sell the rice and eat very little of it, choosing instead to give it away as part of their practice.

Sukyo Mahikari is a practice that encourages Yoko Agriculture, a harmonious interaction between the spiritual realm, humans and animals. Rice is a traditional offering to God and is grown in specially designated paddies in Japan for that purpose, Susan said. The Nakaos give most of their harvest to other spiritual centers.

Creating a healing community through lavender in Kansas City, Kansas

The Steinegers of Lavender Hill Farm had dreams of following the family tradition of farming. That all came undone during the farm crisis of the 1980s, when high interest rates, low commodities prices and an increase in land prices resulted in a spike in farm foreclosures.

Like many other farmers, the Steinegers lost that dream and took city jobs. The couple still had some family land on a steep hill not too far from the Kaw when they retired a half decade ago.

At the time, Jenny had been working with Veronica’s Voice, teaching survivors of sexual exploitation how to sew eye pillows that were stuffed with lavender. After the group took a field trip to a lavender farm, Jenny knew what she wanted to do with the land.

Neither Jenny nor Joe had ever grown lavender, but it seemed to make sense and had an emotional appeal, she said.

“If you ever made your living farming and had to give it up like we did … I watched my husband go through so much pain giving that up,” she said.

“I wanted to be a lavender farmer and I didn’t care that I didn’t know how. That’s the best way to explain it. A lot of people looked at me and said, you just spent 40 years in an office. You want to be a what?”

 A black plastic crate holds bundles of lavender.
Roxie Hammill
KCUR 89.3
A crate of lavender stems picked form Lavender Hills Farm in Kansas City, Kansas.

For Joe, a big part of the appeal is that the government generally ignores lavender and doesn’t set the price, he said.

The Steinegers make 21 products from the lavender, which they sell at City Market. Twenty-five percent of the profit is donated to Veronica’s Voice, and the farm also hires residents of the Welcome House, a sober living facility, to help with the harvest.

Their son Ben has also benefited, having gone through Welcome House for his addiction issues. Ben, 35, said the lavender helped him and is now studying herbalism.

“We’ve gone full circle,” says Joe. “We started out in the dirt and now we’re retired we’re back out here in the heat and dirt. But we love doing it. It's not even totally just because of how we help Veronica’s Voice. It’s good for us.”

A lavender destination in Spring Hill, Kansas

Some farming decisions have been more about how to take a small amount of land and limited investment and turn it into a living.

Carmella Radazzo-Stevenson didn’t see lavender farming in her future a few years ago. She was operating an online flower shop from her home in Overland Park.

But after she got married in 2020, she and her husband, who grew up on a farm, bought a 10-acre place near Spring Hill, Kansas, now the home of Purple Meadows Lavender Farm.

Rows of lavender grow in a neatly organized field, surrounded by woods.
Roxie Hammill
KCUR 89.3
Purple Meadows Lavender Farm, in Spring Hill, Kansas, hopes to become a destination, with a storefront for visitors to shop various lavender products.

She had space there for a shop, but local land use rules forbade walk-in traffic without an agritourism certificate from the state, and that meant some type of crop that would draw tourists.

“I thought lavender would be cool. Little did we know how much work it is,” she said.

The farm lost a sizable number of plants last year to root collapse. Radazzo-Stevenson said the problem may have been manure in the soil left over from when the property was Alpaca Kingdom, plus a lack of good drainage.

Eventually, she wants to get people out to the farm for events with food trucks and perhaps wine tasting. “If we can figure out what the issue is and get the plants going we have a lot of great plans,” she said. “We’re going to bring Italy to Kansas. But we've got to get the lavender to like us.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Contact her at roxieham@gmail.com.
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