By Erin Hunninghake
Special to The Leaven
ATCHISON — Many men are passionate about their hobbies.
But rarely is all that enthusiasm devoted to vegetables.
Here it is, a Tuesday morning, however, and Mark Jirak has just gotten out of daily Mass with his family at St. Benedict Church in Atchison.
You can hear the pride in his voice as he and his wife Theresa, with five of their six kids trailing behind, walk the countless rows of crops he grows on his farm just north of Atchison.
Mark is employed full time by Syngenta as the commercial unit manager for vegetables in eastern North America. But he bought the farm more than 14 years ago in pursuit of his hobby.
He’s just that passionate about vegetables.
The Jirak Family Produce Farm specializes in growing sweet corn, watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers, squash, green beans, pumpkins and more. They sell the majority of their crops to local school districts, restaurants and farmers’ markets and donate excess produce to local food banks.
“We have a real desire to provide our customers with high quality produce,” Mark said. “Because of this, 80 percent of our business is repeat business.“
Growing up on farms themselves, Mark and Theresa saw the value this lifestyle could provide for their family.
“The farm gives our kids a chance to earn money to pay for school while teaching them a lot of lessons about working and just the circle of life,” Mark said. “You can’t put a dollar value on teaching work ethic and responsibility.”
In addition to learning to farm, Mark and Theresa’s kids have also learned communication and financial skills while working at the local markets.
The farm has also been a way for the Jiraks to come together as a family and learn lessons that go beyond a classroom.
“It’s been really great seeing our family grow up around the farm,” said Anna, the Jirak’s oldest daughter. “We work hard during the week, then come together on Sundays for a big beautiful meal with the vegetables we grew ourselves.”
“There’s camaraderie built between siblings,” she said. “It’s very bonding.”
The family has connected their farm with their faith by finding correlations to different events in the Bible — especially, they say, Jesus’ agony in the garden.
The farming life is very demanding, said Theresa.
“It can be very vice-filled,” she said, “but you know those are chances to train yourself to be virtuous. It keeps you grounded.”
“You feel grateful when you do have a good crop because you know it’s not all you — it’s God shining down,” Mark said.
The connection to their faith really became apparent two years ago when they got news that would change everything.
Mark had been diagnosed with cancer.
“We had to shut down the farm that year,” Theresa said. “But we realized it was all part of God’s plan.”
“All the kids learned to really pitch in together during that time,” she said.
“Now I don’t complain as much when I’m sweating and hot,” Mark said. “It’s better than sitting in the hospital for a chemo treatment.”
Mark has now been in remission for almost two years and is back to looking toward the future of the family farm.
The Jiraks recently expanded their business with farm in Cummings.
Mark said he looks forward to the day he can retire so he can concentrate full time on two of his biggest passions.
Vegetables, of course — and the Kansas City Royals.