by Karen Bonar
Special to The Leaven
For five generations — since 1913 — the Tedman family has lived one mile south of the Nebraska border and farmed the land.
The current stewards are Matt and Michelle Tedman, who moved to the seven-acre parcel in 2019.
“Grandpa was born in the original house,” Matt said.
Matt and Michelle now live in the house where his mother grew up, although it was completely renovated before the couple moved into the house with their four children: McKenzie, 8; Michael, 6; Mary, 3; and Matthias, 2.
“We had a lot of hope for our kids and saw the potential of the farm,” Michelle said. “We hoped they would have investment and chores and a future — carrying on a legacy.”
Their first venture, fruit trees, began in 2015 before they purchased the property.
“We wanted to know the best way to care for fruit trees, then we learned about pollination practices,” Michelle said.
“Everybody always sees honeybees and flowers, but nobody sees the relationship between plants, soil, bacteria and fungi,” Matt said. “It was the light bulb going off — starting to see how everything is so tied together in farming.”
The decision to move to rural Brown County was a gradual one. Shortly after they wed in 2010, they moved to Iowa for a few years, where Matt worked for John Deere.
Once their oldest, McKenzie, was born, they realized being closer to family was important. The Tedmans moved back to Sabetha in 2014. One day, Matt’s grandfather, who was in his 70s, pulled him aside.
“He said he was thinking about moving to town and said, ‘We want you and Michelle to take over the place,’” Matt said
As discussions about returning to the family farm progressed, the couple began dabbling. They purchased their first beehive in 2016.
“I’ve always had an interest in livestock, but [at the time] we didn’t own any land, didn’t know what we were doing and didn’t want chores every single morning,” Matt said. “Bees were a good fit at that time of life.”
Learning about bees led them to join the Northeast Kansas Bee Association (NEKBA). They also christened their efforts: T-House Farms. As they expanded their knowledge about bees, a natural progression occurred.
“It wasn’t a discussion one night at the dinner table,” Michelle said. “It happened one thing at a time. We were beekeepers and joined the association and club. When Matt said, ‘I would really like to move out to our grandparents’ farm,’ that’s when the real farming discussions happened.”
“We have some good friends at the church who got us into sheep,” Matt said of fellow parishioners at Sacred Heart Parish in Sabetha. “Laura Fortmeyer has a strong background in agriculture. She saw the interest I had in beekeeping and spark I had for agriculture.
“She mentioned a soil conservation class in Holton, and that’s where the wheels started turning.”
He began researching options.
“We’re starting small,” Matt said. “I guess we’re tinkering with a system that is scalable.”
The family’s farm includes fruit trees and Christmas trees (which will be ready for harvest in 2026). It also has expanded to include a diversity of livestock.
With only seven acres of land, the couple’s goal is to create a sustainable operation. As their operation grows, Matt continues to work as an engineer in Sabetha, while Michelle is on the farm with the kids.
About 20 chickens — primarily for egg production — reside on the farm. The coop is mobile, allowing the chickens to feed and fertilize multiple areas of the farm.
The herd of sheep is the family’s first venture into meat production, with the hope to add poultry to the mix in the future.
“I never thought about diversity in agricultural systems,” Matt said. “Everyone here specializes in corn or beans. We’re trying to do a lot of smaller enterprises.”
About 100 miles south of the Tedman farm, Karen and John Pendleton have spent more than four decades weathering the ups and downs of agriculture in rural Douglas County.
“We planted our first half-acre of asparagus in 1980,” Karen said. “People would buy $10 worth of asparagus and pay with $20 and ask, ‘What else do you have to buy?’”
This prompted the couple to slowly expand their produce production. In 1985, they purchased a greenhouse from someone in Eudora who used it to grow hydroponic tomatoes.
“Often people think of roots dangling in water, but we use peat moss and amendments,” Karen said. “With hydroponic, you don’t want to grow with Mother Earth dirt in the greenhouse. There are too many other diseases that can come in. The tomatoes are in a bucket and fertilized through the watering system.”
Because customers saw a greenhouse, they assumed the family grew plants for landscaping.
“We realized we were making more money on the bedding plants than the produce, so we put up several more greenhouses and started bedding plants,” Karen said.
The Pendletons continued to branch out, expanding into cut flowers.
“In 2008 when the economy tanked, nobody bought flowers anymore. They just stopped,” she said.
The lesson the Pendletons took away from the experience was to keep their production diversified; they now grow equal parts cut flowers, bedding plants and produce.
“In a down economy, produce will always sell,” Karen said.
While a side-of-the-road vegetable stand was opened in a 1,000-bushel grain bin decades ago, the small market expanded into a barn in 1987.
About eight years ago, the family, who are parishioners of St. John the Evangelist Church in Lawrence, began a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in order to further diversify. Customers pay a subscription fee — either a lump sum, or monthly in January, February and March. Then, from May through September, a bag of produce is delivered weekly to the customer.
“We started the CSA through two different preschools,” Karen said. “We started with a preschool because we figured we could go to a preschool, deliver the food and we knew customers would go there, because they wouldn’t forget to pick up their kids.”
This year, the family delivers to 12 drop-off locations in Lawrence.
“As long as a business or location has at least eight members, we deliver to them,” she said.
The farm also participates in farmers markets in Lawrence on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“Local food is so big right now,” Karen said. “Growing the food is not that difficult. What makes it difficult is the weather. In Kansas, it’s the swings of temperatures that are tough. We went 20 below in February, and the next week it was 70 degrees. It’s hard for plants.
“You can get a hailstorm, floods, a drought. You have to do a lot to mitigate the weather with a variety of what you plant.”
One avenue to circumvent Mother Nature is via a high tunnel greenhouse, also called a hoop house.
“It’s a greenhouse, but doesn’t have heat, and it extends your season,” Karen said. “We plant our lettuce in high tunnels because a hailstorm in April or May isn’t unheard of. With the high tunnels, we can produce a month earlier in there than if we planted outside. It also protects the produce from a lot of deer or other animals.”
Farming is a difficult profession and, in the case of the Pendletons, has ranged in size. The family has farmed as many as 1,100 acres and as few as 40.
“We’ve been fairly large farmers, and now we’re fairly small farmers,” she said. “I see people try to pit the two types of farming against each other. We’ve been both and there’s nothing wrong with either one. There are pluses and minuses on both sides.
“As a small farm, we cannot feed the world. Being a small farmer, I don’t have the financial risk a larger farm does. I also don’t have the same income potential of a large farm.”
One of the most significant differences is machinery.
“We work much harder physically on a small farm because we’re using small hand implements and smaller tillers,” Karen said. “We’re not using big tractors and big equipment. On the large farm, farmers have to raise more and have to get big machinery.”
But — big or small — the landscape is still the same.
“Out in the field, when you have nature all around you — the birds and insects — I don’t know how to explain it,” she said. “You really feel close to God out in the fields because of all the creation that is out there.”