Big changes are coming soon at the Pearson Urban Farm in Northeast Wichita, where David and Donald Pearson and Donna Pearson McClish have been growing and distributing fresh produce for a decade.
Common Ground Producers and Growers has added a new transit bus to their vehicle fleet and this summer they plan to expand their personal growing ability with the construction of a pack house with office space and room to assemble food boxes and the erection of two high tunnel greenhouses.
They already have a delivery cargo van that they use as a mobile food hub to deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to inner city neighborhoods where access is limited and many residents are without transportation.
“I can remember my dad running a similar operation,” Donna said. “He’d load up the fruits and vegetables and park on a street corner and sell to whoever came by. And I can remember my mom urging urban people to learn to grow their own food.
“What are you going to do if there are no grocery stores?” she’d ask them.
When she and David started Common Ground, she began working with other growers to market produce for them.
Nothing Goes to Waste
Common Ground has a “zero waste” policy, she said. Any produce that is in danger of spoiling or that “just doesn’t look good” becomes supplemental feed for David’s herd of sheep and goats, which he sells for meat, she said.
“They will eat anything,” she said. “And feeding any leftovers to them cuts down on the amount of feed David has to buy.”
This year, the Pearsons undertook a project for the Land Institute to grow Kernza, a perennial grain that can be milled to produce flour.
“It comes back every year and it doesn’t take as many nutrients out of the soil as conventional wheat,” she said.
The farm also has a field planted in a “milpa,” a blend of corn, beans and squash grown together. It was a common farming practice of the Indigenous people of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Everything on the Pearson farm is produced without tillage and without chemical fertilizers. They compost horse manure from the horse stalls and pens for added fertility and utilize the waste from the grazing sheep and goats as well.
Urban Farming a Way of Life
David Pearson says the style of “urban agriculture” that is now being promoted by organizations like the Land Institute and the Kansas Rural Center is something he learned from his father and has been a way of life for his family.
His brother, Donald, also helps with the farming operation.
“I was born here,” said Donald, the youngest of the Pearson family. “It was a wonderful place to grow up and I still love just doing the work.
The Kansas Rural Center and its partners, CommonGround, Kansas Wesleyan University and St. John’s Baptist Church, were awarded a USDA Ag Marketing Services grant this year to establish a 12-county food hub along Interstate 135 from Wichita to Salina. It includes the counties on the route as well as those immediately adjacent on either side.
“I think this country really learned some lessons from the COVID pandemic,” Donna says. “We learned that supply lines can get disrupted and that grocery store shelves can be bare. More and more people began realizing that we need to grow food for ourselves.
“The people fortunate enough to already have land are more interested in growing, especially when they can get help with marketing and distribution. And that’s what we’ve been doing. We pay the growers we work with an equitable wage for what they do and we relieve them of the problem of worrying about distribution. We can even pick up from them if we need to.”
A Nod to History
The Pearson family bought the farm in 1968, but the house dates back to the early 1900s.
They have built a new pump house and undertaken the arduous task of upgrading the wiring and plumbing.
But they plan to keep the original style of the house to honor its history. And they have plans to bring history to life with another project.
“We have a bunch of old machinery that has just accumulated over time,” she said. “We plan to have a display area that tells the story of the evolution of machinery over the decades, kind of a mini-museum.”
She added that the two tractors David still uses in the farming operation would be considered antique by modern machinery standards, but they still do the jobs he needs.