Spare Produce: There is no season like fall harvest for St. John third-generation grower

Jennifer Stultz
Pratt Tribune
Melodie Spare counts pumpkins left to sell Saturday at the Pratt Farmer's Market where she shares family farm vegetables from Spare Produce Farms, St. John.

Fall can be a tricky time for vegetable farmers like Timothy Spare of St. John, but it can also be a favorite season when the tasks of preparing, planning, planting, weeding and picking come full circle. At Spare Produce Gardens in Stafford County, fall is the time to enjoy the fruits (or in this case - vegetables) of one's labor.

"Fall is actually my favorite time of year," Spare said Monday, as he took a slight break from early morning picking hours due to overnight rain. "All of the planting and weeding comes to an end and it's all about picking the harvest. That's my favorite part, seeing how everything grows from start to finish, and now we get to eat what we have grown."

Spare is a third-generation Stafford County vegetable farmer, carrying on what his grandparents started on three acres, decades ago, that has served to support his family through the years and continues to keep them busy.

"Richard and Neva Jean Spare started out growing sweet potatoes," Spare said. "Then they branched out into tomatoes, watermelons, okra, and a whole lot of other things. My uncle David Spare took over after them, and when he was done, my mom and dad - Merlin and Melodie Spare grew the vegetables. Now it's my turn."

Even though he grew up farming vegetables in the rich, sandy Stafford County soil just south of St. John, Spare said he didn't plan to come back to work the family farm until he was a senior at Kansas State University.

"I was a horticulture major," he said. "But I had interned at a farm or two elsewhere and it just didn't occur to me to come home and take over the opportunities here until I was about to graduate."

Spare has put his college degree to use, making changes in production and marketing to better fit Spare Produce capacities of production and fiscal projections.

"I really could produce and sell three times what I am doing now," he said. "But we have difficulties marketing it all. It's already hard to sell all the volume we produce as it is."

Money-makers for the vegetable farm have long been tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and squash. Spare said he and his parents attend three farmers markets regularly at Great Bend, Hutchinson and Pratt. Their farm store is open all summer from 1-6 p.m. on Fridays, and by appointment in fall.

"We still have a lot of cantaloupes that are hanging on strong," Spare said. "The flavor this year is just amazing. The soil here is great for growing the melons."

Also still hanging around for fall purchase are plenty of pumpkins, potatoes, green beans and peppers. Spare said he was still picking winter squash from the fields so there would be several varieties, like acorn, spaghetti and butternut available for purchase yet this month. He has also recently added apples and peaches grown in nearby orchards to his farmers market offerings to make it a full customer experience.

"We will be at the markets for about two weeks yet," Spare said. "After that people can check in on our Facebook site - Spare Produce Garden - to see what is available."

Spare said that as the markets slow down he will spend time cleaning up the different garden plots, planning next year's rotations, as well as helping area farmers with fall harvest. During the winter season he works for a local Christmas tree farm, then in December and January he will begin planting greenhouse seeds for a good start on the  coming year.

"There is always work that has to be done," he said. "But the best part about it is you can set your own hours."

For Spare that means getting up early every morning to get out in the fields to pick vegetables by hand. At this point only family members are involved at no outside labor is hired.

"My mom and wife help when they can," Spare said. "My brother and sister help if they are around. But at this point we do not employ others. Helps keep our costs down that way."

In addition to picking the final fall crops, Spare said he expects to start pulling posts and cleaning up garden plots in the next few weeks. He uses crop rotation to keep soil healthy, as well as keeps a compost pile of vegetable discards that is worked back into areas needing higher nutrients.