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Living on the vegetables of his labor

Staff writer

Deciding to grow produce in Kansas, fighting rough weather and temperamental plants, is not something done on a whim.

Ron Jirak, owner of Jirak Brothers Produce in Tampa, certainly thought hard on it.

“Nobody can just walk into this,” Jirak said last week. “You really need to be trained for years. I didn’t go, ‘Oh, I wanna raise vegetables for a living.’ I did a lot of livestock and field crops, gradually went that way, got an opportunity that opened up, and started doing this.”

Jirak has sold tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet corn, and other vegetables on top of watermelon and cantaloupe since he was 16 under the name Jirak Brothers Produce. He is one of roughly a dozen farmers in Kansas who derives his income from produce. He can’t think of another within 50 miles of Tampa.

“Kansas is a very harsh environment to grow vegetables on a commercial basis because of the extremes of the wind, the heat, and the cold — especially the wind,” he said. “That’s why there are only a few people in the state who make a living in the produce business like myself.”

He owns eight hoop houses for protecting his tomato plants and a smaller greenhouse in which he starts some of his plants. It is capable of being heated for both seeds and graftings.

Even if they get out the door and into the soil, Jirak can have issues with his plants.

“The cold weather hurts us more than the cold weather anywhere in Marion,” he said. “If we lose days or weeks, we can’t recover those. We only have a limited amount of time we can sell.”

Watermelons are especially temperamental, tolerating only 80 degree weather and high humidity. The seeds cost thousands of dollars per pound. He’ll have 50 cents invested in each sprout before it reaches the field.

He hires local kids for help on his farm and thinks he is the only produce farm in Kansas to do so. They usually work for him for 3 to 5 years before going on to other professions.

“The investment is in knowledge,” he said. “For every one problem you have in a field crop like corn or soybeans, you’ll have 10 in the produce.”

Jirak logs more than 100 hours a week in his work. He wakes up at 3:30 a.m. each morning and works in his fields from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. He handles irrigation for half a day each Sunday.

“I’ve got a little bit of field crops, but my cousin does most of my other farming,” he said. “I don’t have time because of the vegetables. They take all my time.”

He still finds the work rewarding. As much as 70% of his vegetables go to retail stores in Newton, Wichita, Emporia, and Marion.

“It took a lot of years to get as far as I’ve gotten,” he said.

Last modified July 7, 2021

 

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