Junior Max and sophomore Cecilia Kurlbaum can see the rolling hills of their farm. They see a view of the Missouri River Valley and a now destroyed wooden house that is used as a burn pile; they also see rows of plants with vines crawling up wooden posts and circling around the cages that contain them. But mostly, they see tomatoes.
The farm has been a part of the family since the 1950s. It was bought by their grandparents who purchased it just after they had gotten married. They bought the farm to raise Liz Kurlbaum, Max and Cecilia’s mother, and her 10 siblings on.
After marrying her husband, Sky Kurlbaum, they had five children and decided to raise them on their farm. This way, Liz could stay and take care of her parents. The kids lived with their children on the farm until their grandmother died in 2004. Liz and her eleven siblings each inherited an equal piece of the 60 acre farm.
After Max and Cecilia’s grandmother died, they left the farm and moved to Overland Park. Max and Cecilia fondly remember living on the farm when they were little.
“I loved it,” Cecilia said. “We would get to go out and play in the woods and build forts.”
On a normal day the kids would wake up and do their school work, which consisted of early elementary school work such as basic reading and writing. Then the kids would have time to play in the woods and run around the fields. A few years later, Sky decided to buy the other siblings’ shares so the Kurlbaum’s could start growing tomatoes.
Sky grew up on a farm in Sandoval, Illinois and had always fondly remembered eating tomatoes his family grew. He wanted his children to experience the farming process like he did, so he chose to grow tomatoes. Sky tried growing all types of tomatoes he had bought from local nurseries and never could get the same flavor he remembered from his childhood. At first he thought it was the soil or climate but then realized it might be the seeds. Finally, he stumbled upon Heirloom tomato seeds (aged seeds) which was exactly the taste he was looking for.
Over the years, the Kurlbaum’s farm has grown from just a way to make flavorful tomatoes to an unexpected full-blown business. One day, when Sky was having lunch at Brio, he didn’t like the tomatoes used in his lunch, so he asked the chef to use his that he had with him from the farm. The flavor of the tomatoes improved the dish so much that the chef decided to only use the Kurlbaum tomatoes in all the food made at Brio.
Since that lunch, the family’s farm now supplies over 30 local restaurants including Lidia’s, Jasper’s, Urban Table, and Brio. They also donate over 1,000 pounds of tomatoes every year to charities, such as The Village Food Pantry that help feed the hungry. Three years ago they made a gross profit of $45,000 and this year they made $19,500.
The family has their own process for growing the tomatoes so they can ensure their crop will be the best of the pick. In the spring, Sky starts growing the seeds in the basement under halogen lights. Around March the family transplants the seeds into a greenhouse. On Mother’s Day they do a second plant and put the young tomatoes into the ground.
The Kurlbaum’s also use a technique called dry farming when growing their tomatoes. They only water their plants once so the roots will grow deeper into the ground. Thus their plants flourish and produce a larger quantity of better tasting tomatoes. The plants are first put in the ground in May, and tomatoes start to sprout the first week of July.
The family is out working at their farm almost every weekend in the summer and spring. In the beginning of the year the work is mostly setting up for the harvest: spraying pesticides and setting up posts and cages. Towards the end of the season, it’s harvesting the tomatoes, taking care of the 3,000 plants and delivering the tomatoes to their many clients. Work for the Kurlbaum’s can range from a couple hours to all day depending on what tasks need to be done.
Even though the work for the Kurlbaum’s is hard the tomatoes are a great reward and the best part of the farm for Max.
“The tomatoes are really, really good,” Max said. “They are one hundred billion percent better than normal tomatoes. Normal tomatoes just taste like water to me.”
Another reward for Max and Cecilia is the business and life lessons they have taken from the working on the farm.
“It teaches you a lot of leadership skills,” Max said. “It also teaches you working hard and being with your family is not all that bad.”