Farmer lives the sweet life growing Kansas peaches

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

CONWAY SPRINGS, Kan. -- Well before dawn on a recent Friday, a line of cars and trucks waited with engines running and boxes in their trunks. Folks were ready to race for the Red Haven peaches.

Peach season has officially begun. And for many Kansans, that means a trip to Steffen Orchard in Conway Springs.

Shelley Poynter of Maize brought her mother, daughters, nephew and friends into the orchard, ready to pick peaches.

Except for 9-year-old McKenna Poynter, who was busy eating.

"Mmmmm," McKenna said, juice dripping down her chin. "This one's really good."

"Girl, stop eating and start picking," her mother scolded. "They're going to have to weigh you when we're done."

Nope, that's not the rule here.

Here, Phil Steffen runs the show -- albeit unofficially, in retirement. And he knows how tempting those peaches can be.

Here, the rule is: Pick all you can for 75 cents a pound. Eat all you want for free.

Because the land's been good to Steffen. And life is sweet.

More than a half-century ago, Steffen walked up to a widow landowner in Sumner County and asked whether he could lease a few acres to farm.

A young man, he'd already gone broke farming once, trying to turn buffalo grass into wheat in eastern Colorado.

He'd been frustrated in northern Kansas, where he cultivated two rows at a time instead of cutting big swaths with a combine, the way he thought farming should be done.

But Steffen hadn't given up hope, and he couldn't imagine doing anything else.

The woman rented him the land.

'A great farmer'"I knew from the minute I saw you that you were going to make a great farmer," he remembers her saying.

It was probably the bib overalls, Steffen says with an aw-shucks nod. Any man can look like a farmer in bib overalls.

But experience, decent weather, hardworking children and a bit of dumb luck have conspired to make Steffen famous in these parts.

He and his sons raise more than 2,000 acres of wheat and have had their fair share of bountiful harvests.

But ask most people about the Steffens of Conway Springs, and they'll mention the 80-acre orchard Phil bought in 1982 to keep his boys busy.

"After a while, there wasn't enough work for all of us," says daughter-in-law Mary Steffen, who runs the orchard full time with her husband, Nick. "This came up for sale, and we thought, 'Why not?'"

Why not? Maybe because they didn't know the first thing about fruit trees. They were wheat farmers and cattle ranchers.

"Very familiar with the back side of a black Angus," says Mary, who grew up showing cattle and horses for 4-H. "But a peach tree? What's that?"

Nick and his brother, Brett, first canvassed the orchard from the seats of their four-wheelers, counting trees to be sure what they had. Nick started on one side, Brett on the other, and they met in the middle.

Then they realized something. "They didn't know which ones were peaches and which were apples," Mary said. "We were just that clueless."

Phil Steffen was little help, but he loved learning. Through the seasons the family planted new trees and coaxed the old. They discovered what spring storms can do to young peaches, and how miraculously they can recover -- like this year's crop, pock-marked by hail but ripe and juicy just the same.

Years ago, when peach orchards were plentiful south of Wichita, Steffen had to advertise. Few families wanted to drive all that way for peaches; the orchard's more popular apple crop sustained it.

But suburban sprawl gobbled up several orchards in Haysville. Devastating weather prompted others to close. After that, crowds flocked to Steffen Orchard on opening day.

"People love those first peaches of the season," Phil Steffen said. Some arrive hours before the 7 a.m. start time, camping out in their cars to get first pick.

"It's like the Oklahoma land rush," Mary Steffen says, laughing. "Go! Go! Go!"

They finally figured it all out -- the farming as well as the box-buying, sign-painting, pricing, traffic flow and other aspects of running an orchard.

Phil Steffen will turn 82 this fall, and he finally retired, leaving the work to his sons and their families.

As they prepared for the first day of peach season, Mary Steffen rattled off the varieties of peaches that will ripen through the summer:

First the Red Havens, with their sweet juice and fragile skins. Then the Bellairs, Mary's favorite. Then the Glow Havens, the softball peaches. Then Paul Friday, Topaz and Canadian Harmony. Finally, Crest Havens and Redskins, bred to be canned and displayed at the fair.

Phil doesn't bother keeping track of that stuff. To him a peach is a peach, as long as it's just-picked or, if you're really lucky, served a la mode.

Good for pies

Delores -- Phil's wife of 55 years and "the only good thing" that came out of his brief farming stint in Garnett, Kan. -- has a pie recipe that makes fine use of any peaches that don't sell. Extras will be canned or frozen.

Come fall, there will be apples, and buses of schoolchildren clamoring to try that fresh-from-the-orchard taste.

Phil Steffen loves watching his customers. He drives his Chevy Caprice through the rows of trees, sniffing air pungent with the smell of ripe peaches, his hands sticky with juice from the fruit he never could resist.

"Not in my wildest dreams," he says, "did I ever think I'd be a peach farmer.But I love it."


Information from: The Wichita Eagle, http://www.wichitaeagle.com

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