Urban farm fights food deserts by delivering produce to Kansas seniors and low-income customers

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
Siblings David Pearson and Donna McClish continue their family's tradition of raising vegetables on their farm in Wichita, begun by their father more than 60 years ago. Now, as part of Common Ground Producers and Growers, they deliver fresh fruits and vegetables gathered from their farm and other farms to low-income residents and Kansas seniors.

Feeding others comes naturally to a couple of central Kansas farmers. For more than seven years, a brother and sister team in Wichita has delivered fresh fruits and vegetables to central Kansas seniors and low-income residents.

But raising vegetables and feeding others runs in their blood, said Donna McClish and David Pearson. More than 60 years ago, their father sold food from his garden directly to consumers.

McClish and Pearson continue to farm on the land their father cultivated.

“One day my brother asked me what we should do with the extra produce,” McClish said. “I said, let’s start a farmers market.”

Now, the brother and sister team are doing farming on a larger scale. McClish formed Common Ground Growers and Producers - the only group in Kansas that delivers fresh vegetables directly to seniors and low-income families.

USDA grant helps Common Ground reach more people

Vegetables are ready for purchase as part of Common Ground Producers and Growers, seen in this courtesy photo from May, 2020.

Recently, McClish, who runs Common Ground, received an implementation grant from the new USDA office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production. Common Ground is one of seven agricultural organizations across the nation that received a part of this  $1.88 million grant. The other recipients come from Arkansas, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Ohio.

Because of Common Ground’s latest grant, McClish, who runs the only mobile market in Kansas, will be able to expand her reach of providing fresh food to more food deserts and food-insecure areas. By expanding her organization’s network to a 500-mile radius, McClish is hoping to pick up more local farmers and bring their nutritious goods beyond the 35 sites the organization already serves in Augusta, El Dorado, Hesston, Newton and Sedgwick County.

“Our motto is ‘All are fed. No one is hungry,’” - Donna McClish.

According to Common Ground, they helped senior citizens increase their spending power by 218% through the Senior Market Voucher program.

McClish buys the fruits and vegetables that are distributed from area farmers, which includes her brother David, who runs Pearson Farms, and places the items in boxes, which she and her son-in-law Randy Couts, who serves as the program advisor, deliver. They also deliver CARE boxes to low-income families and individuals.

Last summer, fruits and vegetables were sorted to be put into boxes as part of Common Ground Producers and Growers.

“Our motto is ‘All are fed. No one is hungry,’” McClish said.

The boxes that go to the seniors contain locally grown garden vegetables and fruits, cheese and honey. The cheese is made at Grazing Plains Farm, a small dairy in Whitewater, and the honey comes from a beekeeper in Wichita.

“When you see people benefitting and enjoying the food, there’s nothing like it,” McClish said.

Throughout the beginning of COVID-19, McClish’s daughter, Keisha Couts, a licensed counselor, checked in by phone with many of the seniors McClish serves. She was making sure they were okay.

“Hunger and food does not care what race you are, Black or White, or what political background you are,” Randy Couts said. “We serve across the board.”

 Both McClish and Randy Couts enjoy their interactions as they deliver the food.

“This is truly a blessing for someone who has a true need,” Randy Couts said. “When you deliver the food, you know you have impacted their life.”

Push to see more urban farms 

Sheep are released to go and graze the cover crops at siblings David Pearson and Donna McClish's family farm in Wichita.

McClish, who serves on the State Board of Agriculture and is a member of the Kansas Black Farmers Association, would like to see more urban farms.  

Urban farming can take place in a back yard, on a rooftop, in a community garden or on a farm inside a city – like the Pearson Farm. Often, urban farmers are connected with their buyers, either through farmers markets or direct sales.

According to the 2017 USDA statistics, there are a little more than 2 million farms nationwide, with about 275,000 having less than nine acres. In the sunflower state, of the less than 2,700 farms in Kansas, about 58,000 of them are less than nine acres. The average size of a farm is more than 700 acres.

As for vegetable, potato and melon farmers, there are only about 74,000 of them nationwide who cultivate less than five acres - with less than 500 of these farmers in Kansas.

Farming like his father taught him to

Randy Couts, Donna McClish's son-in-law, helps pick up and deliver the produce and other items as part of Common Ground Producers and Growers, and he said that it is a blessing to be able to help people in need.

David Pearson, who is the seventh of 12 siblings, runs the farm his Oklahoma-born father, Robert Pearson, started after retiring from the military.

Along with driving his father’s red 1942 McCormick Farmall tractor, Pearson uses cover crops and stays clear of pesticides. During the winter, his cows, goats and sheep use the cover crops for grazing. This helps the soil on his inner-city farm remain nutritious and retain moisture. Although Pearson works full-time at another job, he views the farm as his calling.

“It’s a passion. I don’t call it work," Pearson said. "Being out here, I think, adds another 30 years to my life."

Growing up, McClish, who was first-born, would walk with her 11 siblings for miles in the woods surrounding their property. Now, factories and a major highway borders their land.

Goats wander on part of the land that siblings David Pearson and Donna McClish grow vegetables on at their Wichita family's farm.

“We farm in rain sleet or snow," Pearson said. "I don’t think there’s anything I’d rather be doing then this. It’s in my blood."

Each year, the family receives offers to buy their inner-city land. Each year, they adamantly refuse to sell. Next year, they hope to get high tunnels to extend their growing season on both ends.

“Everybody is family – even if they’re not family,” McClish said. “We want to bring everybody to the table. When you put the farmer back to work, our whole economy will shift.”