Kevin and Cherie Schenker live and work on several hundred acres of prairie in southeast Kansas, near land that’s been farmed by Cherie’s family since 1874. The task of tending this land passed to the Schenkers in 2008, which led them to establish their own cattle operation, Schenker Family Farms.
Kevin and Cherie aim to steward their land humanely; their animals graze on specialty grasses and their farm is Certified Naturally Grown. Plus, they’ve worked to have a positive impact on their communities both globally and locally. Since 2010, they’ve partnered with Adopt-a-Platoon to ship their products to soldiers stationed overseas. And in 2017, they opened McCune Farm to Market, a small grocery store and café, to serve as a community hub and alleviate the surrounding rural food desert.
In this interview, Cherie reveals what drives the Schenkers’ farm and store.
What led you to farming?
We were married in 2006, and we knew we wanted to go into farming. The opportunity arose in 2008, when my father wanted to semi-retire. We purchased a portion of the family farm and began Schenker Family Farms while working closely with my father to begin winding down his livestock and hay operation.
Prior to this, we had been developing a business model for selling grass-fed meats online to meet a niche market. After implementing that plan, we doubled the size of our operation just a few years after starting it, and we now ship 95 percent of our meat to customers across the United States.
What types of food does your farm produce?
We produce grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork, chicken, and a small amount of lamb. We currently market our grass-fed meats at www.SchenkerFarms.com, through Whole Foods Markets, at the farmers market, and through our store.
How has your farm grown over the years?
Our farm has grown every year because we find new ways to be more efficient. In addition, our customers request new recipes or products. We recently added a line of bone broths and heat-and-eat meals, per our customer requests. More and more consumers have a desire to not only know how their food is raised and handled, but who their farmer is. This has led to strong growth, particularly in the niche meat industry.
Why did you decide to open a rural grocery store?
We had been operating out of a remodeled building and our living room for several years. We finally reached a point where we were out of space and needed to expand or change directions.
Consumer demand and a U.S. Department of Agriculture Value Added Producer Grant led us to commission a feasibility study for our market and geographic region. The study not only indicated that increased product lines were a feasible idea, but also that a small farm store would be viable.
Our town’s population is about 400. Unfortunately, this community was a rural food desert for more than 25 years. This means that residents had to drive more than 10 miles to get groceries and fresh foods. This was especially burdensome for our local elderly. After reading the feasibility study and talking with multiple area leaders, we realized we were in a unique position to do something about it.
We modified our original vision to include a small grocery area and dining area. The building almost doubled in size, but the vision was now community-based, rather than business-based. In doing the planning for this project, which took 3 years, we realized that, long-term, this project isn’t about growing Schenker Family Farms. This project is about community, rural America, and stepping up to be the change that we want to see. If Schenker Family Farms grows along the way, that’s great. What matters is keeping our community healthy and viable for the future.
A grocery store is one of the biggest sales tax drivers in a small community. In McCune, sales tax is used to help pave streets, take care of the cemetery, and make sure people have clean water. Plus, one of the main factors people look for when buying a house is whether or not the area has access to fresh food or groceries outside of a convenience store.
McCune Farm to Market (www.McCuneMarket.com) opened in August 2017. It features our grass-fed meats along with conventional meats, locally grown produce, and standard groceries, and it serves breakfast and lunch every day.
What advice can you offer anyone interested in farming or starting a business?
Work with others and learn the business. Just because someone who’s 70 years old does things a certain way doesn’t mean that their way is bad or that it’s the only way. Be willing to learn from their experience.
Successful farmers have to have a work ethic like no other. And groceries, like other small businesses, including farming, run on a razor-thin margin. Keeping that balance while moving forward can be a challenge. If you aren’t willing to put everything on the line, don’t get into the business. Your heart has to be all in, along with your willingness to work 24/7 to accomplish your goals.
That’s how we approached being small family farmers, and now we’re fortunate enough to get to farm for a living, and blessed enough to be in the right place at the right time to making a lasting impact on our community.
Amanda Sorell is a writer and editor who lives in Seattle.