Ron Jirak of rural Tampa has been way ahead of the “eat local” trend.
He and three brothers started Jirak Brothers Produce in the late 1970s. The seeds of the business were planted even earlier.
“My dad used to grow watermelons in the ’40s,” Jirak said. “I probably got started in elementary school.”
He is the only brother still working full-time growing sweet corn, watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes, cucumbers, winter squash, peppers, and 30 varieties of pumpkin.
At peak times, Jirak may sell as many as 5,000 cantaloupes or 10,000 pumpkins in a week. Some items are easier to pick than others.
“Cucumbers are tough to pick because you’re always bending over,” his employee Tyler Klenda said.
Each vegetable requires its own management practices. With so much to keep track of, Jirak finds it productive for him to focus on management and leave fieldwork to hired hands.
“If I miss one little detail, it can cost me 10 times what I would save doing it myself,” he said.
Jirak sells produce to local stores, 15 wholesalers, and farmers markets in Marion, Newton, Emporia, Junction City, and Salina.
“I like dealing with a local grocer better,” he said.
With local stores he is able to work out any problems that arise on the basis of handshakes instead of contracts.
The Jirak name resonates with produce buyers in Marion, Carlsons’ Grocery co-owner and produce specialist Mitch Carlson said.
“They’ve been asking already for two or three weeks, ‘When is it going to get here?’” he said. “They’re always excited for Jirak produce.
“Just their name alone sells a lot in this area,” Carlson said.
Cantaloupes and watermelons are the most popular Jirak items at Carlsons’ he said.
The key to Jirak’s ongoing success is providing fresh produce. While a watermelon at a big-box store may have been picked 10 days before arriving at the store, Jirak picks watermelons on Friday to sell at farmers markets on Saturday. Anything that isn’t sold in 48 hours becomes pig feed.
The best sellers are pumpkins, sweet corn, cantaloupes, and watermelons. Pumpkins were especially in demand last year because southern pumpkin fields cooked in the summer heat.
Jirak said he sold a full semi-trailer of pumpkins to a buyer in Oklahoma City.
During the peak of harvesting each summer, Jirak hires up to 15 workers — mostly high school students — to keep up with picking. He tries to set expectations and teach work lessons that will help them in future careers.