KC chefs rally to save beloved Pendleton’s farm devastated by Lawrence tornado

John and Karen Pendleton, owners of Pendleton’s Country Market, posed Monday in front of their house, which was hit by a tornado in May. Moving into a new home, cleaning up their farm and selling the crops they can save has left them no time to plant over the last six weeks.
John and Karen Pendleton, owners of Pendleton’s Country Market, posed Monday in front of their house, which was hit by a tornado in May. Moving into a new home, cleaning up their farm and selling the crops they can save has left them no time to plant over the last six weeks.

By mid-July of any other summer, Karen and John Pendelton would have already seeded the nectar plants that filled their butterfly house. They would have started preparing for the annual pumpkin patch and begun cleaning for an onslaught of school field trips in the fall.

But this year, they’re preparing to close for a month so they can remove all the scrap metal, wood and other detritus as they struggle to rebuild after sustaining a direct hit from an EF-4 tornado on May 28. The storm, which brought 170 mph winds, arrived southwest of Lawrence, spun its way to Linwood and then into the Kansas City area.

“It will be a months-long process,” Karen Pendleton said. “Hopefully, it’s not going to be years.”

Slow Food Kansas City, a group that focuses on sustainable food and local growers, will host a fundraiser for Pendleton’s Country Market on Tuesday in south Kansas City.

No one was killed in the tornado, but it leveled homes into piles of rubble, uprooted hundred-year-old trees and scattered debris across the area.

At the Pendeltons’ 40-acre farm east of Lawrence, the tornado took out a machine shed, the butterfly house and five of the farm’s seven greenhouses.

The family has suffered such devastation from severe weather before: Thirteen years ago, a microburst took out the farm’s machine shed and damaged greenhouses. The land has flooded twice in the last 26 years.

The May tornado severely damaged the couple’s personal home on the property: Its windows remain boarded up, tarps cover exposed walls and they continue picking up pieces of shingling.

The Pendletons continue to harvest crops they planted before the storm — particularly flowers — and sell them at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market and Clinton Parkway Nursery in Lawrence. But after going six weeks unable to plant new crops, they will close down during August to focus on cleanup.

“We’re trying to pick every single flower to get sold so we have income to sustain us later in the year,” she said. “And being busy has kept our minds off other things we don’t want to think about.”

The couple plans to offer vegetables next year, but they’ve already decided to forgo this year’s fall pumpkin season, fall butterfly attraction and Christmastime open house. The Pendletons, who are approaching retirement age, may even revert the farm back to its roots: in the 1980s it was only open to the public six weeks a year.

“We are living in limbo right now,” Karen Pendleton said. “We can’t make decisions until we know about insurance.”

While their specialty crops and greenhouses were not insured, the major structures were. They’re waiting on a decision from their insurer.

Touring the farm on Monday, John Pendleton was embarrassed by the lingering mess and foot-high weeds that have invaded. He pointed to the bare concrete foundation that once housed the machine shed. Black portable dumpsters were filled with metal and wood debris.

Still, the two are humbled by the support they’ve received — even if it was difficult to accept handouts. Volunteers arrived the morning after the storm and other supporters raised thousands of dollars online to help.

“We’re very blessed with lots of good friends and lots of good customers,” John Pendleton said.

Other farms, including Crum’s Heirlooms Farm in Bonner Springs and Free State Growers in Linwood, were also damaged in the storm. Efforts to reach Crum’s were unsuccessful. A representative with Free State said the farm was open, but not functioning at full capacity.

The storm spared nearby Grinter Farms, which grows several crops but is best known for its sunflower field, where locals flock for photos. In a Facebook post, the Grinters said their fields were spared from the tornado. But a wet spring did delay the sunflower crop. Sunflower seeds went into the ground July 8 and the Grinters hope the spring flowers will bloom around Labor Day.

Jasper Mirabile Jr., owner of Jasper’s Restaurant and founder of Slow Food Kansas City, said the Pendeltons’ farm is beloved by restaurateurs across the metro.

He has known the Pendletons for 15 years: In his 65-year-old Italian restaurant, Mirabile uses their asparagus for his tableside mozzarella dish each spring. He plans a trip to the farm at least once a year and his daughter relied on their peonies for her wedding arrangements.

Pendleton’s Country Market allows customers to meet farmers with dirt-stained hands and pick their own crops, like green beans and potatoes, from the earth.

“It’s a working farm, a real Kansas working farm,” Mirabile said. “And the last thing you want to see is a farm close in Kansas.”

On Tuesday, his group will meet near Watts Mill Waterfall at 6 p.m. Mirabile, along with Craig Jones, who was dubbed the Food Network’s “Grill Mayor” in 2012, will cook up sausages, sliders and chicken. Tickets cost $25 for members and $30 for non-members.

He hopes at least 100 people show up and help donate a few thousand dollars to the Pendletons.

“Even if it’s $5,000, that’s $5,000 to get them back on their feet,” he said, “and more than anything let them know the community is behind them and we want them to go back in business. “

While the Pendletons have worked to clean up from the devastation, shoppers at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market likely had no idea they were struggling.

A mainstay of the market, the Pendletons brought what crops they could the following Saturday, just four days after the storm, said market manager Brian McInerney.

“They were going strong,” he said. “It’s funny, they were actually bringing tomatoes to that market and they were calling them tor-matoes.”

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Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas