Desire to share rural life inspired farm-to-table event

By Paul Harris

Mary Mertz was never much of a country girl. Twenty-five years ago, she never would have dreamed of living on a farm. For most of her life, the Chicago native was a city girl through and through. But when she met her husband, Bob Mertz, that all changed.

Bob was fourth-generation cattle rancher whose great-grandfather started farming in the area in 1891. As the operation grew, it moved to its current location east of Zeandale along the Kansas River and became River Creek Farms. It includes more than 3,000 acres and is filled with corn, soybeans, cattle and sheep. Bob and Mary now run the farm along with Bob’s brother and sister-in-law, Joe and Kim Mertz.

When they got married, the idea of living in the country was one Mertz had to get used to. She said that at first it was hard to find her place. But over time, Mertz fell in love with the place. She got used to the new lifestyle and the peacefulness of the country. She has even been inspired to start new ventures.

After visiting an agri-tourism farm in Boulder, Colo., Mertz got the idea to try something similar at River Creek Farms.

“After attending the one in Colorado, we were like, ‘No problem. We got this,’” Mertz said.

First, the Mertzes hosted a series of farm tours, but that plan fizzled.

“We are a large working farm, and we just realized it was not conducive,” she said. “We have a lot going on every day.”

So, a few years ago, they decided to try a one-night dinner at the farm.

The result is Feast of the Fields, a gourmet dinner using local ingredients set the middle of a corn field. The event is sort of a representation of Mertz assimilating herself in to the family farm: city meets country.

“Everyone loves a good meal and to serve them a top-notch four-course dinner. . . I hope it leaves them feeling good about the farm and about Kansas,” Mertz said.

Last weekend was the family’s fourth feast. It has become a bi-annual event, with one meal in the fall and one in early summer.

Scott Benjamin, owner of 4 Olives restaurant, prepared a four-course meal, and guests drank wine from Somerset Ridge, a Paola-based winery.

“All of the food can be found in a 30-mile area of here,” Mertz said.

Attendees are served at a long table in a clearing carved out in a cornfield.

The goal of the event for Mertz is to get people who do not have a farm background and put them in to an unfamiliar rural setting. When they first get to the farm, many guests, most of whom come from cities outside of Manhattan, are taken aback by the lush green surroundings — a stark contrast to their urban jungles.

“I don’t think people get away to places that are open like this,” she said. “There’s something beautiful about agriculture, about a cornfield.”

Many of the guests this year immediately got out their cameras and started taking pictures.

It is a reaction that Mertz was all too familiar with. Before she moved to the country herself, she said, “I knew nothing about this.”

The beauty of the farm is something Mertz wanted to share with everyone else.

“Sometimes you get so distracted in life, you don’t have time to get out of your box,” she said, “People are just amazed at the greenness of the corn and the drive out here with the Flint Hills. This is what Kansas is.”

Mertz said she hopes to continue expanding the Feast of the Fields. Currently, the event has two installments, one in the summer and another in the fall. The fall session is held in an old white barn.

Currently, there is not much competition from other area farms, according to Mertz.

“This event is unique to this area,” she said.

The wacky climate of Kansas might be one reason that the feast is only found on the Mertz farm.

“We’ve been blessed to have such great weather both times,” Mertz said about the summer version of her feast. 

The fall Feast of the Fields will be in mid-October.

“We checked the calendar, and there isn’t a home football game that day,” she said.

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