MODOC – To make a little extra money a few years ago, Tonja Williams dug into the cookbook for old family recipes and began whipping up bonbons, toffees and other treats.
She tweaked the recipes to her liking, then began to sell them to her co-workers at a Scott City elementary school. When her son was earning money to go on a missions trip, she marketed her products through Facebook to help him fundraise.
“Within two and a half weeks, he had his money, and we had donations for other people trying to get their money together,” she said.
Her baked goods were a hit. So, in January, Williams, whose husband farms, turned their single-car garage near the tiny town of Modoc in Scott County into a food production kitchen. She started a Web page for her fledgling bakery business – Tonja’s Toffee – and started selling the products on the Internet, at craft shows and through other avenues.
Now, amid the Christmas season, her sales have augmented for toffee, bonbons and peanut brittle as corporations buy her gift baskets and her retail outlets demand more product. Internet traffic is increasing, as well.
For rural entrepreneurs like Williams, distance would have been a roadblock for growth a decade or so ago. But even in Modoc, Kansas, technology is spiraling cottage industries.
“The Internet has totally changed how people do business, how they shop,” she said. “Sometimes they want to buy something not everyone has access to.”
Moreover, with Christmas approaching, she isn’t the only one banking on holiday sales in rural Kansas. Mark Galloway, who sells coffee at his Lindsborg-based Blacksmith Coffee Roastery, markets his product to about 60 retail locations in Kansas, as well as online.
Meanwhile, in Clyde, a young couple decided to venture home to the farm and began growing and selling popcorn.
“I think there are definitely more opportunities out there than ever for people to sell product online for an international audience,” said Galloway, who noted that the Christmas season is his busiest time. “That is exciting for rural America.”
Stacy Mayo, director of the state’s From the Land of Kansas brand, said the program that relaunched in 2013 continues to see more startups enrolling as members.
Recently, the program launched a “Shop Kansas” campaign for Christmas.
Christmas, she said, “is when they get a lot of gift sales, companies buying corporate gifts. There is a lot of opportunity in the holiday market.”
But it also creates more competition, admitted Lindsborg’s Galloway, noting that he competes with many others who have “backdoor” sales via the World Wide Web.
“The Internet allows anybody to open a shop,” he said. “Even if you are in a rural community, the challenge is getting seen online because others are doing the same thing you are.”
Still, he said, he sells internationally, marketing to finicky coffee aficionados who often will pay more for shipping than the cost of the coffee. One of Galloway’s exotic coffees costs $64 for a half-pound.
The state Agriculture Department’s program, however, works with companies on marketing, including through social media, Mayo said.
In a storefront in Norwich, Sharon Rowan said she and her husband Jim’s honey business sees the biggest sales from October through December.
Jim Rowan has raised bees for 58 years. He sold honey out of his home, but 12 years ago he decided to open a Rowan’s Honey Shop in the Kingman County town.
They ship a lot via the Internet, especially for gifts, but Rowan added that a majority of their business is people coming to the store. They sell traditional honey, as well as honey barbecue sauce, honey horseradish mustard, jams and jellies, lip balm, soaps and other items.
Back on the farm near Modoc, Williams, who teaches part-time Title 1 reading at the Scott County elementary school, was busy making toffee. She has a couple of high school girls who help her, as well as a daughter, who is a senior.
Her husband also helps in his spare time, she said, adding that she drives trucks and tractors during his busy season, and he works in the kitchen and mails orders during hers.
“I have several orders for Christmas boxes that I have to get filled,” she said. “I just sent him to town with a shipment.”