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Diamond in the Rough

Lauren and Shelley Heinrich
Lauren Heinrich (Left) and Shelley Heinrich (Right) use every opportunity they have to advocate for agriculture. They use their event venue as a tool to share about West Texas agriculture.

helley and Lauren Heinrich never planned on owning and running a wedding venue, however when they found the Kitalou Gin everything fell into place.

Rediscovering Kitalou 

The Kitalou Gins last year of operation was 1974. From Kitalou’s last crop year the gin was used as a scrapyard. It was left for ruins until 2017 when it was found and restored by the Heinrich family. The Heinrich’s are cotton farmers from Slaton, Texas.

The Kitalou Gin was built in 1925 when communities ginned their own cotton. Located right outside of Idalou, Texas, Kitalou was placed adjacent to a railroad for convenient distribution of freshly ginned cotton. Due to the gins proximity to the railroad, it is said the gin was named after a railroader’s daughter.

In 2017, Shelley Heinrich had a pumpkin business which was booming, and she needed space to store her abundance of pumpkins. Her daughter, Lauren, suggested using an abandoned gin, because so many are scattered around small West Texas towns.

The mother-daughter duo started looking around at perspective properties when Shelley’s husband, Burt, proposed the Kitalou Gin, just minutes from downtown Lubbock.

“Up close, just driving by, it looked like a junk yard,” Shelley said.

The yard was full of old equipment and dead trees. In some places the gin was full to the ceiling with old deteriorating equipment. Despite the looks of the gin, the building was in great shape.

Shelley and Lauren decided to take on the project, spending every spare moment they had cleaning out the old gin.

“We’ve got the equipment and the gumption to do it,” Lauren said.

The Heinrich’s farm and have a lot of equipment, which allowed Shelley and Lauren to do a lot of the work themselves. As a family, the Heinrichs spent nine months cleaning and restoring the gin.

“We’re not only a good mother-daughter team, but good partners.”

Shelley and Lauren did not originally plan to turn the gin into a wedding venue, but the more they cleaned the more they realized the gin was meant to be so much more than a warehouse to store pumpkins.

“It was like overwhelming chaos, because there was so much that we could do,” Shelley said.

Throughout the process one vision remained – to maintain the integrity and authenticity of the gin.

Unexpected Wedding Planners

Lauren said before finding Kitalou, being a wedding coordinator never crossed her mind.

“We have the skill set,” Shelley said, “we just never had the facility.”

The two have backgrounds in event planning, but nothing quite like wedding planning.

Before owning and running the Kitalou Gin, Shelley had a career in the finance industry and retired in 2011. However, her retirement did not last long. In 2013 she went back to work, but this time for commodity organizations, spending a few years with National Sorghum Producers before moving on to her current position with the Cotton Board. Lauren worked for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association and then for a local congressman. In these roles, Shelley and Lauren gained skills in event coordination.

The Heinrichs runs every event themselves. From setting up to tearing down, they are there doing it all. On the day of an event, the family is there parking cars or helping with coordination. At the end of the night, they all get together to clean up the gin.

“When we started, our only goal was getting the bride down the aisle and after that we figured the rest out,” Lauren said.

The first wedding at Kitalou was for a family friend who asked to use the gin for her wedding. The definite timeline of this wedding helped motivate Shelley and Lauren to finish this project.

Even though the two cleaned on the gin for nine months, they were still picking up nails and pieces of metal out of the yard until the day of the first wedding.

A Unique Take on Agriculture 

Despite the disarray of the property, Shelley and Lauren decided to purchase the Kitalou Gin because of its unique location. Only minutes from downtown Lubbock, the location is convenient while still surrounded by farmland. Being surrounded by agriculture gives the Heinrichs a unique opportunity to share about West Texas agriculture.

Kitalou clients are drawn to the unique look and location of the gin.

“I grew up working in the feed yard riding the pens, working cattle, so growing up like that then going out to Kitalou and being surrounded by the farmland and cattle I just fell in love and felt at home”Bride Averye Ferris said.

Kitalou couples tend to come from agricultural backgrounds, however, their guests do not always share that likeness. Because the gin is surrounded by agriculture, with cattle and sheep across the road, lends to great conversations.

“If we’re not telling the story, then who is?” Shelley asked.

Shelley and Lauren have spent many hours at events educating guests on farming in West Texas. They will answer any questions guests have from genetically modified organisms use to water conservation.

As agriculture continues to progress, the Kitalou Gin will become more important to preserve. With the advances in agriculture small gins will become obsolete making Kitalou that much more important.

Mother Daughter Team

“We’re not only a good mother-daughter team, but good partners,” Shelley said.

They can each relate to their customers. Lauren was recently a bride and can understand their needs while Shelley understands the mothers and their perspective. Having their different perspectives helps with problem solving and creating the shared vision of the bride and her mom.

“We take the burden off the families backs and handle everything so they can sit back, relax and enjoy the day,” Lauren said.

Shelley and Lauren encourage their clients to be as creative as possible when dreaming up their big day.

“We’ve already been creative with restoring a gin, now it’s their turn,” said Lauren.

Finding CommonGround

Women consumers are typically the decision makers of the household, especially when it comes to decisions about the food their families consume. With a world thriving on information, it is no wonder there is so much misconception about our food that no one can be certain about what is true about the products they are consuming.

One program has taken the initiative to combat the spread of misinformation and provide consumers with the truth about where their food comes from.

The program, CommonGround, began in 2010 and is funded by the United Soybean Board and National Corn Growers Association. Its purpose is to create a connection between farmers and consumers while also providing conversations about myths and misconceptions.

Stephanie Pruitt, the Texas Corn Producers Board Communications Director, and Texas coordinator for CommonGround said these consumers are hungry for information about where their food comes from.

According to Pruitt, creating the connection with consumers is important in conveying the information they want about these controversial topics.

“CommonGround is all about women on the farm and being able to connect with consumers,” said Pruitt. “More than 80 percent of food buyers are female, which is why it is so important that we make those connections.”

Pruitt said she thinks when it comes to food, food activists are the loudest voices in the room. Consumers are often not aware of the misconceptions and misinformation about agriculture, and they usually believe what they see on social media and what they hear about from friends and family. Then, consumers are making choices based on misinformation.

Volunteers Join the Conversation

Bobbie Black, a CommonGround volunteer from Muleshoe, Texas, said before she joined the program, she questioned her choices because of her children.

“I am a mom. When I started having kids I started worrying about the food I was feeding my kids. I thought, ‘Maybe I need to buy organic or maybe I need to look out for GMOs,’” said Black. “But that didn’t go with farming. I see where the food comes from and we aren’t doing harmful stuff, but then you see all this information floating out there and you think, ‘Am I making the right choice?’”

Black joined CommonGround last September after attending a LAND program hosted by TCPB with her husband in Fort Worth, Texas.

“After I went to LAND,” Black said, “I realized I was probably hurting more than I was helping because I wasn’t being involved in the conversation.”

CommonGround Comes to Texas

In the past year, the program has made its way to Texas and several volunteers have come together to provide true information to everyday consumers through social media conversations and events such as the Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics convention.

“That is where CommonGround puts it together,”Black said. “We come in and say ‘You do have safe food and you don’t have to worry about all of these things that are floating out there and that people are randomly putting on Facebook.”

Pruitt said these women are already having a national impact and are making a positive move in the industry.

“It’s all about finding that mutual value,” said Pruitt, “and being able to create a connection.”

The program enables volunteers to be involved while being an advocate in their own networks. The goal of the organization is to provide the transparent information needed so consumers can make educated decisions for their family.

“We have a lot of people who have moved away from the farm,” Pruitt said, “and so we are really trying to bring that transparency back.”

One of the ways the volunteers interact with consumers and have conversations is through social media. Black said she is trained to converse with others on public forum Facebook pages about controversial topics.

“On Facebook, someone will post about organic versus conventional on some of these pages and so Stephanie will email me and ask me to chime in,” Black said.

But before she joined CommonGround, Black said she would see the controversial conversations online but would never comment or join in on the conversation. Now, with the opportunity the program is providing, she hopes social media can be used more positively to advocate the true information about agriculture.

“I don’t know if we are changing peoples’ ideas,” Black said, “but I am hoping we are making them think and that they will go look into it more.”

Online Advocacy

Many of the conversations on Facebook originate from consumers who are the food-buyers of the household and are confused, have questions, or are even mislead about GMOs and organic versus non-organic choices. The volunteers are trained to provide fact-based answers to questions and to simply chime in with a comment that presents factual information or insight to what really happens on the farm.

They’re just telling the story that is their life day in and day out.

Stephanie Pruitt

On social media, where misinformation can be so easily shared, the farmers who actually see what is happening every day have been given a voice and are being advocates for themselves through CommonGround.

“All of these volunteers have taken the initiative to be active online and to get involved,” Pruitt said. “It means so much more to consumers and people who are making those decisions when they hear it straight from the mouth of a farmer.”

Pruitt said one of the most important aspects of the program is the volunteers’ ability to give consumers the facts so they can base their decisions off what is happening on the farm rather than what activist groups want you to think is happening on the farm.

“They are making a lasting impact on an industry that needs a voice right now,” said Pruitt. “They’re just telling the story that is their life day in and day out.”

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