March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

Soon after the first frost, the tumbleweeds start rolling across the prairie. They pile up against fences and blow across highways. They’re inedible, useless as fuel and not pretty. But, as Linda Katz has discovered, people are willing to pay for them. “I guess it’s the mystique of the West, the old cowboy days,” says Katz.

A former insurance agent who lives in Garden City, Kans., Katz, 48, founded Prairie Tumbleweed Farm, a spread that exists only on her family Web page. Originally as a joke, Katz dressed up the page with photos of her nieces, nephews and other relatives posing as tumbleweed farmers, wearing hard hats and standing by a tractor. “I didn’t think anyone would see it but our family,” says Katz, whose husband, Stanley, 47, owns a roofing company. She was wrong. Within two weeks, Katz got an order—for two tumbleweeds—from a bride-to-be planning a western-themed reception. A restaurant in San Antonio ordered 30. The producers of TV’s Barney & Friends wanted some for an episode, and a woman in England ordered one as a Christmas tree. Inquiries have come from as far away as Hong Kong. Pressed into business, Katz and her family began taking her pickup truck out to hunt tumbleweeds. In one year she has sold nearly 300 at $15 to $25 each. Obviously she isn’t in the tumbleweed business just for the money. “I’m still shocked when I get an order,” she says. “It’s just a big hoot in our family.”

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