AGRICULTURE DRAWS A DIVERSE
SET OF PLAYERS
| 2014 Q2 | story by HANK BOOTH | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
This is the tale of two couples residing in rural Douglas County. The first couple lives a few miles east of Lawrence in the Kaw River Bottoms and the second reside southwest of town about 10 miles, just south of Clinton Lake. Both share a love of playing in the dirt and growing amazing crops.
But, let’s flip back the calendar to the 1980’s. Our west side pair was in a much different world. He was a big time, Emmy Award winning, television executive whose closest contact to nature was thru a video camera and she was making her career as a nationally known food photographer. He was born in Buffalo, New York and raised in southern New Jersey. She was born and raised right here in Lawrence and received a journalism degree at KU, but headed to Chicago to build her career. When they decided to retire from the frenetic pace of Chicago and marketing, it was her roots to that drew them to a rural life and the adventure that is agriculture. Their first venture in agriculture was planting 200 tomato plants. Soon after they watched helplessly as a hailstorm pounded their crop into the ground. They never picked their first tomato. Undaunted they tried planting basil, but they soon learned that basil wasn’t much of a cash crop. In fact it was a dismal financial failure. But, they also discovered they were hooked on garden farming and Jack and Kathy Wilson found their new mission in life…LAVENDER. Now, they have 6,000 lavender plants growing on a certified organic 20-acre plot at their farm dubbed Washington Creek Lavender. That is a whole bunch of lavender but Kathy discovered she could turn the wonderful smelling leaves into 11 different products from eye pillows to their bestseller lavender dryer sheets. People love those items so much it is now their business, and it’s doing quite well.
The second couple grew up farming, and he grew up farming here in Douglas County. His father had started the farming operation, which grew bountiful crops of corn, milo and potatoes. Tied in was a cattle feedlot operation that sent several hundred head of cattle to the Kansas City stockyards each year. The son went off to college at Kansas State to learn more about agriculture. That’s when he met a vivacious young woman from Piqua, KS (population-35). By their senior year they were dating seriously. But, he headed back to the farm near Lawrence and she was off to her first job in Lincoln, NB. Love pulled them back together and the farm boy from Lawrence and farm girl from Picqua married in 1980, just as the first wave of the farm crisis was starting to build.
John and Karen Pendleton watched as family farms around the county were being sold off. Prices were down on nearly all farm products, fuel prices were soaring and interest rates were at historic highs. How do you survive? The Pendleton’s love was for that rural farm life where they were raising their growing family of three. The financial pounding wasn’t helped by the sweat equity poured into the soil. The irony of doing better at producing more crops at lower prices for the consumer meant farmers going out of business and agriculture being consolidated in many situations into huge business conglomerates. That was not the life they wanted.
John and Karen joined a few other local farming couples and started attending conferences about other “alternative farm crops”. It was then they found the power of ASPARAGUS. And began growing their signature crop which led to successfully growing several other crops and made them a staple at the Farmers Market and a supplier of produce to several restaurants.
The list of small non-traditional farm sights began to grow and literally blossom. In the beginning they were considered simply “alternative”. Now they consist of sustainable, organic, conventional, urban, local, biodynamic, free range, pasture raised, permaculture, naturally grown and grass-fed methods to grow. They utilize integrated pest management, composting, cover crops, no-till and high tunnel. The new methods and crops find new users every season and there is no end in sight.
The Wilson’s and the Pendleton’s as different in their days three decades ago as any two couple you could pick. Today they are joined in friendship and a partnership in using the soil and all who want to join in are always welcome.