| 2014 Q2 | story by EMILY MULLIGAN | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
Kansas is known as the traditional “bread basket” for the nation, and that moniker is surprisingly as fitting for Douglas County as it is for rural Kansas.
According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, in 2012 there were 945 farms on 210,676 acres in Douglas County. The number of acres is about 5 percent less than in 2007, but sales for farms increased 6.3 percent between 2007 and 2012, to $43.9 million in 2012.
Traditional farming is a big business in this area, and neither the rough economy nor the severe drought seem to have affected overall sales and productivity in recent years for local row-crop and cattle farms. A good deal of credit goes to the farmers themselves, who have kept their perspective on farming’s impact.
“We are trying to feed a hungry world,” said Jason Flory, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 2,000 acres in southern Douglas County and raises Angus cattle. “We’re trying to make a living, trying to pass on something that’s worth passing on.”
Brenna Wulfkuhle, who owns a farm with her husband, Mark, said that most people in the area are familiar with the farmer’s market, so they don’t understand why the Wulfkuhles would sell their beef to a large processor, when the emphasis is on eating locally grown food.
“We’re all farmers, we’re all intertwined. We’re all trying to feed people – I’m just feeding people on a larger scale, probably globally,” she said.
Cattle and row-crop farming require the farmers to know how to do a lot more than just drive a tractor.
“Farming now is a big business – we spend three hours in the office per one hour we spend in the fields. A farmer has to be a businessman, marketer, Board of Trade expert, veterinarian and an agronomist all rolled into one,” Flory said.
And those roles do not take into account scientific advances of genetics and technological advances from smartphone weather apps to more precise sprayers, all of which farmers need to maximize efficiencies.
Flory is the fourth generation on May- Way Farms, just west of Baldwin City, which was started 80 years ago. He and his wife, Wendy, also from a farming background, began working on the farm in 1989, shortly after they got married.
The farm had been producing crops and dairy cattle since the 1950s, but the Florys dispersed the dairy herd in 1991 in favor of beef cattle and row crops, which they have raised ever since. In addition to the 2,000 acres of row crops, they operate about 2,000 acres as hay and pasture land. They have three children, including one in college and the youngest who is 16, and it remains to be seen if the farm will make it to the fifth generation. Jason’s dad, Stanley, still helps on the farm, and they have an employee of 25 years, Todd Howard, as well. His relatives, Mike and Cheryl Flory, help with the row crops part-time.
Mark and Brenna Wulfkuhle have worked on their farm, Rocking H Ranch, founded by Mark’s parents, since they got married in 1992. Brenna grew up on a dairy farm, so she had previous experience with livestock. They own and rent a total of about 3,500 acres in western Douglas County, and raise corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa, in addition to cattle. They have a cow-calf herd in which they retain ownership from the calf to the plate, and they sell primarily to Tyson Foods, formerly IBP. There are three full-time employees, and they work with a crop consultant and marketing consultant, in addition to their accountant and lawyer. Their three children are still at home, two in high school and the youngest in sixth grade, so they help on the farm as well.
Both the Florys and the Wulfkuhles said that the country’s rough economic situation for the past few years did not have large effects on their operations. Jason Flory said that the economic downturn had been preceded by an agricultural uptick, which continued despite the worsening economic state of the country.
“The economy didn’t affect us in agriculture as it did people in other businesses,” said Mark Wulfkuhle.
As it turns out, even in the most difficult times – or, possibly, especially in the most difficult times – people need to be able to purchase food to feed their families for a reasonable price.
“We’re in a consumer-driven business. We’re here 24-seven, and we’ve still got to figure out how to feed the cattle,” Brenna Wulfkuhle explained.
A big factor in both families’ success during the economic downturn is that they have diversification – not just in crops, but also in business.
The Florys own rental properties in the area, and Jason works with his extended family as an auctioneer. The Wulfkuhles operate a custom fertilizer and chemical business for farms.
That is not to say that those otherwise tumultuous years were boom times for Douglas County farmers – to the contrary, because along with the economic slump came one of the biggest droughts these farmers have known. It is always about the weather for farmers, and this drought was a force to be reckoned with.
“Sometimes, even though you have your pencil sharp and all the technology, you just have to accept what’s dealt,” Jason Flory said. “It’s how you manage those ups and downs. 2011 was tough, going into 2012. It has been more financially rewarding at times, so it balances out.”
Mark Wulfkuhle said that the drought forced them to liquidate some cattle and pay higher prices to feed the cattle they kept.
Brenna Wulfkuhle said that farmers’ routines incorporate planning for the unexpected like a drought. That is what silos are for, she said, to salvage crops and put them in silage form to use for a feed shortage. Of course, all of those things take time and cost money. The Wulfkuhles also have rural water service at all of their fields, so they can water the cattle if the wells run dry.
“We live by Clinton Lake, so we can look at the lake and see the water down,” she said.
Jason Flory says that no amount of worry can turn a drought around, so the farmer has to stay focused on what can be done in times like that.
“The first 30 days of drought gets to you, and you have sleepless nights. But there comes a tipping point when you just break and see that it’s a disaster,” he said. “In 2013 we got good moisture and raised a good crop – that helped heal up the wounds.”
Both the Florys and the Wulfkuhles say that farmers find creative ways to use their resources, because one of their biggest resources is not renewable: land.
Although big agriculture often is criticized for misusing the land or polluting by over-fertilizing, both families emphasize that negatively impacting land works against their own best interests.
“Farmers try to be really good stewards of the land – you can’t create more, so it’s important that you care for it. Whether we own it or manage it, we treat it all the same, give it the same care,” Brenna Wulfkuhle said.
Each time it is up for renewal, the federal Farm Bill generates discussion and controversy. Both farms receive subsidies: $512,000 to May-Way from 1995-2012 and $644,000 to Rocking H Ranch in the same time period. But Mark Wulfkuhle emphasizes that the subsidies are such a small part of his operations – the Farm Bill’s main purpose for farmers is to provide the protection of crop insurance.
“People see the big numbers tied to the Farm Bill, and it doesn’t really go to people in agricultural production – it is helping a lot of other people and providing food security and farm security,” he said.
Both he and Jason Flory said that the Farm Bill ideally should be split, because many categories are unrelated to producing agricultural products. But they pay close attention to it because without crop insurance, they and almost every other farmer cannot survive a disaster.
“Personally, I like the parts of the Farm Bill helping with crop insurance and risks,” Mark Wulfkuhle said.
The ramifications of farms failing are too widespread even to contemplate, they say.
“Farming is really the only business that Mother Nature is at the helm, and agriculture is such a part of this nation’s economy. We don’t need the government as a crutch – their business that is left is backing federal crop insurance,” Jason Flory said.
Both farms relied on crop insurance after the drought in 2012.
A Day in The Life
So those are the financial, climatic and political aspects to running a large-scale traditional farm in Douglas County. What is a typical day like?
Brenna Wulfkuhle set the scene for a routine day in late May at their farm.
Most of the main farm work starts around 8 a.m. Workers begin by feeding the cattle with a feed truck. It takes about an hour and involves calculating different rations for different cattle groups.
While on the feeding run and afterwards, a worker drives to check all the pasture cattle for illness. The cattle have been trained to come to the sound of the truck horn, so if any of them do not make it to the truck, the farmers need to search and ensure their well being.
During the pasture check, the farmer scans the fences to make sure they are in good shape and intact. The worker also checks water supply in each pasture.
While someone is working with the cattle, May is typically the time to plant soybeans. One worker will spend all day out in the fields planting when conditions are right.
Another worker could be out in the self-propelled sprayer either on their farm or for a customer of the spray business.
Retired neighbors often help out by driving to Lawrence for errands or other “gophering” throughout the day, as needed.
Other farm employees may spray thistles and brush or be setting up hay equipment.
At least three to four days per week, Brenna Wulfkuhle fixes lunch for all of the employees, so they take a break from the fields to recap the morning and discuss any problems they have come across, as well as plan for the afternoon or evening.
After lunch, they resume what they were doing. At any point, if the weather is not cooperating, there are always plenty of jobs in the shop, with machinery or equipment.
They try to quit for the day between 5:30 and 6:30, but that depends on what the family’s and/or the help’s activities are for the evening. If the family does not have specific plans, often work can carry on until dark or beyond.
Both the Florys and the Wulfkuhles said they tried to have some family and fun time on the weekend. It depends on the time of year and, of course, the weather, animal and field conditions.
“Agriculture is a business, and it is a huge industry for the United States that is very important,” said Brenna Wulfkuhle. “There are reasons we do everything we do – we want to be successful.”
Jason Flory said that the family legacy and family bonds are the rewards for the hard work day in and day out.
“Although it is challenging at times, it is still a wonderful way of life. It’s a business you truly love – you find there’s a fondness in families,” he said. “Our life revolves around this farm. I’m not ashamed to say that.