Pendleton’s rely on alternative crops, flowers, butterflies to grow family farm

12 02 2014

By Tom Parker – guest writer

MCPHERSON, KS – Successful farming is all about timing, and for John and Karen Pendleton of rural Lawrence their start in farming couldn’t have been more auspicious.

It was, everyone said, one of the best years for agriculture they’d ever experienced. Fields were green and lush from plentiful rains that turned crops to gold and dreams to reality, prices high and markets good. “Remember this year,” neighbors told them, as if it were something rare and precious.

They were newlyweds, just returned to the family farm, both fresh out of college and ready for a new start. John’s father, while welcoming them, was blunt in agreeing to take them on. “I’d love to have you back at the farm,” he told them, “but if you don’t love it as much as I do, I’d rather not have you back.”

He needn’t have worried. John and Karen threw themselves into the place with zeal. They raised cattle and grains, irrigated their crops, watched the corn grow tall. That first year, 1979, was indeed unforgettable. It seemed they could do no wrong.

The following year was also unforgettable. The farm crisis struck, interest rates skyrocketed, grain prices collapsed due to the Russian embargo, rains stopped. For 21 days temperatures spiked to over 100 degrees. Fields browned and died. Irrigation kept their corn tall and green, but on closer inspection they found cobs without kernels. Everything went into silage to feed the cattle.

“It was a tough year,” Karen Pendleton told members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in Topeka in early January. Like so many other farmers hit hard during the crisis, they had to reinvent themselves while simultaneously thinking of new and innovative approaches to agriculture.

Their neighbors spoke of alternative crops such as strawberries or pumpkins or cut flowers, something that would get them through the hard times ahead. The Pendletons turned to asparagus. Why asparagus? “We liked it,” she said. And on that quirky, singular interest Pendleton’s Country Market took seed.

Their first half-acre was an eye-opener. They discovered that people either loved or hated asparagus, but those who loved it will drive a long way to get it. They also learned a few marketing tricks that propelled the business forward. By limiting asparagus purchases to ten pounds, they found that customers would rarely settle for less. In short order their acreage grew, and as it grew so did news of their operation.

In 1987 they were featured on the covers of Vegetable Growers and Country Woman magazines. While Pendleton would like to think it was due to their brilliant marketing strategies or her degree in public relations, it really had more to do with the nationwide plight farmers found themselves in. “In the middle of the farm crisis, every story was sad or bad about farmers,” Pendleton said. “We were a positive story in a negative world, so we received publicity we otherwise would never have gotten.”

Rhubarb became a second spring crop after customers kept asking to purchase more products. Hydroponic tomatoes were added when a neighbor retired and sold them his equipment, a move their extension agent cautioned against due to their youth and naivety. Ten thousand plants later, they were in the tomato business. They now raise about 500 pounds of tomatoes per day during season, with over 70 varieties including heirlooms and hybrids.

Bedding plants followed, but their next step—peonies—was another example of perfect timing. As their first crop matured, Martha Stewart published a gushing story about peonies as the perfect wedding perennial. Suddenly, peonies were the rage, and the Pendletons were the only ones around who had them. “We got in at the exact right time,” Pendleton said. “Now they constitute a third of our business, with the other two thirds in vegetables and flowers.”

With so many customers flocking to the farm for a real rural experience, the Pendletons instituted pick-your-own produce and dig-your-own sweet and Irish potatoes days. From there it branched out into agri-tourism, complete with a butterfly pavilion, seasonal pumpkin patches with their signature no-left-turn maze, workshops for dried wreaths and decorative projects and the all-time favorite: a stock tank filled with kernels of corn. “Kids love it,” she said, “but when adults get in it’s almost impossible to get them out. They’re like little kids again.”

Three years ago they started a CSA catering to preschools, Douglas County employees and others. Unlike traditional CSAs where customers get whatever the farm is producing at the time, punchcards allow customers to purchase produce from their booth at the Lawrence farmers market as well as through the CSA. “That way people get what they want,” she said.

Their three children were integral to farming operations, Pendleton said. The oldest daughter, Liz, focused on educational programs at the farm; she now teaches in Lawrence. Margaret was the salesperson of the family, outgoing and gregarious, and like her mother has a degree in public relations. Will, the entomologist of the family and the instigator of the butterfly pavilion, is a graduate student at K-State with a degree in engineering. None of them, however, have expressed interest in returning to the farm.

Like many other farmers whose children have decided to seek employment elsewhere, the Pendletons are searching for others, mostly young people and beginning farmers, to eventually take over operations to ensure the continuation of the farm. Their own experiences in non-traditional markets and specialty crops is something of a blueprint for what they’re looking for in likely candidates, but uppermost in their minds is the memory of what John’s father told them when they were first starting out.

“The idea keeps coming back whenever we talk to bring this up,” Pendleton said. “If you don’t love the farm as much as we do, don’t bother.”


Understanding the future of agriculture may be found in our history, Mitchell tells KFU members

26 01 2014

By Tom Parker

MCPHERSON, KS- The early 1970s were good times for American agriculture, with expanded exports to the Soviet Union creating higher profits for producers, stimulating rural economies and revitalizing farm implement manufacturing. News from the agricultural sector was generally upbeat. Then, on June 30, 1975, Time magazine ran an expose piece entitled “Dirty Grain,” and suddenly Americans-and the rest of the world-discovered that the U.S. was not a reliable supplier of grain.

By the end of that year 256 criminal indictments were handed down for corruption in a scandal involving private sector grain inspectors, grain prices crashed and the farm crisis spiraled out of control. “What did this erosion of our credibility do?” Larry Mitchell, Administrator of the USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), asked. “I won’t say the grain scandals were the reason for the farm crisis of the late ’70s and ’80s, maybe not even a large reason, but its impact was huge.” In the following decade hundreds of thousands of farms were foreclosed and over a million family farms were lost.

Then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz fought for a federalized system of inspecting grain to reduce possible conflicts of interest, but he was reminded by the White House Budget Office of President Ford’s initiative to reduce overly-burdensome regulations on the private sector.

The following year Congress established the Federal Grain Inspection Service, to  federalize grain export inspection and weighing. Domestic inspection would be voluntary.

The grain scandals of the 1970s aren’t just past history, Mitchell told members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in Topeka in early January. “It’s not that we want to dwell on the past,” he said, “but we need to understand the past in order to understand where we’re going in the future.”

Though the second smallest agency in the Department of Agriculture, GIPSA is responsible for a variety of programs that facilitate the marketing of livestock, poultry, meat, cereals, oilseeds and related agricultural products, as well as promoting fair and competitive trading practices for the overall benefit of consumers and producers. Mitchell stressed that the grain scandals of the 1970s were symptomatic of larger forces still pushing for the complete eradication of regulations. A careful reading of Dan Morgan’s “Merchants of Grain,” a history of five major grain companies from their inception to the mid-eighties, was not only the best explanation of the scandals but also an indication of where the U.S. might be heading.

The Federal Grains Standard Act, for instance, has been controversial since its beginning. In 2005 when the act came up for reauthorization, many major grain companies lobbied to return to private grain inspections similar to the 1970s, Mitchell said. Farm organizations such as the Kansas Farmers Union rallied to defeat the measure and continue a federal system of grain inspection. Mitchell predicted a similar if not tougher fight when the act is up for reauthorization next year.

When Mitchell was hired to lead the agency, he reread Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” a novel that exposed health violations and abuses of America’s meatpacking industry during the early 1900s. Though the book brought about many necessary changes, including the Packers and Stockyards Act, legislation since then has been contested at every turn. “We still have a long way to go,” he said. “The act is a former remnant of what it was.”

Mitchell also spoke on changes in farming practices and of the constant battle for small producers and farmers to compete with increasingly powerful corporate interests.

“I don’t think agriculture is always asking for special treatment,” Mitchell said, “it’s asking for equal treatment.”

Farmers and producers need to learn to work together for the common good, he said. Unfortunately, agricultural groups often tend to disdain others even when their similarities are more than their differences.

“Too often farmers are crop bigots,” Mitchell said. Beans and corn, the major staples, are prioritized while fruits and vegetables lag behind. Jimmy Carter, for instance, wasn’t known as a farmer, he was referred to by most farmers as a peanut farmer, Mitchell said, “and in farmer jargon that means he was knocked down two or three pegs because of it. I know a lot of crop farmers who think a little less of dairy farmers, and it doesn’t serve us well.”

The basic makeup of American agricultural production encompasses the whole, not the parts, he said.

“This is all of it,” he said. “Half of it is animal agriculture, half of it is crop agriculture. Half of the crop half is the major commodities, the other half of the half is fruit and vegetables-in value. Fruits and vegetables are one-fourth of our food industry regardless if you’re a truck farmer or a peanut farmer.”

Currently there’s a huge demand for local foods, he said, and it’s growing stronger. “Some people want organic, some want natural, but a lot more folks just want something local,” he said. “Maybe that’s the future.”

Mitchell said he’d been to too many agriculture banquets, especially in 70s and 80s-even FFA banquets-where spokesmen would stand up and tell attendees where everything on their plate came from. The beef came from some faraway place and the lettuce equally far or farther, until it seemed everything on the plate was as exotic as kiwi.

“So I added it up and I’m thinking, there’s 7,000 miles of travel on this plate!” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. This is just not efficient. Don’t downplay the impact of locally-grown fruits and vegetables. And we need to expand it to animal agriculture.”

The bottom line, he said, was simple. Know your farmer, know your food.

Climate change, the 1980s farm crisis, and the future of family farming discussed at the Kansas Farmers Union convention

26 01 2014

By Tom Parker

MCPHERSON, KS- “Celebrating the International Year of Family Farming” was the theme of the annual Kansas Farmers Union convention, held Jan. 3-5 at the Ramada Topeka Downtown Hotel and Convention Center. Farmers and ranchers from across the state convened to discuss policy, climate change, the farm crisis of the 1980s and how its memory still shadows modern farming, the farm bill, and other subjects.

A diverse group of guest speakers offered a broad array of topics applicable to today’s farmer. “There was a nice mix of topics that set the convention apart from others like it,” said Mary Howell, KFU membership specialist. “There was something for everybody.” National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson gave an update on the lingering effects of last year’s government shutdown, provisions NFU would like to see added to the new farm bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the furor over Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL).

Dr. W. Chris King, chief academic officer for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, discussed rising risks from climate change such as loss of arable lands, depletion of the world’s aquifers, and reduced access to clean water. King also noted how overpopulation magnifies environmental, geopolitical, and militarization stresses, and why it’s a national security interest for the U.S. military.

Larry Mitchell, administrator for the USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), spoke of new threats to grain and livestock production and exports, the push toward privatization of grain exports and how their precedence in early scandals and compromises dates back 100 years, and why Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” is as applicable today as it was in 1906.

Adrian Polansky, executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Kansas, outlined micro-loan programs for small and niche producers, the importance of the school nutritional program, and modernization of the USDA’s public information outreach.

Linda Sheppard, special counsel and director of Health Policy for the Kansas Insurance Department, explained enrollment cutoffs, benefits, packages and financial subsidies available through the Affordable Care Act following the initial enrollment deadline and offered real-world advice for navigating the government’s Web site.

Tom Giessel, honorary NFU historian and Pawnee County Farmers Union president, presented a brief history of farmers’ co-ops in Kansas in conjunction with a broader research project on Kansas co-ops currently in progress through the Chapman Center for Rural Studies based at Kansas State University; interns Rebecca Hall and Billie Chesney gave a slideshow about their findings for their recently completed Kansas Co-Op History Research Project.

Jeff Downing, general manager of the Midwest Agency, LLP, presented the agency’s year in review.

Karen Pendleton, co-owner of Pendleton’s Country Market, Lawrence, spoke of the farm crisis in 1980 from a beginning farmer’s perspective and of how she and her husband reinvented their farm in the wake of a drought to become a successful agri-tourism industry.

In addition, KFU projects and communications coordinator Nick Levendofsky spoke of his three-week international rural leadership conference in Germany last summer, Sen. Marci Francisco provided an update on recent agricultural legislation in the statehouse, Douglas County Sustainability Coordinator Eileen Horn spoke of the new Douglas County Food Policy Council’s food hub program, the first in the state, and Republic County Economic Development co-director Luke Mahin explained social networking for farmers, producers and small businesses.

A special screening of the documentary, “The Farm Crisis” was aired on Saturday evening, followed by a panel discussion of its effect on Kansas farmers and the advisory role played by members of the panel.

Participants also toured the recently-renovated Kansas State Capitol, which opened to the public on Jan. 2. The $320 million project included a new visitor center, 550-vehicle underground parking garage, site utilities and infrastructural upgrades, replacement of the copper roof and dome and maximization of existing spaces.

“I’m very proud of how the convention turned out,” Levendofsky said. “Some of the highlights were the tour of the beautifully renovated Kansas Capitol, hearing from both state and national agriculture leaders, and discussing the grassroots policy that will guide our organization through the coming year.”

Kansas Farmers Union, based in McPherson and affiliated with the National Farmers Union, is a general farm organization working to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life for family farmers and ranchers and their rural communities since 1907.

Kansas Farmers Union convention to kick off International Year of Family Farming

26 01 2014

TOPEKA, KS.– Kansas Farmers Union, the state’s oldest active general farm organization, will hold its annual convention at the Ramada Hotel, downtown Topeka, Jan. 3-4, 2014.

“This is going to be a great convention,” KFU President Donn Teske said. “It will be, above all, fun, interesting, and educational.” During the two-day convention, an array of speakers will discuss everything from rural healthcare, the 2013 Farm Bill, local food, global agriculture, climate change, and many other issues facing rural Kansas. The public is invited to attend.

During the Friday noon luncheon, Nick Levendofsky, KFU projects and communications coordinator, will give a presentation about his trip to Germany this past summer as a participant in the 26th Annual Leadership Workshop for Rural Youth. Following lunch, Linda Sheppard, special counsel and director of Health Policy for the Kansas Insurance Department, will speak on the Affordable Care Act and how it affects rural Kansans. Later in the day, KFU members will be treated to a tour of the newly renovated Kansas Capitol building.

During the Friday evening banquet, Tom Giessel, National Farmers Union honorary historian, will share history from the organization’s past and K-State students Rebecca Hall and Billie Chesney will give a presentation on their research into Kansas’ cooperative history and the role Farmers Union has played in cooperative development over the years.

Following the banquet, an entertaining evening is planned with Dave Lewis’ “Game Show Road Show.” A live and silent auction will also be held with all proceeds going to the Kansas Farmers Union Foundation to assist with education programs within the organization.

On the morning of Saturday, January 4, National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson will join the convention to discuss the Farm Bill, Country-of-Origin Labeling, and other national issues important to farmers and ranchers. Kansas Farm Service Agency director Adrian Polansky will also give an update on FSA happenings across the state.

Through the morning, Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for Douglas County and the City of Lawrence will discuss opportunities in local foods and Dr. W. Chris King, Brigadier General (R), U.S. Army Dean of Academics, Command and General Staff College will discuss world instability in the face of climate change. Dr. King has authored two books and 13 book chapters with his most recent manuscript being, Understanding International Environmental Security: A Strategic Military Perspective. He has published more than 30 journal articles, dozens of scientific reports, and lectured at more than 40 professional conferences including the technical sessions of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009.

During the noon banquet, USDA GIPSA director Larry Mitchell will discuss his involvement in the American Agriculture Movement during the late 1970s. Prior to serving at USDA in the 1990s, Mitchell was director of Federal and State Relation for the American Agriculture Movement, Editor of the AAM Reporter and an independent consultant and writer on American farm issues.

Following lunch, Sen. Marci Francisco, Lawrence, will give an update on the upcoming legislative session, and GIPSA director Mitchell will address the afternoon session on how USDA and GIPSA can help small livestock producers thrive. John and Karen Pendleton of Pendleton’s Country Market near Lawrence, KS will also discuss their operation and the next generation of family farming. The couple planted their first ½ acre of asparagus in 1980, and now the farm grows a wide variety of vegetables, bedding plants, and cut flowers, plus a CSA program with about 100 subscribers.

Saturday evening, an Italian buffet will be served at 5:00 P.M., followed by a 6:00 P.M. screening of the film “The Farm Crisis” which will take place in the Grand Ballroom of the Ramada. The public is invited to attend. Buffet cost is $25 and the meal is optional.

After the film, a panel discussion moderated by KFU president Donn Teske will feature NFU president and former North Dakota farm crisis director Roger Johnson, agricultural mediator and early farmer advocate Linda Hessman, Kansas Rural Family Helpline director Charlie Griffin, Kansas Agriculture Mediation Service director Forrest Buhler, and former Kansas Rural Center farm financial counselor and Nemaha County farmer Ed Reznicek.

Sunday, January 5 features the second annual meeting of the Kansas Beginning Farmers Coalition (KBFC) beginning with Linda Hessman, KFU board member and Jessie Deelo, farmer resource specialist Farm Aid who will discuss the importance of agricultural advocacy with the group.

John and Karen Pendleton will address the meeting before lunch to talk about their farm and their outlook for family agriculture in Kansas. That afternoon, representatives of the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s “From the Land of Kansas” program will discuss the program and Luke Mahin, co-director of Republic County Economic Development will discuss social media and online marketing and how they can benefit direct market producers. The rest of the day will be devoted to open discussion among KBFC members and attendees.

Kansas Farmers Union members and the public are invited to attend the annual convention. For more information, and to register online, visit or call 620-241-6630.

Hays Tour to Focus on Short Grass Prairie Grazing Research for Cattle Producers

26 01 2014
McPherson, KS– Kansas ranch managers and livestock producers are invited to the Short Grass Prairie Grazing Basics and Research Tour, September 17, 2013 at the K-State Western Kansas Agricultural Research Center, 1232 240th Ave. Hays, KS 67601.

Keith Harmoney, KSRE Range Research Scientist, and John Jaeger, KSRE Beef Cattle Scientist, will be hosting the tour, which will show producers ways they can cope with two of their greatest challenges: drought and input costs. For producers who would like to have some early season grazing, but not annual cereal crop, the perennial cool-season grasses can fill that niche.

Grass production and persistence are two key traits to consider when making a decision on what grass to plant. For producers who want to feed less hay in the winter time, stockpiled native grass for winter grazing can help reduce winter feed costs. How to measure the stockpiled grass to estimate how many days of grazing are available from a winter pasture will be demonstrated.

Because of the long drought that has been prevalent in the western and southwestern part of the state, many producers are interested in the effects of early weaning. Recent rains have provided some relief, but most areas of western Kansas are still well below average rainfall for this growing season, not to mention still coping with the deficits from the prior two growing seasons.

“This field day will help producers see what they might expect from implementing early weaning in their operation and how young calves respond to early removal from the cow. Early weaning is one of the most practical ways to lighten the pressure on native pastures that need to gain some vigor,” said Keith Harmoney.

To learn about grazing in the Central Kansas Short Grass Prairie area, producers are invited meet at the auditorium. Registration starts at 8:30 A.M. with the Field Day running 9:00 a.m. thru mid afternoon. Cost for the day is $20.00 which includes lunch and handouts. For more information, and to register, visit For questions contact Mary Howell at or call 785-562-8726.

The Amazing Grazing Education Project is a collaborative effort provided by the following sponsors: Kansas Graziers Association, Kansas Farmers Union, Kansas SARE, Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, with funding from North Central Risk Management Education Center and USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Livestock Water and Fencing Workshop Set for September 10

26 01 2014

McPherson, KS – Mark Green, NRCS Specialist, from Missouri will return to Kansas to offer his popular workshop on electric fencing and livestock watering options September 10, 2013 in Abilene, KS. The workshop will be held at the Abilene Civic Center, 201 NW 2nd Street. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. and program lasts until 4:00 p.m. utilizing an indoor classroom and outdoor fencing demonstrations.

Water availability is the number one limiting factor for grazing possibilities. The addition of electric fencing will increase grazing options that can in turn benefit range health, the soil, as well as improve production and profitability.

At the September 10 workshop, Mark Green will demonstrate the latest in electric fence products, the pros and cons of various materials used in electric fence construction and installation techniques. Green will also cover livestock watering topics: water distribution for improved grazing distribution, permanent and portable tanks, above and below ground pipeline, and water sources-wells, streams, springs and ponds. Producers always enjoy his cowboy humor and expertise from years of experience. Mark states “I believe that folks in my line of work should gather information that works and pass it on to the ranchers I work with. What makes me different is that I am not selling anything; I am sharing the ideas I have seen visiting many ranches. Even little things can make a big difference. I will relay what works; as well as things to avoid in water and fencing.”

Mark Green has been with USDA NRCS since 1981. He currently is an instructor and regional coordinator for the SW Missouri Regional Management Intensive Grazing Schools, and has worked with grazing management in SW Missouri for 32 years. He is a member of the American Forage and Grassland Council and is a board member for Missouri Forage and Grassland Council.

Cost for the workshop is $20.00, and includes lunch and two publications on fencing and water development. Please RSVP reservations to: or for questions contact Mary Howell at or call 785-562-8726.

Sponsors are the Kansas Graziers, Kansas Farmers Union, Kansas SARE, Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, with funding from North Central Risk Management Education Center and USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

NFU, KFU support COOL in Farm Bill

22 01 2014

MCPHERSON, KS- National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson sent a letter yesterday to the members of the farm bill conference committee emphasizing the importance of finishing a five-year, comprehensive farm bill as soon as possible.

“It is time to move the farm bill across the finish line,” said Johnson. “Family farmers, ranchers, fishermen, rural communities and consumers have waited long enough for a long-term plan. We are hopeful that the process is nearing an end.”

NFU is especially concerned by attempts to repeal or undermine Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL), which provides valuable information to consumers.

“If any harmful changes to COOL are included in the farm bill, it could very likely affect NFU’s ability to support the entire farm bill,” said Johnson. “Farmers, ranchers, producers and consumers strongly support COOL and I urge Congress to defend the current law.”

New COOL labeling rules went into effect on November 23rd, so labels must now list the production steps; born, raised, and slaughtered in the USA. USDA and the U.S. Trade Representative’s office wrote the new rules to be WTO compliant.

Kansas Farmers Union President Donn Teske notes “Country-of-Origin Labeling is the right thing to do. There is a huge amount of pressure coming from the livestock processors now to eliminate the laws because it is likely the WTO will accept the ruling this time. I think this is a last-ditch effort for them to try and kill it.”

Teske, who farms and raises beef cattle near Onaga, KS went on to say, “It’s sad that National Farmers Union has had to go so far as becoming involved defending our own United States Department of Agriculture in such a frivolous law suit. I think the law suit will fail, as I suspect they know also, so now they are going back and trying to kill it by legislation, after it’s been the law of the land since 2008, by holding this critical Farm Bill hostage.”

In a December 1, 2013 Salina Journal article on COOL, Saline County Farmers Union president Tom Holt said he is convinced anyone buying meat should know its origin. “It should be one of the consumer’s rights, just like freedom of speech,” said the farmer who runs a cow-calf operation in southeastern Saline County, near Gypsum

In a recent Salina Journal editorial, Holt wrote, “Do you think it is fair to the consumer not to know where this food came from, or for our homeland producers? Country of origin is on your shirt, why shouldn’t it be on the food you eat?”