Kansas Farmers Rethink Plans to Expand Operations

Kansas farmer Dwight Johnson thought a miracle had happened last fall when it started to rain steadily after two years of drought.

Expecting a bumper crop, he gambled by investing heavily in new machinery and a snack food he makes from corn grown on his 900-acre family farm here in northeastern Kansas.

Nine months later, Mr. Johnson laments the rains and flooding that have destroyed 80 percent of his crops at a loss of at least $140,000. The future of his snack food is in doubt, and only last week he told his wife he thought he was "done."

But as his wife and three children looked on, he said with a smile, "We'll be here next year. We may not be farming as much, but we'll be here."

Johnson has taken the risky, but necessary steps to expand and diversify his relatively small family-farm operation before it is too late.

He realized when he took over the operation from his father in 1981 that he could not survive on the thin profits most farmers get when they simply sell their crops as raw, unprocessed commodities. "Crispy Corn - a tender, tasty, all-natural snack" was the result. "I make far more off of this than I do simply selling the raw corn," he said, holding a stylishly decorated bag of his snack food.

Johnson says his flood losses will prevent him from expanding his operations for at least a year, if not longer. "I'll get some [federal disaster] aid, but I expect that to cover only about half my losses. It will all go to debt payment," he said.

On other farms the story is similar. "We're planning on absorbing the loss and going on," Harold Mertz, a longtime Zeandale farmer, said as he cleaned his flooded basement. Mr. Mertz and his two sons cultivate 2,200 acres here, many of which are now strewn with logs, tires, and other flood debris.

"I'd estimate the crop loss at between $300,000 and $500,000," Harold's son, Joe, said, standing on his father's front porch. "We'll feel some of the effects from it this fall, but the real hit will come in the lost income next year," he said.

The Mertzes have worked hard to increase the size of their farm and diversify its operations. In a normal year, the family buys 4,000 head of cattle in September and fattens them over the winter with corn and alfalfa they grow themselves.

They then sell the livestock in the spring, earning a much higher profit than they would from selling the raw corn and alfalfa when it is harvested. The destruction of most of the corn and alfalfa they use as feed will affect the operation in many ways.

"We will probably only buy 1,000 cattle this fall, which means less money in the spring and less manure we can use as fertilizer," Joe Mertz said. "There are going to be lots of hidden costs to this," he warned.

Despite the tremendous losses, both the Johnson and Mertz families are determined to continue farming. "My family has farmed this land for four generations. They survived the floods of '51, '39 and the Great Depression. I think we'll have to just tighten our belts and get through this," Joe Mertz said.

"The same forces are at work here that led to the disappearance of the mom-and-pop drugstore and the corner grocery," said Johnson, whose nine-year-old son Ben hopes to follow in his footsteps. "You've just got to be resourceful and very, very lucky."

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