Olathe & Southwest Joco

August 13, 2013

Johnson County has many farms amid suburbia, if you know where to look

While Johnson County might be better known for its shopping and golf courses, there is still plenty of farming being done in its borders. A boom in grain prices has made the farm life sustainable, and profitable, in Johnson County in recent years. Yet for the long term, the footing of area farmers might always remain tentative.

For the Guettermans, the last day of the wheat harvest comes on a reasonably warm day for midsummer. In a field on Olathe’s southern frontier, drivers along Interstate 35 can easily see the youngest generation of Guetterman Brothers farmers kicking up dust in tractors and combines.

With their father, Ted Guetterman, yet to arrive, his sons diligently go about the harvest without him. As cars blow by on the interstate, oldest son Hayden, 18, schleps along in a John Deere combine.

Behind him he kicks up a 30-foot cloud of wheat particles digested by the giant machine. From inside the cab, the world resembles a dust storm in slow motion, with a brown-gray fog and fine, tiny shards of wheat stalk catching the sun and glowing like crystals.

This year’s wheat crop is good. “One of the best I’ve ever seen,” Hayden said over the shrill drone of spinning gears. A dry spell early on in the summer stunted their corn crop’s growth, but July’s relatively cool temperatures and rains late in the month saved it from a fate potentially worse than last year’s.

This 100-acre wheat field near 159th Street and Lone Elm Road, which they call the Wilsey Farm after the family that owns it and rents to the Guettermans to farm, is about as far north as the family harvests.

Go farther north from this Olathe field, and you run into the county’s endlessly growing suburbs. As it happens, Ted Guetterman and second-oldest son Sam did run into the city, literally, this afternoon. About 10 miles out from the field, Sam caught the top of his combine on a low-hanging powerline. It’s one of the practical hazards of farming so close to an urban population and certainly not the only obstacle that Johnson County’s remaining contingent of farmers face.

And here’s something not likely to happen to their wheat-harvesting peers in western Kansas: As Ted and Sam waited for utility workers to come remove the power line, a helicopter from KCTV-5 filmed the stalled combine for the evening news.

While Johnson County might be better known for its shopping and golf courses, there is still plenty of farming being done in its borders. In fact, about 40 to 50 percent of the county’s land — nearly 145,000 acres in all — is in agriculture, most of it in the southern and western parts of the county, said Paul Welcome, head appraiser for Johnson County.

There were 660 farms left in the county when last counted in the federal agricultural census. The county’s biggest cash crop is soybeans, with more than 24,000 acres planted in 2013, followed closely by corn and then wheat. The county also raised $20 million worth of cattle, according to the census.

Since the mid-20th century, cities like Olathe, Overland Park and Lenexa have been growing ever outward, encroaching on Johnson County’s once abundant farmland. With the city comes traffic, ongoing competition for land, and neighbors who may or may not understand the farming life. But it also brings city conveniences and a unique opportunity for farmers to educate their urban neighbors on how their food is produced.

A boom in grain prices has made the farm life sustainable, and profitable, in Johnson County in recent years. Yet for the long term, the footing of area farmers might always remain tentative.

Last year’s drought notwithstanding, times are pretty good for local farmers. But little more than a decade ago, Ted Guetterman’s future as a farmer was uncertain.

Four generations of his family, which includes Guetterman’s four sons, have raised crops and livestock on acreages scattered around southern Johnson and northern Miami counties. With commodity prices stingily low at the turn of the century, and the city extending steadily southward, Guetterman didn’t know how much longer he could make a living off the land.

“There was a point in time when I told my wife: ‘I may need to do something else,’” Guetterman said. Having forgone college and done little but farm work since he was a child, he wasn’t sure what that something else would be.

Guetterman owned a bulldozer that he used primarily to build terraces in crop fields to mitigate erosion. He thought, if nothing else, maybe he could use the bulldozer to move dirt around for the then-booming construction industry. It would have been a last-ditch, if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em move on Guetterman’s part.

That same construction industry had been tearing up farmland for generations. Johnson County farmers have long had to compete with residential and commercial developers for land. From 2002 to 2007, the amount of land in farms throughout Johnson County declined 23 percent, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture census. The average size of farms in the county also has shrunk from 226 acres to 187 acres, a decline of 17 percent.

If you wind back the reel of time beyond the 2000s, more and more of Olathe and Overland Park’s residential homes and strip malls start vanishing back into farmland.

Mary Ann Metzger, whose father, Paul Schlagel, owned an 80-acre farm near 135th and Black Bob, remembers when the family couldn’t even see the city from their home. This was more than 50 years ago, when 135th Street and the roads around it were still dirt and gravel.

Today Metzger lives in Oregon and works as an interior designer. Her father’s love of farming did not rub off. She and her sister, Jan Claerhout, own the 50-acre farm. The property is still in agriculture — this summer it’s a corn crop — though they had to raze the family’s old barn and farmhouse three years ago because teenagers kept vandalizing them.

Claerhout still farms, but has moved on from Johnson County to Princeton, Kan., because of the price of land and the hassles of farming amid Olathe traffic. The sisters have a sharecropping arrangement with an area farmer, which is fairly typical here. Rick Miller, an agricultural and community development agent for the Johnson County Extension, said he estimates a majority of farmland in Johnson County is sharecropped or rented out to farmers by owners who want the land kept as agriculture.

Others have found creative ways to keep their land in agriculture. George Hoff, who founded the Stone Pillar vineyard and winery on Woodland Road in Olathe, began the vineyard as a way to keep his family’s land, which dates back more than 150 years, as farmland. At its largest, the Hoff family farm was 200 acres. Since then, Hoff’s grandfather sold 40 acres to pay off debts, and his father sold an additional 90 acres about 10 years ago.

The family farmed just about everything you can think of: corn, soybeans, cattle and now grapes. Running a winery means Hoff’s life is more complicated. “We all wear a lot of hats at once,” he said. They are grape growers, winemakers and restaurateurs.

But at least they are still farmers.

The upward push on farmers’ property values from real estate development in the county has long nagged and tempted county farmers. It makes selling perennially attractive and expanding all but impossible.

Maribeth Finley, who together with her husband, Byron, owns a 1,000-plus-acre farm near 159th Street and Edgerton in McCamish Township, puts it this way: “If you do buy, you’re out a huge chunk of change. People put (land) up for investors to buy, not farmers.”

Miller, of the extension, said that the main decline in farms has occurred at the midsized range. Large farms have been able to hold onto their land and livelihoods, and the number of small-time farmers has increased as folks try to capture “a little chunk of the rural life” for themselves. On the whole, though, the number of full-time commercial farmers has declined as midsized farmers get squeezed out by land prices.

For commercial farmers, scale and expansion are of increasing importance. “Farming is kind of like the commercial world: It’s getting bigger,” said Dennis Patton, a horticultural agent at Johnson County Extension.

Farmers rely on larger and larger plots to produce income and profits. In that respect, Johnson County is small potatoes. To compare Johnson County to one of its rural peers, Kearny County in western Kansas had more than 300 fewer farms than Johnson County even though it has 400 more square miles to its area. With 500,000 more acres in agricultural production, Kearny had and an average farm size more than eight times larger than the average Johnson County farm.

Underlying the competition for land is the fact that Johnson Countians have built large single-family homes with generous lawns, as well as sprawling golf courses and shopping centers, on ground that could be used for food production. As Patton points out, any land that is not good for farming — be it rocky or swampy or in a floodplain — likely wouldn’t be suitable for building houses on either.

“Most of the Johnson County development, especially in the southern part of the county that’s on farmland. That was a soybean field last year, or a corn field, or pasture,” Patton said.

Guetterman, too, has watched production acreage go toward development. “We’ve built houses on some really good farmland,” he said.

That was the story through the second half of the 20th century and much of the last decade. The pressure to sell land to developers, or even to get out of farming altogether, has largely eased since then.

Ironically, the recession was a big help. As the last decade unwound, the housing crash brought residential and commercial development to a near standstill.

Aside from a few massive industrial warehouses and a community sports complex, the area around the Wilsey Farm remains much as it was a decade ago. Which comes as a surprise to Guetterman. “Seven or eight years ago, I thought for sure this area would be developed,” he said.

Around the same time as development slowed, economic growth in much of the developing world ballooned. This, together with an increase in ethanol production, driven in part by production quotas initiated under the Bush administration, sparked an explosion in grain prices. Prices per bushel for corn and soybeans have more than tripled since 2000, creating a huge windfall for farmers. The net income for Kansas farmers from 2008 to 2012 was $141,000 — more than double farmers’ income for the preceding five years.

Grain prices and a hobbled real estate industry helped secure the position of many county farmers for the time being. Yet even in the relative security of the last five years, making a living from farming in the county isn’t exactly easy. It presents many logistical challenges that rural farmers are spared.

Navigating the trafficked roads of the county can get tricky Just getting machinery in and out of a field requires planning. Patton has seen farmers driving combines into fields along College Boulevard at night and on Sunday mornings to avoid traffic.

The Guettermans have to time their comings and goings to and from fields to the cycle of traffic and plot their course to avoid the most trafficked roads, taking gravel roads whenever they can. The fragmentation of the Guettermans’ operation also poses obstacles. Where a farmer in rural, space-abundant areas can roll along in a combine, harvesting a single, unbroken plot of land, the Guettermans hop from one plot to another in Bucyrus and Olathe.

That means the Guettermans need more time to transport their equipment from place to place, which means less time to harvest, which means they need more equipment and more bodies to produce the same amount that one farmer and one machine could do in more spacious fields.

Traffic isn’t the only complication. Neighbors pose challenges even when not in cars.

While urban neighbors might worry about and can lose landscaping to farm chemicals applied nearby, Hoff faces the opposite problem. This year he expects to lose 10 to 15 percent of his crop — representing $20,000 to $30,000 in damage — to a common chemical herbicide used to protect lawns from weeds.

Neighbors, schools and city landscapers all use 2,4-D, a herbicide that can disrupt grapevines in concentrations as small as one-one hundredth of those used on lawns. On a summer day, the heat can create plumes of the chemical as it evaporates, and the wind can send it toward the Stone Pillar vineyard from as far as 40 miles away.

Those challenges go toward reminding farmers and their neighbors that these agricultural operations lie within a major metropolitan area. In many ways that proximity also benefits both groups.

“For me, personally, I feel like I have the best of both worlds,” said Finley, who has no neighbors for a half-mile radius, but can also be at Oak Park Mall in less than half an hour or Crown Center in 40 minutes. Her rural compatriots might have to drive four times that to reach a major shopping center.

Hayden Guetterman said he also enjoys the proximity of the city’s restaurants and the Sprint Center, where the family likes to go to watch Kansas State play basketball.

But both families, close as they are to the city, are both definitively farm families. The kids work many afternoons instead of going to friends’ houses. If they’re taking part in summer harvest, they wake up early in the morning instead of sleeping in. (Isaac Guetterman, 9, and Ben Guetterman, 10, though, got to leave wheat harvest early for baseball practice. Hayden, a tight end for his high school football team, also gets a pass during football season.)

Simply put, Johnson County’s farm families are different from many around them. “No, we don’t fit in,” Finley said. “It’s not like my kids are oddballs. The decisions we make and the things that we do, they don’t make sense to a lot of Johnson County-ites.”

Even some basics about agriculture are lost on suburbanites. Ted Guetterman couldn’t believe it when an Overland Park woman asked him why farmers let so much corn die in the fields, not realizing that feed corn is harvested at a different stage than the sweet corn consumers eat. She was surprised to learn most of the corn grown in the country is used to feed livestock and make ethanol, rather than served on a dinner table.

Since the days when farmers were a much larger segment of the the population, farmers “took for granted that people knew where their food is coming from,” Guetterman said

But living so close to a dense urban area that is mostly removed from the production side of the food system also allows the family to teach their neighbors about agriculture.

At a “Touch-A-Truck” event hosted by the Overland Park Convention Center, parents and children lined up for an hour and a half to see and touch and ask questions about one of the Guettermans’ combines. Few people knew on sight what it was or did, but nearly all — parents and children — were excited by it.

Getting people excited about a combine is relatively easy. Other facets of modern agriculture — pesticides, genetically modified crops, the land used for ethanol production, the expansive size of today’s farms — can be touchier subjects for both farmers and urban consumers.

Both the Guettermans and the Finleys use no-till and strip-till growing methods, which conserve soil but can encourage weeds. As a result, both operations opt to use pesticides. They, like many farmers, feel they have to defend their practices to their urban counterparts who might worry about the environmental and public health effects of agricultural chemicals.

“It’s through what we do chemically and the machinery we use” that farmers have been able to feed a growing world population on fewer acres of farmland, Finley said.

While some, like Mary Ann Metzger, grew up to leave the farm, some of Johnson County’s youngest farmers plan to return.

The difference between farm kids in Johnson County and their compatriots in the rural Midwest is the close-knit dynamic between the city and the farm. With the housing market rebounding, the pressure to sell to developers will resume.

This fall Hayden Guetterman will head to Kansas State, where he plans to major in agronomy. He wants to farm, and chances are, he can. Unlike his father he might never wonder if he can make a living from agriculture.

With the world’s population projected to top 8 billion by 2025, and the economies of much of Asia, Africa and Latin America expected to grow robustly, the market for food isn’t likely to soften in the coming decades.

But whether someday Hayden will oversee harvests on the Wilsey Farm and other family plots here in Johnson County — or will have to move on to a purely rural landscape — will depend on the ultimate reach of the metropolis to the north.

“I hope to be around this operation for quite a while,” he said. “But you just don’t know what’s going to happen down the road. You don’t know how far out the city’s going to grow.”

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