by Tom Parker
By Dale Strickler’s reckoning, he should have hosted a farm tour weeks earlier. Days had been blazing hot under cloudless skies, but as soon as vehicles began rolling in, a cold, steady rain began falling.
His farm was the first stop of “Thinking Outside the Box,” a tour spotlighting farms in north-central Kansas and south-central Nebraska that, in the words of an Iowa farmer from a previous tour, “have the motivation to try different things and not be afraid of change.”
The definition certainly applied to Strickler. Dubbed the Cover Crop Guru of Kansas, his renunciation of conventional farming practices for a more holistic approach has made his farm a model for sustainable, innovative and regenerative agriculture.
Seeing his pastures firsthand required some corrective thinking. Visitors expecting fields carpeted with grass and small shrubs were in for a shock when greeted by a virtually unbroken wall of eastern gramma grass reaching four feet high. Wading into the wild tangle—no small feat with rain pounding down—revealed layers upon layers of vegetative species, including more than 25 species of wildflowers and others that his neighbors would consider weeds. Strickler’s definition of pasture evokes images of nature in its most primitive state.
The diversity within his pastures was choreographed to provide the maximum amount of nutrition for his animals while simultaneously enriching the soil and reducing inputs. Doing so meant reverting crop ground to pasture, which, he said, is backwards of what most people do.
Conventional farmers plow up grassland and bulldoze trees to gain an extra acre of farmland that they will only lose money on, he said. He did the same thing when he started farming. Rather than turning a profit, though, he was losing his shirt. The only people benefiting from his labors were the implement dealer, the grain merchant, the herbicide dealer, the seed company and the bank. Cutting them out was the only way forward.
“One of the biggest holes in my bucket was machinery costs, either payments on new machinery or for repairs,” Strickler said. “So cutting machinery out of the equation was a huge factor.”
Through extensive research, trial and error he designed a system of successive plantings that can be grazed year round, out compete with weeds, never need fertilizer, and produce a massive amount of tonnage. It was also nutritious and inexpensive.
His cattle are intensively rotated through a series of two to three acre paddocks with portable fencing. “The idea is to maintain a photosynthetically efficient canopy at all times,” he said. “Very rapid moves, no more than a day in one spot. You regulate what and how much they eat, and determine the recovery period those plants get between grazing.”
Strickler’s new book, The Drought Resilient Farm, explains in more detail his cover crop system.
The Depot Market north of Courtland is housed in the 120 year-old Santa Fe & Rock Island Railroad depot. Dan Kuhn’s family has farmed around Courtland since 1979. In 1989 they relocated the depot to its current location and rehabilitated it. About 90 percent of the business is wholesale.
The Depot Market on Highway 36 a mile north of Courtland was the next stop. Housed in the 120 year-old Santa Fe & Rock Island Railroad depot, the farm’s predominant crop is pumpkins, with sizes ranging from tiny to “big enough to make a doghouse out of.” A wide array of squashes and melons are also offered, along with tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, onions, peppers cucumbers and asparagus. About 90 percent of the business is wholesale, said owner Dan Kuhn.
Kuhn’s family has farmed around Courtland since 1979. In 1989 they relocated the depot to its current location and rehabilitated it.
“At that time, we were growing about 30 acres of apples, which was not a good idea,” he said. “We actually did pretty well on apples in the eighties and nineties, but culture changes. We used to sell bazillions of pick-your-own apples to people who put up big amounts of applesauce. Nobody does that anymore.”
The retail store carries specialty and locally crafted items such as fresh bacon, farm fresh eggs, snack mixes, cheeses from Jason Wiebe Dairy, Becky’s Bierocks, Lost Trail Root Beer and Courtland Cream Ice Cream. Colorado peaches and pears are available in season.
Chris and Christi Janssen operate C&C High Tunnels in Scandia. Their urban farm has three high tunnels and a one-acre plot for field-grown crops. Christi also operates a retail outlet and CSA in downtown Scandia.
The sun broke through the clouds by the time the tour reached C&C High Tunnels in Scandia, owned by Chris and Christi Janssen. In yet another instance of unconventional thinking, the farm is nestled within the town proper. Three high tunnels take up one lot, while behind them an adjacent one-acre lot is used for watermelons, cantaloupe, cabbage, broccoli and a new type of broccoli called romanesko.
“We keep saying we should change our name from Chris and Christi High Tunnels to Corner to Corner High Tunnels because we use every square inch we have,” Chris Janssen said. “We have to preplan everything because we have such limited space.”
The location has its benefits as well as its quirks. On the positive side, both family and laborers, mostly young kids who live in town, can walk to work. And because the farm is surrounded by trees and houses, the high tunnels are more sheltered from the elements. The unconventional location, however, has confounded insurance agents puzzled over the concept of an urban farm, and one new supervisor drove out to verify that the farm actually existed. Neighbors “borrowing” produce happens, but never to a significant degree. “You just have to close your eyes and hope they don’t damage anything,” he said.
The farm primarily grows tomatoes, though change is in the works.
“We’re tired of the stress of trying to get rid of 2,000 pounds of tomatoes,” Janssen said. “The high stress comes from picking. If we don’t have a 2,000 pound tomato day, we’ve had a bad year. And if we pick 2,000 pounds of tomatoes on Monday, we have to have it sold by Wednesday. If you want to do something stressful, this is for you.”
Despite the stress, the Janssens enjoy the nurturing, cultivation and harvesting of their vegetables. Christi also operates a retail outlet and CSA in downtown Scandia, where, she said, she enjoys selling directly to consumers and wholesale buyers.
During lunch at T.A.G.’s Grill and Bar, Scandia, Nate Freitag, who with his wife, Stacey, own Free Day Popcorn Company, Belleville, handed out samples of microwaveable ears of yellow corn. Their corn is grown near the Kansas-Nebraska border on a farm that’s been in their family for generations. Unlike commercial processors who may store popcorn for up to 18 months before packaging, Free State sells only the current year’s harvest. They guarantee that the popcorn is the freshest that can be bought.
Polansky Seed has evolved with American agriculture. The company began in 1941 as an on-farm business selling primarily to neighbors. The new state-of-the-art facility opened in 2015 and can process between 800 to 1,000 bushels per hour. “Obviously, things have changed,” said Adrian Polansky, owner of the company.
Rain was once again in the picture when the tour pulled into Polansky Seed’s new seed cleaning plant on the east side of Belleville. No sooner had the entourage entered the building than the skies opened in a biblical deluge.
Polansky Seed is a testament to changes in agricultural practices since the 1940s. When the business opened on the family farm in 1941, farming was mostly limited to small-scale production. Receipts from those early years show that many sales were for small quantities of seed, from a half bag to a bag and a half. Now, 90 percent of sales are to dealers across Kansas and parts of Nebraska in quantities ranging from big boxes to one-ton bags.
“Obviously, things have changed,” said Adrian Polansky, owner of the company.
Besides a full line of corn, soybeans and wheat—traditionally one of their better markets—the company sees a big growth in cover crops. “It’s becoming one of our biggest areas of sales,” he said. “We see it as a very positive thing, whether it’s for soil health or keeping the soil together when we get one of these big rains.”
Seed cleaning and custom work are gaining importance, too. The company cleans and packages popcorn and non-GMO soybeans, and offers custom cleaning for larger seed companies. The new state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar facility opened in 2015, and, depending on the quality of the seed coming in from the field, can process between 800 to 1,000 bushels per hour.
“We have a huge investment here,” Polansky said. “We’re trying to do something that makes a difference for this community. We like to think of ourselves as a business that keeps people in rural America, and particularly in north-central Kansas.”
Nebraska Shrimp Company, outside of Carleton, Neb., is relatively new—a little over a year old—but it’s already catching the attention of rural Nebraskans and Kansans who prefer their shrimp as fresh as possible. Owned by Dietrich Brinegar and his father, Stewart Brinegar, facility currently has 13 tanks, though there’s room to expand to 26.
Nebraska Shrimp Company, outside of Carleton, Neb., was the final stop of the day. The business, owned and operated by Dietrich Brinegar and his father, Stewart Brinegar, is relatively new—a little over a year old—but it’s already catching the attention of rural Nebraskans and Kansans who prefer their shrimp as fresh as possible.
Dietrich’s self-proclaimed obsession with Pacific white shrimp started in 2016 after his father shared an article about a shrimp farm in Indiana. After reading everything he could find about shrimp farming and shrimp biology, Dietrich visited the Indiana facility and decided to partner with them.
Their facility currently has 13 tanks, though there’s room to expand to 26. Each tank can hold between 3,500 and 4,000 shrimp. The shrimp are brought in when they’re about a quarter-inch in length and allowed to grow another two and a half months.
“We needed that larger shrimp to tolerate our poor water quality in the beginning,” he said.
When customers pick up their orders, the shrimp are first dropped into a bucket with ice water, which kills them, and then sacked up with ice. Dietrich recommends cooking them within a couple of days or, if it’s going to be longer than that, to freeze them. They are best when frozen for no more than one month.
“Do you get to eat the shrimp?” someone asked.
Dietrich and Stewart looked at each other and laughed.
“We get the rejects,” Stewart said.
“But they’re still kicking,” Dietrich said.
Until they hit the ice water.
The tour was sponsored by the Kansas Farmers Union with funding provided by the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, Kansas Farmers Union and a USDA NIFA Food Safety and Modernization Grant.