Glimpses of Kansas

 Coming from New Zealand, it has been a fascinating experience to spend a week in Kansas, in America’s Midwest.  Kansas is a big state geographically, right in the centre of the USA, but has only 2.5 million people. The economy is driven largely by agriculture, with the Boeing factory at Wichita being the other big industry.  Wichita is the biggest city, and Topeka the State Capital. Somewhat surprisingly, most of Kansas City is actually across the state boundary in Missouri.  There is a major army base at Fort Riley. The centre of agricultural activity is at the University town of Manhattan, where the Agricultural Faculty enrolments are booming. 

These are good times for agriculture in America’s Midwest.

Corn is the big crop, with soybeans also of major importance, and then wheat a long way behind that. Cattle raising with cows and feeder calves on the Flint Hills and similar areas, and then feedlot finishing, is the major livestock industry.

Part of the grain storage for one large Kansas farm

The corn industry in particular is booming. Much of this is due to ethanol from the biofuel industry, which now takes about 40% of the corn crop. However, not all of that is lost to the food chain, as for every three kg of corn used for ethanol, there is a by-product of about one kg dry matter of distillers grain (DG). This DG is about 30% protein and makes up a valuable component of cattle feedlot rations, at up to about 25% of the total ration.

Prior to the white man arriving, most of Kansas was prairie grasslands on which vast herds of bison roamed. Initially cowboy country, the land was opened up in the 1850s by the development of the railways.  New settlers could take possession of 160 acres ( a ‘quarter section’), and after five years would be granted title.   Of course in the modern era, 160 acres is nowhere near sufficient for a living. Most farms are of several thousands of acres, typically a mix of owned and leased land. 

 

Kansas bison

The trend to larger and larger farms is inexorable, as the best managed farms add more and more ‘quarters’ to their holdings. In the west, about a third of the land is irrigated from the Ogilala Aquifer from a depth of about 200 feet.  Unfortunately, this aquifer is gradually depleting, and in somewhere between 20 and 100 years, depending on who one talks to, irrigation will no longer be possible. Dryland yields of corn in Western Kansas are only about one third those of irrigated crops

Farming in the Mid West is both big and efficient. Nearly all of the corn and soybeans are genetically modified with Roundup-ready varieties that can be sprayed for weeds without harming the crop. Most of the land is farmed zero-till. This now productive land was once the dustbowl land of the 1930s.

Some of the farms also earn income from oil. The oil is at a depth of about 1500 metres, and oil rights go with the land title. The oil companies then lease rights to the oil, paying all expenses, and paying the land owner one eighth of the gross value. Most of the wells are small, and often only yield about 10 barrels (or about 1500 litres) per day. But it is a nice little income earner for those land owners lucky enough to be located over the oil-bearing formations.

Typical Kansas oil well

To an outsider like me from across the other side of the Pacific, there is much to admire about rural Kansas. The rural citizens of Kansas are hard working straight forward and friendly people. They farm under intense heat of over 40 degrees C in summer and under intense cold with snow in the winter. Many families can trace their forebears back about six generations to the original settlers who typically came from Germany or Scandinavia. The Kansas folk are patriotic, with soldiers in uniform treated with deference as esteemed citizens who risk all for the nation.  Kansas’s most famous citizen was General and later President Eisenhower, who is buried in his Kansas boyhood town of Abilene.  

Everything about Kansas is big. Big country, big farms, big cars, big people and big meals.  On our last night here, our group was dining at a small downtown restaurant and I got talking to our waiter, who it turned out was doing a turn at serving tables, but was actually the manager. I asked him what he paid his waiting staff. He said $2.13 per hour. Everything else comes from tips, with the norm being about 15%. I have never much liked the tipping system when I am travelling, because I am never sure, as an outsider, how much to pay in various circumstances. But it sure does lead to great service in the restaurants. In this restaurant, the waiting staff share tables and therefore share the tips – which can go onto the credit card payment.  At this restaurant, kitchen staff also get a share of these tips. Tips have to be declared for tax purposes, and the manager said that if, for example, the declared tips only totalled 10% then the tax authorities would probably pay him a less than friendly visit. On a quiet night the table staff might make $12-13 per hour, but on a busy night considerably more.

As for the Kansas cuisine, that predominantly comprises fried chicken, big steaks, french fries, mashed potatoes, beans, apple pie and ice cream.  For breakfast this morning I had a lovely plate of in-season fruit – strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and melon.  Cereal was on the menu but all varieties were sugar-laden. We still have to educate them about vegemite and marmite.

Gasoline, as they call it here, is about $3.30 per gallon. American gallons are just slightly less than 4 litres. After making adjustments for exchange rates, it means that fuel in Kansas in September 2011 is just over half the price that it is in New Zealand (where it is about $US6 per American  gallon), and well under half the price of fuel in countries like France (where it is about $US8 per American gallon). Most of the differences relate to taxes.

Typical leafy suburbs in Manhattan, Kansas

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About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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