De Soto Farmers Market at Kill Creek Farm - Some of the JoCo Woes of Growing...

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Johnson County farmers adapt as market toughens

 Barry Zimmerman, left, had the help of his father Darrel Zimmerman as the two fed cows across the highway from the family farm at Kansas 7 and Kill Creek Road.
Barry Zimmerman, left, had the help of his father Darrel Zimmerman as the two fed cows across the highway from the family farm at Kansas 7 and Kill Creek Road.

~~~~~~ Darrel Zimmerman and his son, Barry, rip the last of the twine that held the seven bales they unloaded from their truck.

The rustle of hoofs and hungry mouths crushing the straw joins the drone of distant cars on Kansas 10, which cuts through 10 former acres of Kill Creek Farm in De Soto.

The cold afternoon air smells of dust and imminent rain. The pair is perched atop a field, part of 60 acres they lease from speculators who hope to later sell the land for development and for a profit. Visible beyond the highway are the 30 acres they still own and the barn that held their hay, and Ed Zimmerman’s before that.

Farming in Johnson County has changed dramatically over the decades the Zimmermans have worked the soil here. The dropping value of commodity crops has forced many farmers to rely on other jobs for their primary income or sow specialty crops that stand out from the produce of megafarms.

Many have quit the field altogether—seven percent of Johnson County farmers between 2002 and 2007, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture—as the land here became worth more than it could produce in crops.

As the rain picked up one day last week, Darrel recalled another day at Kill Creek Farm when rain fell on a father and son.

Darrel, now 73, was only 17 then and waiting out a summer squall in the same granary barn with his dad, Ed. Darrel remembers that Ed, after thinking deeply, turned toward him and offered to pay for any college degree that would keep him from farming.

“You don’t have to go to the boats to gamble,” he said. “All you have to do is put a seed in the ground.”

Barry Zimmerman said surrounding lakes and dams now keep flooding from washing away their crops with heavy rain. But other causes for concern have arisen for Johnson County farmers, said Dan Nagengast, executive director for the Kansas Rural Center. Each year, local urban sprawl and surrounding megafarms are forcing more farmers to adjust to be successful.

“The weather, that’s always been part of the farmer’s existence,” Darrel Zimmerman said. “But there’s almost bigger issues that confront farming today.”

Megafarms in California and western Kansas mean acres don’t yield as much return on commodity crops. The time when 80 acres of corn, wheat or soybeans produced enough income to sustain a family has, like Johnson County farmland, gradually withered away.

Farmland in the county also costs more than its agricultural worth, said Rick Miller, Johnson County Extension agriculture agent. Speculators who buy farmland base its price on potential business and housing developments. While similar farm acres sell for an average of $660 in west-central Kansas, they can cost almost triple that in Johnson County.

With these challenges, more farmers in the county each year are abandoning agriculture. Most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture data show from 2002 to 2007 the amount of farmland fell by 24 percent. The number of farms dropped by seven percent.

Miller said those who keep farming are often turning to specialty products, like the Zimmermans tried to do with their bee and pumpkin farms. Or, they are pursuing organic farming, which Barry Zimmerman said he also hopes to try by processing and selling his livestock locally through farmers’ markets at his barn....

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De Soto Farmers Market

9210 Kill Creek Rd
De Soto, KS 66018
(Kill Creek Farm @ K-10 & Kill Creek Rd)

Wednesday-Only Market
Open 1st Wednesday in July

Darrell Zimmerman ~ 913-209-4446