Karen Pendleton's eyes are the color of corn chips. So is her car and the cloudless sky above the family's farm.
Mrs. Pendleton and her husband, John Pendleton, grow blue Indian corn, which they make into chips and distribute to local stores. The chips range in color from a pale bluish-gray to a purplish-black.
According to Mr. Pendleton, the food services director at Kansas State University ordered some chips for the football team's training table because the purplish hue resembled one of the school's colors.
"When you first look at them, they're not really appealing," Mrs. Pendleton said. "They look kind of like asphalt."
The chips are quite tasty, despite their unusual appearance, and are low in salt with no preservatives or cholestoral, she said.
"A LOT OF THE popularity is that's it's a novelty item," Mr. Pendleton said. "But, we have read that blue corn has higher protein, a more digestable protein. Plus, it's locally grown and it's a very, very fresh product."
Each bag of chips is labeled and comes with a "From the Land of Kansas" sticker, courtesy of the Board of Agriculture's trademark program.
The couple also raises more traditional crops on their farm east of Lawrence, as well as a 20-acre pick-your-own asparagus patch. They open a market from mid-April to the end of May, selling asparagus, rhubarb, hydroponic tomatoes and other spring vegetables.
The Pendleton's blue corn chip endeavor kicked off about two years ago. Mrs. Pendleton said an uncle from California was visiting here.
"He told us, `Oh, what you need to raise is blue corn. It's the hottest thing in California.'"
In the spring of 1988, the Pendletons purchased some blue corn seed from a distributor in New Mexico and raised one acre of the corn.
"We planted some asparagus next to the road and then grew the corn behind it, so if it bombed, no one would see it," Mrs. Pendleton said with a laugh.
"WE PLANTED IT, not really knowing what to do with it," Mr. Pendleton added. "We were kind of jumping into it blindly."
The Pendletons harvested the blue corn in the fall of 1988, but were unable to find an elevator that would mill it for human consumption. Finally, they learned that White Cloud Grain Co. in Hiawatha had opened a chip manufacturing plant and was willing to take on the job. Once the corn was milled, the Pendletons marketed and distributed the product themselves. The chips, processed from 800 pounds of blue corn, were sold out in less than four weeks.
This year, the Pendletons planted 10 acres of corn, which they harvested in September. The first 500 pounds of chips sold out but they've got more stored in their barn.
According to Mrs. Pendleton, the chips represent a "value-added" crop because they reap a higher profit than would the unprocessed corn.
"Without doing something with the corn, without processing it somehow, it's hard for us to get something back out of it," Mr. Pendleton said. "It's hard to grow and the yield is very poor. It's an open pollenated corn like the corn that was raised before hybrid corn. It doesn't have that vigor that's bred into hybrid corn."
"THE STALK IS VERY skinny," Mrs. Pendleton added. "It's two feet taller than the rest of the corn we grow. Consequently, it all falls down."
The Pendletons said they use some of the corn for chips and save some to plant the following year.
Mrs. Pendleton was appointed by Gov. Mike Hayden about a year ago to serve on a leadership council for the Kansas Agricultural Value Added Process Center. She said the center, which is housed at Kansas State University, has been helpful in obtaining information about blue corn.
"It's a center set up to help people who want to take raw agricultural products and help them process it in such a way to add value to it and bring more of the consumer's dollar back to the farmer or at least, to the state of Kansas," she said.
Because their product is such a specialty item, the Pendletons plan to limit their wholesale customers to mostly specialty stores. The chips are available at the following Lawrence locations: Farmers Market; Bay Leaf, 725 Mass.; The Community Mercantile, 700 Maine; and Kitchen Emporium, 943 Mass.
The chips also cann be purchased from Sunflower Seeds in Ottawa and Maple Leaf Orchard in Baldwin.