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Archive for Sunday, December 7, 1997

SPECIAL CROPS ADD VALUE TO FARMING

December 7, 1997

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Homemade products give farmers added income and hobbies.

What started out as a hobby for retired farmer Floyd Ott has added something special to the breakfast tables of many area residents.

"I say cider, but most of our customers use it as a breakfast juice," said Ott, confiding that the only difference is the temperature at which it is served.

Ott started farming south of Lawrence in 1954, added a full orchard in 1981 and started making cider after retirement seven years ago.

"We'd been planting the trees since we moved here anyhow," he said. The business got started when he began by pressing a few apples for juice and cider for the Farmer's Market.

When retirement came, the orchard and cider became a way of life for Ott and wife Becky. Now, they press once a week in a recent addition to their house. They use equipment built by Ott as well as some purchased specially for the job.

"I just can't stop buying trees," Ott said. "I told my wife 12 years ago I'd quit buying trees."

His orchard includes more than 60 varieties of apples, 14 kinds of pears and 20 types of peaches. While he sells most of the fruit as a hand-picked product, some apples are set aside and refined for the cider.

This refining process, known as value-added agriculture, is a common offshoot of many local farms, often added to the daily chores as a source of extra income.

Martha Stewart connection

John and Karen Pendleton, east of Lawrence, started planting alternative crops like flowers, blue corn and asparagus with their corn, soybeans and wheat in the 1980s and ended up with a whole new business.

"There were low prices and high interest rates then," John Pendleton said. "One thing just led to another."

The blue corn was refined into corn chips, while asparagus was pickled and canned.

Later, a simple greenhouse for hydroponic tomatoes to fill in between seasons led to what Pendleton said was their biggest value-added item -- dried flowers, both individual and arrangements.

"In the last three years, that has really expanded a lot," he said. "We've been doing it for 10 years, and it is doing a tremendous job now."

Pendleton credits America's favorite home decorator -- who champions dried flowers for their old-fashioned elegance -- for the flower success.

"Martha Stewart has done a lot for us and doesn't even know it," he said.

Production limits

While the Pendletons say the value-added items increase their income, they say many farmers in their situation can't produce enough to completely abandon traditional farming.

"None of these things are really new and different," Karen said. "We're just sort of caught between the kitchen stove top and the big commercial guys."

The biggest problem with producing a value-added product, they said, is finding a place with the equipment and approval to make it. Health and commercial sells regulations require standards that can't be met at home.

The same problem struck Richard and Joan (pronounced Jo-ann) Smith about two years ago. The Smiths run Treehouse Berry Farm in Linwood and sell fresh berries, homemade jams and jellies.

"There was no place for anyone who wanted to get into food processing to do it without their own facility," Richard said. "You can't afford that until you prove the product."

With that plea, the Smiths got a grant through the Kansas Value Added Center at Kansas State University to renovate a small house on the farm into a processing kitchen. Since then, Richard has been booking farmers and small entrepreneurs to use the kitchen in between making his farm's special jams, jellies, preserves and -- in the summer -- salsa.

The kitchen has been a relative success in value-added agriculture because the need was there, Richard said. It now pickles asparagus for the Pendletons, makes Treehouse products and creates apple butter for Wild Horse Farms, among others.

"These people are basically growers and they want to have a product," he said. "They only need it once or twice a year. It wouldn't be economical to try to build for themselves."

Although the K-State Value Added Center no longer exists, farmers looking for help with a value-added product can find it through local extension agents, Kansas State University's agriculture department or the state Department of Commerce and Housing's Agriculture Value Added Program.

-- Selena Stevens' phone message number is 832-7165. Her e-mail address is selena@ljworld.com.

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