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Archive for Monday, September 29, 1997

KANSAS RIVER AFFECTS FARMING

September 29, 1997

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Like the river itself, which turns unexpectedly in places, the history of farms along the river also has steered around some curves.

Kaw River Valley communities share many characteristics, but their overwhelming commonality is a reliance on agriculture.

Yields, prices and, of course, weather dominate the talk in every small-town cafe and at every grainery in the 12 counties along the Kansas River. Although the nature of agricultural production has changed, agriculture and all the factors that influence it remain a constant concern in the valley's 20,000 years of continual human habitation.

Farmers today state with pride: "I farm along the Kaw!" The Kaw River Valley is rich with the resources needed for successful farming. The river bottomland is exceptionally nutrient-laden, and the area is blessed with moderate temperatures, adequate rainfall, abundant ground water and an average 180-day growing season, all of which permit a strong diversified agricultural base.

Those qualities attracted native people such as the Kaw and the Pawnee. While the men hunted, women raised "the three sisters": maize or corn, various types of beans and squash. These early farmers supplemented crops by gathering the valley's edible wild plants, such as sunflower seeds and gooseberries.

Occasional floods damaged crops and wild plants but replenished the soil with nutrients.

In the mid-1800s, Anglo-Americans and Euro-Immigrants, homesteading westward along the valley, modified American Indian farming practices to replicate farming practices of Europe. Corn, beans and squash more often gave way to broom-corn, flax and buckwheat.

During the valley's homesteading era, which extended into the 1880s, each family produced the diversity of crops and livestock necessary to sustain life itself, occasionally exchanging labor with other families. And many early homesteaders used the river to transport excess goods to be traded downstream or upstream.

By the 1890s, however, homesteads turned into farms and so began the Golden Age of Agriculture, a time characterized by excellent prices for good crops. Such success encouraged farm families to buy manufactured goods and invest in their farms and homes, adding more buildings, corrals, windmills and silos.

Farmers fenced livestock into lush pastures, and they devoted well-developed fields to cash crops. They also used cash to buy the food and feed they no longer produced themselves.

Rural optimism, combined with World War I's increased food and fiber needs and war-induced farm labor shortages, hastened the triumph of the tractor. Tractors supplemented "humanpower" and replaced horsepower on farms.

The 1920s, unfortunately, brought an agricultural depression, fueled by excess crops and low prices. And the droughts and Depression of the 1930s cost many farm families their shirts and their land. As a result, many smaller farms were consolidated during Depression buyouts, leaving fewer people to farm more land.

Those remaining in the bottomlands rode the waves of the 1940s into more prosperity and more technology. World War II again elevated the importance of farms, raising profits for farmers. Larger machinery and new technologies -- such as crop pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, hybridization and livestock antibiotics -- increased yields. Favorable government policies and the baby boom also promised a bright future for farmers.

Like the river itself, which turns unexpectedly in places, the history of farms along the river also turns unexpectedly. The Flood of '51 was a setback in an otherwise prosperous era. It led to dam-building and increased chemical fertilizers to replace nature's more erratic soil-building. In turn, runoff from chemical fertilizers and pesticides eventually turned a clean river into one of the most polluted waterways in our nation by the 1990s.

The effect of farming on the river, as well as the river's effect on farming, is of utmost concern to farmers today in the Kaw River Valley. While most farmers still use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, they recognize the need for conservation measures such as crop rotation.

In recent years, many organic and truck farms have sprung up, producing fruits, vegetables and flowers to sell directly to consumers at farmer's markets as well as to restaurants and grocery stores.

While Kaw Valley River farmers have long ago stopped transporting their crops on the river, the river continues to make the land exceptionally fertile.

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