Douglas County farmers harvested bumper crops of corn and soybeans last year, helping Ken Wagner feel comfortable about expanding his business.
Wagner, owner of Baldwin-based Heritage Tractor Inc., plans a $2 million expansion into North Topeka this summer, a move powered in part by a 35 percent increase in sales last year of combines, farm equipment and other agricultural machinery.
"We're pretty bullish on the market right now," Wagner said. "This is a welcome change - not only for people like myself, but for the people out there working the ground and doing it for a living. They needed it. It had been a long, dry spell - literally."
A new report shows that last year's corn and soybean harvests for Douglas County were the best in recent memory.
The county's 33,900 acres of soybeans had an average yield of 55 bushels an acre, more than double the average yield of 23.8 bushels an acre during the past five years, according to new data released this month from Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service.
Corn also came in big. The county averaged 141 bushels an acre in 2004, up from the five-year average yield of 92.6 bushels an acre, according to the statistics service.
Bill Wood, agricultural extension agent for K-State Research and Extension - Douglas County, said that timely rains and relatively cool temperatures teamed up to produce the kind of conditions that scarcely could have been better drawn up on paper.
Corn heads were fuller. Soybeans were better color. And farmers' smiles were wider.
"Just driving down the highway, you might not notice it, but the soybeans were a good foot to 2 feet taller," Wood said. "In a normal year, they're maybe 2-and-a-half- to 3-and-a-half-foot tall - maybe waist-high. This (past) year there were guys coming in and bragging about them being up over their shoulders, or shoulder height.
"A year ago, if they hit your knee, they were doing good. It just makes a huge difference."
Corn and soybeans are the two largest cash crops in the county.
The field corn harvested will be used for livestock feed and will make its way into ethanol production, corn syrup and perhaps a few boxes of cornflakes. Soybeans will be crushed to produce soybean oil for cooking and making margarine and a handful of nondairy products, and the leftover corn meal often is used for animal feed.
Back at Heritage Tractor, Wagner said he was busy keeping up with filling end-of-the-year equipment orders from farmers who had held off making purchases in recent years. The growing activity is part of the reason he opened a temporary sales location last month at the intersection of Lower Silver Lake Road and U.S. Highway 75.
Now it's on to the next step: building a 30,000-square-foot showroom and service center on 10 acres along U.S. Highway 24, just west of Highway 75.
The $2 million project will be about the same size as the company's base in Baldwin, and bring to three the company's total number of locations. Heritage also has a presence in Paola.
"This is a logical extension for us," Wagner said. "We got to do a lot of business, but we'll get it."