HOXIE — It’s tough getting any more agricultural-based than Sheridan County.
Even the signs leading into Hoxie, the county seat, will tell you that.
“Welcome to Hoxie,” the signs read. “Good crops. Great families.”
Good crops indeed.
Irrigation lends a helping hand to that strength, according to banker and farmer Jeff Torleumke, but that’s only in a small slice of the county.
State Bank of Hoxie CEO Mike Mense agrees, noting he farms along a stretch in northern Gove County, all without the benefit of extra water for crops.
Irrigation’s contribution, the 57-year-old Torleumke said, comes from a stretch of land 6 miles wide on both sides of U.S. Highway 24 from Hoxie to Colby.
“I also farm up in Decatur County,” he said, “but it’s not the same up there.”
Also driving the economy is Foote Cattle, the owner and operator of Hoxie Feedyard, a 53,000-head capacity feedlot 8 miles west of Hoxie.
“They are basically the biggest driver,” he said. “But they have to have the corn.”
That means it needs agriculture to work, either through purchasing cattle or the silage to feed and high-moisture corn to fatten them up with before sending them to packinghouses.
“It increases the value of our corn,” Mense said.
Hoxie Feedyard even utilizes distiller’s grains from nearby Western Plains Energy, a 45-million gallon ethanol plant located a few miles east of Oakley, to boost the protein content of their cattle feed.
Both the feedlot and Torleumke own stock in the ethanol plant, and Torleumke currently serves as its board president.
“It’s all agricultural driven,” he said of the county.
Taking irrigation out of the economy of Sheridan County would have a dramatic effect, Mense said, simply because farmers wouldn’t be planting 120-bushel corn every year and a third fewer acres would be planted.
“That’s a big ripple effect,” he said.
While Torleumke said the agricultural economy has its up and down, its fluctuations aren’t as extreme as the oil economy.
“It’s probably a blessing we don’t have a lot of oil,” Mense said, “because just as people get used to the increase it’s gone.”
“Everything in Sheridan County comes back to agriculture,” Torleumke said.
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Sheridan County also has been in the spotlight in recent years as a result of the creation of the state’s first Local Enhanced Management Area, which includes irrigated land west of Hoxie.
Torleumke has land both in and out of the LEMA, which was its greatest downfall, he said. Others agreed, and the groundwater management district that covers Sheridan County is considering a district-wide LEMA.
That doesn’t mean Torleumke hasn’t benefited.
“To me, it opened my eyes to some things,” he said, specifically citing two circles of confectionery sunflowers he planted.
“They were more profitable than corn,” he said. “If I wasn’t in the LEMA, I wouldn’t have planted sunflowers.
By comparison, he applied 6.2 inches of water to one field of sunflowers and 6.5 inches to the other.
Corn, he said, will take three times that amount, but will now fit in his program after sunflowers.
He also said he harvested 88-bushel wheat using just 5 inches of water.
That drop in use is behind an increase in water levels at some of the wells in the LEMA.
“I think if we look at other crops for other markets,” he said, “the LEMA is not a bad thing.”
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Agriculture has changed dramatically over the years, and promises to continue changing.
But it has repercussions.
“Now we farm more than twice the acres with less than half the guys,” Torleumke said of farming today.
Combines might cost almost $500,000, but harvest much more than they used to.
Sprayers are the same way.
Using a sprayer capable of covering a swath 100 feet wide, he said he can prepare a field for planting that once took weeks and multiple tractors to prepare.
Sheridan County’s population peaked in 1935 with more than 6,000 people, Torleumke said. Today, the numbers are closer to 2,500.
“Where did those 4,000 people go?” he asked. “Obviously they went to the city.”
As agriculture grows and fewer people are needed, there’s likely to be further declines.
He thinks there will be some people returning home, for retirement or to feel safe again.
“Other than that ... obviously, the population out there is going to decline,” he said.
How much, however, is uncertain, although estimates from Wichita State University suggest Sheridan County might number no more than 990 people in 50 years.
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Also adding to the demand on agriculture is Western Plains Energy, which Torleumke chairs.
The plant, he said, uses 18 million bushels of grain each year, 95 percent of it grain sorghum, mainly because it’s slightly cheaper than corn with only slightly smaller ethanol yields.
Currently, the plant is able to produce 2.8 gallons of ethanol for each bushel of milo.
The plant, Torleumke said, doesn’t interfere with the flow of grain in northwest Kansas, as most of it — as much as 65 percent of it 14 years ago when the plant was in the planning stages — is exported from the immediate area.
“I still know we’re exporting grain out of northwest Kansas,” he said. “We should utilize grain we grow here.”
And that goes beyond using corn or milo for ethanol.
“In my mind, I also think ‘why don’t we have a bakery here?’ ” Torleumke asked.
But, he noted, only about 10 cents worth of wheat is used to produce a one-pound loaf of bread.
“We’re still profitable,” he said of the ethanol plant, even though fuel prices have fallen. “The ethanol industry has been good for our 50 employees at Campus, and 35 percent of them have college degrees.”
The plant’s owners are spread far and wide, but Torleumke said a quarter of the investors came from Sheridan County.
Currently, most of the ethanol produced at Western Plains is going to California or Colorado, with some used in Kansas.
The plant produces about 135,000 gallons of ethanol each day from 50,000 bushels of grain.
Born in Oberlin, Torleumke said he has no plans of leaving.
“Born here and spent most of my life here,” he said, “and plan on dying here.”