Raising soybeans, corn and wheat in southeast Kansas is a different game than in other areas of the state, Rich Felts admits.
Getting 40 inches of rainfall a year in Montgomery County is nice, said the Kansas Farm Bureau president, but sometimes there is too much, and other times, there isn't enough moisture when it’s needed.
Felts saw a much different landscape this week while touring central and western Kansas, where a lack of consistent rain and dwindling supplies in the vast Ogallala Aquifer are causing concern.
“We all have issues. They’re just different,” he said.
Felts praised Gov. Sam Brownback’s efforts with his Vision for the Future of Water in Kansas, which is, partly aimed at extending the aquifer’s life. Felts isn’t sure if the grand plan will fix the problem. That’s up to Kansans, he said, but at least the vision plan has people talking.
“I think the vision set into motion a change of mindsets,” Felts said.
Water woes bring action
Water quantity is an issue in western Kansas, he said, but reducing the pumping to a sustainable level is not such an easy solution.
“That water is a property right, and they own the water,” Felts said. “Should they be concerned about the volume of water that they have? Very much so.”
The problem in eastern Kansas, he said, is with the reservoir system, where the water capacity is being reduced by silt and bank erosion.
Water woes throughout the state have brought discussion and some action, Felts said. The formation of local alliances aimed at reducing water use will help. Felts mentioned the Sheridan County 6 Local Enhanced Management Area, formed in July 2012, as a step forward for an area of the state.
The plan is “to reduce groundwater decline rates and extend the life of the aquifer,” according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture website.
Another reason for the recommendation was the “rate of withdrawal of groundwater appears to exceed the recharge rate,” the website reads.
Felts also advocates the formation of Water Conservation Areas.
“WCAs have more flexibility,” he said. “Anybody can do a Water Conservation Area. With some of these efforts, we can extend it, but is that extension enough?”
At least “people are becoming more conscious,” Felts said. “We hope the handful of people saying, ‘It’s mine and I’ll use it until it’s gone,’ doesn’t keep progress in the conservation arenas from happening.
“Don’t penalize those who are making these efforts. We favor conservation and WCAs are a first step.”
Farming with less water will make producers “use their management skills,” he said, such as finding drought-tolerant crop varieties.
Felts acknowledged that for a time this growing season, the price of grain sorghum — a crop that can be raised with less irrigation — exceeded that of corn.
“I thought it was the silver bullet, the panacea we’ve all been looking for,” he said. “But the Chinese have backed off on the amount of grain sorghum they want to buy.”
With that drop in demand, the price for sorghum fell.
Farm Bureau senior writer John Schlageck, who accompanied Felts on his recent tour, mentioned seeing “field after field” of good quality sorghum Wednesday as they drove from Garden City to Hays.
Huelskamp wants on Ag Committee
On the political front, the announced resignation of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, brought a statement from Kansas Rep. Tim Heulskamp that he would like to regain a seat on the House Agriculture Committee.
Huelskamp was removed from the committee in 2012. For the first time in nearly a century, Felts said, Kansas has no representation on the committee.
Some at the time wondered why Huelskamp was removed from the committee and suggested that the Republican's resolve not to compromise on some issues contributed to his ouster from the powerful committee.
In a December 2012 Journal story, Felts’ KFB predecessor, Minneapolis area farmer Steve Baccus, discussed possible ramifications of not having a Kansan on the committee.
The void "certainly makes it more challenging for those of us in Kansas to develop good farm policy,” Baccus was quoted in the story as saying.
Kansas Farm Bureau did not endorse Huelskamp when he ran for re-election in 2014. Because of a lack of votes for Huelskamp from Farm Bureau members throughout Kansas, Felts said, the organization “sat on the sidelines” during the last election cycle.
“We didn’t have a majority of counties to make a recommendation,” he said. “I respect (Huelskamp) for having the desire to be back on there. The 1st District needs a representative on that committee. We would like to see him be more influential.”
Tim Unruh is a veteran agriculture reporter at the Salina Journal.