Harp music cut the silence as people of many ages toiled on mats, practicing yoga under the direction of two instructors.
They were nestled into a freshly mowed, grassy waterway in northeast Saline County, surrounded on three sides by Mark Pettijohn’s sunflower patch in full bloom.
That’s how the farmer, who uses yoga for stress relief, and some 55 friends spent half of their Labor Day. It’s also another way that Pettijohn promotes his farm. Later, chef Kate Chambers, owner of Cloud 9 Chicken Haven, 211 W. Cloud, served a meal while yoga classmates and their instructors, Robin Vandegrift and Cathy Hayes, of Salina, cooled their tootsies in the farmer’s swimming pool.
Harpist RoJean Loucks, of Lindsborg, performed in the field and the backyard, while Karen Bonar, of Salina-based Heartland Photography, chronicled the event in pictures.
Folks left with sunflower blooms and picked through ears of field corn piled in a wheelbarrow by the backyard gate.
Some might say Pettijohn is a good farmer who has made headlines with his innovation and high honors in state and regional yield contests.
Others may wonder about this farm kid who hardly fits the traditional mold of an agricultural food producer.
Going against convention
By not cowering to convention, Pettijohn, 46, has flourished. He dumped the one-way plow and adopted no-till farming when the practice was far from universally accepted.
Cover crops showed up on his land before most, and he posted good yields, even during dry years.
In March 2014, he paid an online head-hunter $10,000 to find just the right hired man — Dustin Conrad — when the norm was just to ask around town.
Widowed with three children, and non-Catholic, he pulled his children out of a public school after the 2010-2011 year was complete, and enrolled the next fall at Sacred Heart schools, in Salina.
This year, Pettijohn’s oldest, Gareth, 15, is a sophomore at Southeast of Saline High School near Gypsum. Chloe, 14, is a freshman at Salina Central, and Lincoln, 13, is a seventh-grader at Lakewood Middle School.
Their father said he prefers Sacred Heart, but cost was a concern, so he let his children choose their schools.
Try the new, different
Gareth isn’t a fan of yoga, but he likes farming, and has aspirations of someday joining his dad in business.
“He likes to try new and different things,” Gareth said of his father.
Mark Pettijohn is involved with a woman who was raised in Portland, Ore., and today is a wardrobe consultant for Wall Street businessmen in New York. They met online.
This fall, in the effort to grow his farm, Pettijohn is at it again, choosing to use mainstream media to pitch his prowess and rent more land.
“All I need is one customer,” Pettijohn said.
Looking for land to rent
He bought a full-age advertisement that appeared Saturday in the Salina Journal that was titled: “Got Land?”
In the advertisement, Pettijohn openly asks landowners to consider renting him their cropland.
“It’s very taboo, and I’m sure it’s frowned upon,” he said. “Some people will feel threatened, but all we’re trying to do is promote our business.”
Such a bold request in print is not unheard of, especially among ranchers, said Clayton Short, who farms in southern Saline County. Advertising for farm land does sway from the norm, he said.
But Short wouldn’t rule out trying it himself.
“I would wonder in my mind if they were successful, and if they were, I would say ‘I should have thought of that,’ ” he said.
Not making anymore of it
Competition for land to rent is intense, Short said. After all, as old-timers would say, they’re not making any more of it.
The proud institution of farming is packed with conservative, hard -working, God-fearing folks who typically don’t openly talk about their successes or failures in the field, Pettijohn said, nor do they campaign for land.
“There are some unwritten rules, and some who break the rules,” Short said. “They can do vicious things to each other when two farmers are competing for the same ground.”
Pettijohn might be rewriting the rules by stepping out to the masses. He paid more to have the ad placed in the Journal’s Money section so he it could appear “near the stock prices and the gold price.”
It’s an eye-catcher
The goal is to entice with a loud statement those who have land or plan to invest in land.
“If the neighbors see a small ad, they’ll hastily turn the page,” Pettijohn said. “When they see a full page, they’ll show their wife. It’s an eye-catcher.”
He currently farms 3,200 acres in Saline and Dickinson counties; 210 of that is his own, and the rest is rented, including 400 from his parents, Alan and Barbara Pettijohn.
Pettijohn is after more acres to rent in order to increase his revenue potential, and income.
“I want a chance at growth, and I want to do it with honor,” he said.
Compare his operation to an hourly worker or manager at a business in town, Pettijohn said. If the company makes more money, both employees stand a better chance to land a raise.
For Pettijohn to get more pay for farming, he said, “This is the only way.”
It’s a different approach
Being different is part of the man who almost never wears a cap or carries a pair of pliers, unless they’re something newfangled that you’d find at Cabela’s.
One might have predicted after Pettijohn graduated from Solomon High School in 1987 that he would have enrolled at Kansas State University, aiming for a career on the farm or at least in agribusiness.
But instead he went to the University of Kansas and completed degrees in business administration and accounting, with a minor in advertising from journalism school.
He returned to the farm in 1992, working with his father, and took over the farm in 2005.
No smooth transition
Alan Pettijohn, 75, is as old-fashioned as any farmer his age, Mark said, but his father has always been open to new ideas.
Don’t think for a second, however, that the transition of father to son was smooth.
“It was pretty frustrating at times, for sure,” Alan Pettijohn said. “That ended up being the reason I retired when I did.”
For his son to practice innovation on his terms, Alan said, Mark had to be in charge.
“The only way for Mark to learn was to do it on his own,” Alan Pettijohn said. “He’s doing a great job now.”
Borrowing some ideas
Not all of Mark Pettijohn’s ideas are totally his. He learns by reading and gleaning information from cutting-edge experts.
“I’ve borrowed from lots of sources,” Pettijohn said.
The idea to advertise for land was taken from the August issue of Progressive Farmer magazine, and it was brought to Pettijohn’s attention by his son, Lincoln.
“I noticed that he wasn’t doing much reading, so I gave him a magazine, and told him to read for an hour,” Mark Pettijohn said. “Lincoln came to me and said ‘Hey Dad, have you read this?’ ”
The article was titled “8 ways to make your landlord’s day.” One of the eight ways was to advertise.
Might be a trendsetter
Pettijohn does command attention. Word of the yoga gathering made it to many, including Tom Maxwell, agricultural Extension agent for Saline and Ottawa counties.
Pettijohn wrote a column on the subject that’s in the latest edition of AgLand, a quarterly agriculture magazine (online at kansasagland.com) produced by The Hutchinson News, Salina Journal, Garden City Telegram and Hays Daily News.
Maxwell balks at Pettijohn being called a trailblazer, but he said he might be a trendsetter.
“Growing your operation has traditionally been done by building relationships with landlords,” Maxwell said. “When somebody thinks outside of the box, is that unethical? I guess everybody will have to come up with their own opinion.”
Cutting a new swath
Short embraces Pettijohn’s approach.
“It takes people like Mark to cut a new swath, and expose a new practice to the rest of us,” he said. “And that gets back to his advertising and his cover crops.”
That willingness to choose another path is what impresses Diane Sampson, one of Pettijohn’s landlords. Alan Pettijohn farmed for her father, the late Gilbert Endicott, some 50 years ago.
“He’s a fine young man,” she said of Pettijohn. “Because I’ve been at this a while, I am most appreciative of these young farmers who will go the extra mile to find the latest methods and how they can be applied to their farms.”
Sampson wasn’t a fan of no-till in some areas, but Pettijohn convinced her to embrace it.
She is among the landowners who will drive around and look at the crops when they’re searching for new tenants.
“We have selected someone who has fields that I would want mine to look like,” Diane Sampson said.
Using ads? A great idea
She’s also not opposed to Pettijohn’s strategy to capture some attention through the print media.
“My father owned an advertising company. I think it’s a great idea,” she said.
“One thing that impresses me is his dedication to his family. As a young widower, he is very much attuned to caring for his children,” she said.
Has a ‘romantic soul’
Pettijohn is known for taking his kids around the farming neighborhood after a snowstorm and shoveling the walks of his landlords.
“He has a romantic soul, and he’s an interesting young man,” Sampson said. “You feel good after you spend time with Mark Pettijohn.”