COLLYER — On a small farmstead southeast of Collyer, a young farm couple is beginning an experiment they hope could direct the future of farming in Kansas.
It’s a direction that, for Owen and Karen Parker, is guided by science as much by prayer.
The Parkers neither grew up on farms, nor did they expect to wind up farming, but on a quarter section or so of Trego County land they call Royal Carriage Ranch, they are using organic methods to grow cash crops of produce and will be able to do so nearly year-round with the use of a high tunnel.
A high tunnel — also known as a hoop house — uses passive solar energy to increase temperature and humidity under its polyethylene cover. The Parkers received a grant through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program to get started with their high tunnel.
“The primary thing we’re after is to extend the growing season. That’s what a high tunnel really allows you to do,” said Dennis Doring, supervisory district conservationist
at the Hays NRCS office.
This is the first year the Parkers are using the high tunnel. They were able to plant their crops in early March and anticipate they will be able to grow crops through most of the winter.
“As long as there's enough daylight. There's about a six-week timeframe where stuff is going to go dormant during the lowest light hours of the winter,” Karen said. “The rest of the time, we can grow any kind of cool-season crop like Swiss chard, kales or leafy greens.”
The high tunnel is similar to a greenhouse, but Owen noted there are some differences, such as the high tunnel cannot be heated by another source. For the NRCS grant, the crops must also be planted directly in the ground; no raised beds are allowed.
The Parkers have one 30-by-70 foot high tower and have plans to add another adjacent to it. They are growing mainly what they found to Kansas’ best-selling produce — cucumbers and peppers. In early July, the one row of cucumbers towered over nearly everything else in the high tunnel, with the exception of the pole beans that reached nearly to the top.
Not far behind were the okra plants and two types of tomatoes. They have also planted carrots, radishes and spinach inside the high tunnel, but said next year they might limit the number of crops to the best-sellers.
“The spinach was wonderful,” Karen said. “It was the best spinach I’ve ever grown or eaten. It wasn’t dirty, it was very clean and crisp.”
The EQIP program will pay for up to 2,178 square feet of high tunnel, Doring said. Producers can sign up for the grants year-round.
He said other goals of the NRCS high tunnel initiative is to improve plant and soil quality, and reduce nutrient and pesticide application.
Those fit with the Parkers’ philosophy toward permaculture — the design and maintenance of sustainable ecosystems.
The Parkers are using that approach in each of the crops they tend on the homestead — which includes a small vineyard and fruit trees. Hay-bale compost piles dot the homestead, and a flock of about 30 St. Croix sheep control the weeds and grass.
“Everything is an experiment. We’ve never done anything like this before,” Karen said.
But, she adds, “everything has been extremely fun.”
And it has been plenty of work, from constructing the high tunnel to preparing the soil.
The ground inside and in other planting beds around the tunnel was transformed from hardpan to moist, dark soil through organic methods — cardboard to inhibit weeds and attract worms, followed by thick layers of straw, compost and wood chips.
“Then in the fall when everything is dormant, you add manure,” Karen said. “It will burn down over the winter. In the spring you can dig down into that soil and it’s crawling with earthworms. It’s not hardpan anymore.”
Karen said that transformation is the most exciting thing for her about the farm.
“That’s going to create a healthy plant that you don’t have to spray,” she said.
“That’s really the foundation of what we’re trying to do. It applies to the high tunnel, it applies the vineyard, it applies to the fields, it applies to your animals,” she said.
In their fields, they put the practice to use with cover crops and no-til practices to try to heal the ground, Owen said.
“It’s been overgrazed, windblown, overworked,” he said. “We’re going to apply that all the way around.”
The heat-loving okra plants that now grow in their high tower could become a cover crop in Kansas, Owen said.
“It’s supposed to be exceptionally good for the soil,” Karen said. “The roots can put down a 6-foot taproot that breaks up the hardpan, and it puts down a ton of carbon with its roots in the soil.”
Cover crops are another program NRCS pushes, Doring said.
“Studies have shown that constant tillage over the years destroys microorganisms and destroys the biology and structure of the soil. When you’re constantly growing and you limit the number of tillage practice you do out there, you’re going to get better drought tolerance, better moisture utilization. Your yields will reflect that,” he said.
In addition to the organic growing methods and the high tower, the Parkers are using drip irrigation to conserve water.
Owen has installed both subterranean and above-ground drip irrigation systems in the high tower. The above-ground system will likely be removed, he said.
“We hardly run the above-ground drip. We just don’t need to because the plastic traps in a lot of that moisture,” he said. “We probably water once a week, maybe once every other week.”
The subterranean system is buried about 6 to 8 inches. Each emitter runs about a half gallon per hour, he said.
“That will hit the root zone, it will inhibit weed growth since there’s not fresh moisture on the surface,” he said.
The underground system has worked so well in the high house, the couple plans to install one when they eventually relocate the vineyard.
In about a year, they expect to be able to harvest their grapes and sell to nearby Shiloh Vineyard and Winery.
The winery’s founders, Treva and Kirk Johnston, helped get the Parkers started in their experiment. But the call originated much higher.
Owen wasn’t looking to get into farming at all, he said. Trained as a pilot, he was in Dallas when he got the call.
“I was hoping to get back into flight school and get all my ratings,” he said.
But then, he said, he received a message from God.
“It was very clear: I want you to go back to Hays and start looking at land,” he said.
That very afternoon, Treva Johnston called him to tell him about an auction for land north of Ellis. Owen went to the auction, but didn’t get the land.
“It started something,” he said. “This land even would have been impossible to get if not for the Lord.”
Despite neighbors who had better connections and resources to purchase the property, Owen and his parents were able to buy it. About five years ago, he moved a house from Hays to the property and started the vineyard three years ago.
“That was our first project together, planting 300 vines. Just a fun little date,” Karen said with a laugh.
Their spirituality has guided them throughout their projects on the farm, especially being newcomers and sometimes needing guidance of what, where and when to plant.
“We sit down and just pray about it for a little bit and see what happens,” Owen said.
“We both get the same thing,” Karen said.
“Every time,” Owen agreed.
“It’s been fun, entering into this like children and having to rely on our father to figure out what to do,” Karen said.
What the parkers would like to see as a result of their experiment is greater access to farming, especially for younger people wanting to get into the fields.
The average age of farmers in the United States has been increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2012, the average age for principal operators of a farm was 58.3 years, up from 57.1 years in 2007. Kansas’ statistics are nearly identical, at 58.2 years in 2012 and 57.7 years in 2007.
“Not everybody can go out and buy this huge, expensive equipment and enormous plots of land,” Karen said.
“I know of a lot of younger couples who would love to do it, but as my wife says, there’s not access to the traditional capital that’s out here. You’ll break the bank before you even get started,” Owen said.
“But if they have access to an acre or two, or four or five, they can go a long ways,” he said.
“There’s other things you can grow out here,” he said, like pumpkins and potatoes. The biggest obstacle is a lack of local markets and ways to get the products to larger markets, like grain elevators do.
But the Parkers are making their own markets. They sell their produce at farmers markets at Orcheln in Hays on Wednesday evenings and Friday evenings in Quinter, and and are hoping to sell to small grocery stores and restaurants in the area.
“I just think that nontraditional, specialty crop, specialty animals or just a different way of doing farming out here is going to be the way to get younger people out here and let them know it can be done,” Owen said.