Times Change in Grain Belt : Wine Grapes, Cotton Sprout Up in Kansas

Times Staff Writer

"We are drowning in a sea of grain," physician Robert G. Rizza reflected as he walked through his 14-acre vineyard on the outskirts of this tiny central Kansas town. "We have to do something different."

When Rizza planted his first grapes in 1978, he was the first Kansan to grow grapes as a commercial crop since Prohibition killed the wine industry. Before the dry years, Kansas was one of the nation's 10 leading wine producers.

Now, with grain fetching the lowest prices since 1972, many struggling Grain Belt farmers are looking at alternative crops, including grapes, to help stave off bankruptcy.

"This state will always be the breadbasket of America, with its great wheat, milo, soybean and corn production," said Ted Walter, a research agronomist at Kansas State University. "We think the potential is probably limited for alternative crops. But for many farmers, the alternative crops may mean the difference between keeping the farm or losing it."

State's First Cotton Gin

In that spirit, five farmers in Sterling built a $500,000 cotton gin--the state's first ever--to process their secondary cotton crop. Charley Gilmore was the first to plant a few acres in cotton in 1978, which he expanded to 20 acres by 1980. Today, 18 farmers are growing cotton on 2,000 acres farther north than anywhere else in the country and processing it in the 2-year-old gin.

"I think cotton has a lot more potential than other alternative crops," Gilmore said.

As Jerry Zimmerman checked his 45 acres of cotton, slicing a knife through a boll to determine maturity, he mused: "You can see the handwriting on the wall. We're overproducing wheat and milo. Wheat can be grown everywhere in the world. Cotton can't.

"This might be a crop we can make some money on," Zimmerman said. Although prices are flat, cotton as a fiber follows a different market cycle than grain, he added.

Zimmerman recalled that when sorghum, or milo, was introduced in Kansas, some folks laughed, but it is now Kansas' No. 2 crop (after wheat but ahead of soybeans and corn).

Kansas also bills itself as the Sunflower State. While a stalk of wheat graces the state license plates, highway numbers are displayed on signs shaped like a sunflower, which is the official state flower.

Not long ago, Ag Dynamics Co. began operating a $1.2-million plant to process confectionery sunflower seeds at Goodland, near the Colorado border. The plant's owners are two Californians--John Featherstone of San Pedro and David Ferguson of Fresno.

Ideal Growing Area

"Confectionery sunflower seeds are growing in popularity as a snack item and as a condiment at salad bars," explained Featherstone. Kansas farmers have produced a small amount of sunflower seeds for oil, he said, but growing them for the snack market is new.

"Western Kansas is an ideal growing area for the crop," he said. "We have contracts with 71 grain farmers who are growing sunflowers as a secondary crop on 13,000 acres. Sunflowers fit well into their rotation program."

Among other hitherto-slighted commercial crops are vegetables, said Jim Greig, professor of horticulture at Kansas State.

"Today, many farmers are growing anything they can to make a buck and keep the farm," he said. "This year, a whole bunch of farmers planted pumpkins for the first time. They're growing watermelons and cantaloupe and experimenting with herbs, asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower. They're trying anything."

During the last five years, 27 farmers' markets have sprung up around the state, featuring Kansas-grown specialty crops.

Frank Morrison, a Kansas State horticultural professor, has been working with farmers for five years on a program to grow strawberries, and this year for the first time area supermarkets are featuring Kansas-grown strawberries.

Vote on Liquor Issue

Kansas farmers are experimenting with a number of other alternative crops as well: millet for bird seed, amaranth (a high-protein staple sold in health-food stores), rape seed (a member of the mustard family), sesame, castor beans and safflower.

Meanwhile, back at Rizza's Villarizza Vineyards, his success and that of 23 other Kansas farmers now growing wine grapes hinges on today's election, when Kansas will vote on whether to allow liquor to be sold by the drink in public places.

"In order for there to be wineries in Kansas, we must have tasting rooms," Rizza said. "By law, tasting rooms are illegal." He has invested $100,000 in his vineyard, much of it for equipment. If the "liquor by the drink" law passes, he plans to open Kansas' first modern-day winery within a year.

"We're trying to re-establish the winery industry in Kansas as a viable and profitable endeavor," Rizza said. "The way the agricultural economy is going downhill in this state, farmers have got to realize they must diversify."

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