Archive for Thursday, September 27, 2001

Kansas State horticultural center blooms with research possibilities

September 27, 2001

When Alan Stevens talks of the importance of the Kansas State Extension's Horticulture Research Center six miles south of De Soto, he explains a creek runs through it.

Spoon Creek looks like other eastern Kansas streams. In some spots, it runs wide and slow as it meanders around bends. In others it runs straight and fast over limestone outcroppings.

What makes the creek unique, the center's director explained, is its history. The site has been untouched by plow or development since 1937 when the Army purchased it and nearly 9,000 acres to the west, north and south for the ammunition plant.

The purchase meant the end to the village of Prairie Center and the family farms along Spoon Creek. But, because the land was obtained to create a buffer for the plant, the center's 345 acres were not developed for the production of ammunition.

"The Environmental Protection Agency has certified there's no pollution on this land," Stevens said. "The EPA has test wells on the property and monitors surface water as well."

That baseline data is important, Stevens said. By taking the land out of production six decades ago, the government left it unspoiled by weed and pest control chemicals introduced after World War II. The center now offers researchers the opportunity to track chemical migration along riparian, or stream-way timbers, as researchers introduce the use of chemicals on fruits, vegetables and landscape plants grown there.

"We have chemical-free ground," he said. "The only place you're going to see that is on a military installation.

"We need to be doing basic research on how chemicals move along riparian zones and how vegetation along and in stream beds filter out chemicals along creeks. The only place you can do that research is on land not already contaminated with chemicals."

Agriculture in Kansas is often associated with large row crop and livestock operations, Stevens said. But horticulture has a long history in the state and at K-State, he said.

"Eastern Kansas has a long fruit-producing history, primarily apples," he said. "One of the oldest businesses in Kansas sold fruit-tree seedlings to wagon trains gong west. The first department in the Kansas State School of Agriculture was horticulture."

Nurseries remain important to the state's agricultural economy as the rows of fruit trees at the center attest, but they have been joined by other horticultural endeavors. Those include timber management, fruit and vegetable production and two agricultural areas of great importance to metropolitan areas landscape plants and turf-grass production.

"In Johnson County, particularly, they're building subdivisions on upland clay and rocky soils, not in bottom lands," he said. "We have 75 upland acres devoted to planting landscape material on the same soils homeowners will be using."

The center is somewhat remote. Access from the west, south and north is restricted by Sunflower. Traffic must enter from the east on 135th Street, which was known as Prairie Center Road before the town disappeared. At the center, the years have reduced the road to a barely passable path, its course marked by cuts into limestone outcroppings.

Johnson County's plan for arterial road improvements could change that. One of the alternatives being explored by County Arterial Road Network Plan would extend 135th Street through the center and on through Sunflower. When completely built out, the road would be a divided highway, four-land parkway.

'That would destroy the viability of our research mission," Stevens said. "Traffic on that road would pollute Spoon Creek with gas, oil and antifreeze.

"Some of our plants are photo-period sensitive to as little as two minutes of light. Headlights from the road would be enough to interrupt their growth cycles."

The road would dissect the center and its research fields and its planned administrative center, Stevens said.

By contrast, the center isn't concerned about Oz Entertainment Co.'s proposed development at Sunflower, Stevens said. Nor does K-State Extension's eventual ownership of the property depend on Oz.

Twelve years ago, K-State established the property would meet its needs for a future facility and entered into a long-term leases in 1995. That lease gave K-State the right of first refusal should the land be offered to anyone else. Stevens said that meant the university had to sign off on the Oz transfer.

Title to the property is a question of when, not if. Stevens would like to see the when question resolved.

The long Oz saga has delayed development of the center. An administrative center, footpaths and a covered wooden bridge over Spoon Creek are among the projects that await the site's transfer, Stevens said.

The delay hinders operations at the center, too, Stevens said. Although his budget includes funding for a secretary, he hasn't filled the position because the person would have to work in a trailer and use a portable restroom.

The center welcomes visitors, but Stevens said it would be much better equipped to greet them when the planned development is completed. At that time, he said, it could become a popular destination for local gardeners and nature lovers.

"We had a field day here recently that drew 350 people with little notice or publicity," he said. "I could see drawing several thousand to those kinds of events.

"The scenery here is first rate. There's no reason our footpaths couldn't link to those in Kill Creek Park. The properties connect on our northeast corner."

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