Archive for Thursday, September 18, 2003

Carpenter looking to slow pace

Changes in store for local elevators

September 18, 2003

On a rainy afternoon last week, Bob McCabria made his way to Eudora Feed and Grain for a bag of pet food and a few minutes of conversation.
There was a time when a rainy late-summer day would have crowded the small office with farmers, said the elevator's owner, Jim Carpenter.
"It's something of a gathering place," he said. "Not as much as it was six years ago. There's been a lot of farmers retire from this area."
The dwindling number of still-active farmers will have to find another place to spend rainy afternoons. Late next month, Carpenter will step away from much of the Eudora business, closing the elevator's grain and fertilizer ventures. The business will sold at auction Oct. 29.
The decision to close the business that traces its history back nine decades wasn't made because the business was floundering, Carpenter said. He was taking the step at the urging of his doctors and his wife, Martha, and a self-awareness his hands-on character would doom to failure anything less than complete divestment.
"We have more business than I want to handle," he said. "The part I have to stay here and worry about is the spraying and fertilizing. What I'm trying to do is get where I don't have to be involved. I'm not the kind of person who can just hire it all done. If I own a business, I have to stay involved."
With his more than five years of operation in Eudora, Carpenter knew the elevator would be missed. As the auction date approached, he remained hopeful an individual or group would act to buy the still-profitable business. He has an agreement with the auctioneer that would allow him to remove the real estate from the auction should there be interest.
"Hopefully someone or a group of these farmers will ban together and try to do something," he said. "I'd be fully willing to work with them if they did that.
"I really think if we were having a good harvest, the farmers in this area wouldn't hesitate to buy this elevator. But with a bad year, they just can't afford it. How many years can I wait for a good year?"
This is the third-straight disappointing fall harvest, Carpenter said. Last week's showers and the heavy rains late in August came too late to save this year's fall crops. Carpenter said corn yields were averaging 70 to 100 bushels per acre, at least 30 to 50 bushels below average. Soybeans would do even worse.
The bad harvests were harder on the farmers than on the elevator, Carpenter said.
"The elevator had reasonably good years," he said. "We didn't handle a lot of grain, but farmers kept trying and fertilizing. That's what kept us in business."
The De Soto operation won't close but instead continue its evolution away from a full-service elevator in recognition that suburban means De Soto "isn't a farming community anymore." The focus will be on lawn and garden products and the successful feed operation Dean Heise manages. The Eudora presence would be limited to the feed business.
"We'll do a lot of feed business," he said. "We'll be delivering feed all over."
The elevators in both communities are easily visible for the Kansas River floodplain. More grain was grown in the bottomland than ever before, but that doesn't translate to business for the two elevators, Carpenter said.
"Farming used to be done with 100 farmers owning 90 acres," he said. "Now its 10 farmers with 1,000 acres.
"The little guy used to need these elevators because they had a small truck and needed a place to store and ship their grain. Now these guys have semis. They think they can make more money by trucking it to a terminal elevator."
McCabria said demand used to be so great it supported two Eudora elevators, a privately owned elevator depicted in a 1913 photograph on his office wall and the Eudora Farmers Elevator, founded in 1918. The two consolidated in 1954, and Carpenter bought the business in 1998 after state auditors shut down the operation.
"That's when I got involved," Carpenter said. "We opened in less than 30 days. This elevator has never really closed."
Carpenter has owned the De Soto elevator since 1988, although he did sell it once for three years. He came to that business in an unexpected way.
"We were building apartments for seniors near the east Y," he said. "They were having an auction at the elevator when we were finishing out the laundry. My wife told me I ought to go over and buy a Coke machine for the laundry. I went over to buy that and ended up buying the whole elevator.
"I didn't know anything about the elevator business, but I soon learned."
Continued residential development and the 9,065 acres of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant have made farming pretty much a thing of the past in northwest Johnson County, Carpenter said. It was a trend he admitted to contributing to when he developed Country Oaks Estates and Country Club.
But the trend hasn't hurt the feed business as new residents seek the De Soto elevator's feed and Heise's knowledgeable advice.
"People move out into the country, and the first thing they do is get a horse or livestock," he said. "After the first week, they run out of feed and come to see us."
The man who knew nothing of elevators when he took over the De Soto operation now finds his business advising agricultural novices on how to feed livestock.
"We fed all the grand champions in the Douglas County Fair," he said. "We had two of three top-rated animals in the Johnson County and Leavenworth county fairs. That says something about our feed and the guy running our feed operation."
Carpenter predicted the fields and pastures surrounding Eudora would be swallowed up to the same large-lot, rural-estate development that finished off farming near De Soto. It was regrettable, he said, but he added it was what "most of the hill ground needs to end up being."
It was a loss that would be felt more keenly in terms of values than dollars, Carpenter said.
"These are the greatest bunch of people you'd ever want to know," he said. "If I had to choose to run a business -- and I've had several of them -- I'd run an elevator. These guys here are working people. They talk my language."

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