Kansas farm invites innovative experiments

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MOUNDRIDGE, Kan. — Ray Flickner knows the usual risks farmers take with weather, price volatility and personal safety. He’s also become quite comfortable facing the risks inherent in being an early adopter of unproven technology. The fifth generation farmer raises corn, soybeans, sorghum and wheat alongside research projects on the Flickner Innovation Farm, a former homestead near Moundridge in McPherson County.

Innovation has a long history at the 150-year-old farm, where the land has been used for a dairy, swine operation and commercial catfish farm. In 2019, Flickner and his wife, Susan, embarked on a journey to discover the technology that will drive agriculture forward in the 21st century through collaborations with more than a dozen university, industry and agency partnerships.

It Begins with Water

Flickner says his uncle drilled one of the first irrigation wells in the area, which has become one of the most senior water rights in the region. The only older one is owned by the city of Moundridge.

“We do have a water problem in the state of Kansas,” Flickner says. “We’ve allocated and appropriated more than what Mother Nature has provided us. I’m lucky that I have a shallow aquifer that does recharge.”

In 2001, Flickner began one of his most ambitious experiments to conserve water. He switched from the proven but resource-hungry flood irrigation to a subsurface drip irrigation system, which involved burying miles of tubing with small nozzles under a field. To date, the farm has converted more than 600 acres to the underground watering system. The conversion has proven efficient, using nearly 40 percent less water than the county average.

Center pivots are also employed on the farm, but they’ve been retrofitted with longer drop hoses, modern sprinkler heads and, in one case, a mobile drip system that places droplets directly on the soil surface. The goal is to lose less water to evaporation and have more of it reach the crops it helps grow.

“Water conservation is very near and dear to my heart,” Flickner says. “In 2023, if you had irrigation in McPherson County, you did pretty good. If you didn’t have irrigation, you did not do too well. It just made a world of difference. The fact you can water a crop is a major insurance policy in years it doesn’t rain.”

Appetite for Risk

Flickner’s willingness to accept the risk of unproven technology on his farm is part curiosity and part background. He was a teacher before he entered the banking industry, where he primarily worked with farmers and ranchers in Kansas and across the nation.

“Being on the lending desk gives you the opportunity to see different operations,” he says. “Some were very successful, and others were not so successful, financially speaking.”

Flickner took the lessons he learned from lending and has applied them not only to his farm, but his life in general.

“If you’re in the agricultural industry, you’re not risk averse,” Flickner says. “Risk comes with the territory. Now, you have to figure out how to manage that. My entire lifetime, if I hadn’t bought something through leverage, I’m not sure what we’d have. I’d be living in a little shack someplace.”

Flickner says his willingness to take chances was the subject of some deep discussions with his late wife, Susan, who didn’t have the same tolerance for debt. Flickner has always viewed leverage as a tool that can help or hurt, and he says he’s fortunate to be in a position where it’s mostly helped. It doesn’t hurt that he views borrowing money in the same way he looks at trying new technology: It’s not necessarily about getting bigger, but making the whole operation better.

“The idea of trying something new and different has always intrigued me,” he says. “Can we move the needle? Can we do things differently to help improve things?”

Innovation on the Farm

While subsurface irrigation was a big technological step for Flickner, it was just the beginning of learning how to maximize the natural resources on his farm. The ultimate goal is to grow more grain with less water, less labor, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides. With a focus on the future, Flickner also understands the past and how it’s influenced him today.

“I can’t fault my forefathers for plowing the prairie when they came here because if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today,” he says. “It was a matter of survival. You use the tools and techniques available to you. Hopefully we can get away from the plow.”

Flickner’s ancestors plowed the prairie to raise many of the same crops he does today, but it came at the cost of wind and water erosion on the bare soil when crops weren’t growing. Today, Flickner employs a minimum-tillage practice that leaves the bulk of crop residue in the fields, not only to keep the soil in place but also to conserve moisture. He’s also begun experimenting with cover crops, which don’t have a cash value. Instead, they offer further protection for the soil while also allowing water to penetrate more easily, preventing runoff.

When it does rain enough for runoff to occur, the farm has installed monitoring stations that capture samples of the water that can be tested to see what else is leaving the farm with the water, like fertilizer and other nutrients. Dry conditions have hampered those tests so far.

“The initial focus was water conservation,” Flickner says. “It has grown into a much bigger situation with the cover crop concept and soil health, surface water evaluation. We’ve got to have rain, but that will happen.”

Teaching and Learning

In addition to Flickner’s experience in banking, he and his wife both had backgrounds in education. Their shared passion for teaching helped turn their farm into a classroom where they’ve hosted projects ranging from graduate student research to private companies testing products in real-world conditions.

“I’ve told the researchers this is a blank canvas,” Flickner says. “You can paint it however you think it should be painted, but I do reserve veto power. There’s been a couple of projects that I said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’”

Sometimes the projects find success in other areas; for example, one effort used a “drone in a box,” or an unmanned aircraft, that could take off, record crop data from above and land without any human intervention. The company ultimately pursued opportunities outside agriculture after successfully proving it worked on the Flickner Innovation Farm.

As Flickner participates in these projects and meets more researchers, he discovers there’s a lot no one knows — yet.

“The more I do this, the more questions I come up with and the fewer answers researchers can provide,” he says.

Peer Recognition

Flickner’s efforts to improve his farm have earned him numerous accolades, including the Kansas Farm Bureau Natural Resources Award in 2021 and the 2023 Kansas Leopold Conservation Award, which celebrates extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation. Winners receive a crystal award and $10,000 for their efforts.

“It’s always humbling but rewarding to be recognized by those in the industry for what you’ve done,” Flickner says. “It’s something I’ll remember forever.”

Flickner also hosts field days at the farm, inviting others to see what projects are underway and ask questions about what’s working and what isn’t.

“I’ve heard from a number of people they’ve implemented some things they saw (at field days),” Flickner says. “You’ve got to be willing to share the data. For agriculturists, that can be a challenge. Because of my desire to make things better, I’ve been willing to share that information.”

His goal isn’t to win awards or squeeze out a little more profit, but rather to leave the farm in a better state for the next generation — and hope they continue the journey of trying to move the needle.

“You do what you think is right,” he says. “You hopefully leave it better for the grandkids.”

Learn more about the Flickner Innovation Farm at www.facebook.com/FlicknerFarms.

Celebrating Innovation

Kansas Farm Bureau’s Natural Resources Award honors members using time-honored and cutting-edge conservation practices to protect and improve our state’s natural resources. These good stewards serve as mentors for KFB members and nonmembers alike to help demonstrate innovative agricultural production and resource conservation. Learn more about the program at www.kfb.org/nra.

The Leopold Conservation Award Program recognizes and celebrates extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation by agricultural landowners. The program shares the stories of these conservation-minded farmers, ranchers and forestland owners to inspire countless other landowners to embrace opportunities to improve soil health, water resources and wildlife habitat on their working land. Learn more about the Leopold Award at www.sandcountyfoundation.org.

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