- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) - For 66 years, this acreage south of Hutchinson has been an outdoor classroom for farmers.

Those first years, it was wheat and fertilizer research, along with studies on alfalfa, oats and sorghums - all in an effort to equip farmers with the best information and tools to help boost productivity and feed the world.

Decades later, the idea is the same, said agronomist Gary Cramer. He and his technicians still investigate fertilizer use, along with tillage methods, seeding rates, cover crops and crop rotations. Yet, amid 21st century challenges, Cramer, along with others here, is working to make the South-Central Kansas Experiment Field a premiere research center.

“We are just trying to continue to do something that helps the farmer,” said Cramer as he surveyed a plot of canola.

“What I want to do is make this a regional educational center - expand it not just for research where no one shows up until you have a field day,” he said. “We are always open to the pubic. I’d be happy to show anyone around the place and what we have going on.”

The Hutchinson News (https://bit.ly/2n76H6S ) reports Kansas had just become a state when President Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act that would transform agriculture and education. The Morrill Act of 1862 directed states to create institutions of higher learning for the study of agriculture and engineering, with each eligible state receiving 30,000 acres of federal land for that purpose.

Kansas State University, established in 1863, became the nation’s first land-grant university.

The land-grant concept was a success, but it was determined that it was incomplete, according to K-State. While agricultural could be taught in the classroom; in real life, farming, ranching and other research was conducted in highly variable and localized outdoor environments, according to the college. To expand the land-grant mission, the Hatch Act of 1887 was passed which provided federal funds to states to establish a series of agricultural experiment stations under the direction of each land-grant university.

The outreach mission was further expanded by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 to include cooperative extension, the sending of agents into rural areas to help bring the results of agricultural research to the end users.

A network for research centers and fields now spans across Kansas, including in Garden City, Colby, Hays and Parsons, said Gary Pierzynski, the head of Kansas State’s agronomy department. By having multiple locations in different climates and soils, researchers are able to determine what works best in each area.

These research sites focus on three different missions, he said.

One is what is affecting farmers at present - such as sugarcane aphids and the milo crop.

Another is what producers might need three to five years down the road, or longer - such as new varieties and genetics.

Also, research is done on new, alternative crops. Over the years that has included canola, cotton and sesame.

“It is a very important system to Kansas agriculture,” Pierzynski said.

The South-Central Experiment Field is part of this mission. The 160-acre parcel on South Dean Road was established in 1951 on the U.S. Coast Guard Radio Receiving Station southwest of Hutchinson. The two-story brick home that was part of the Coast Guard station still stands, remodeled into offices and meeting space.

In March 2004, the field expanded. About 300 acres of land near Partridge was donated by George V. Redd and Mabel E. Bargdill for use in developing and improving plants and crops.

Cramer has been managing these locations for four years, continuing the effort by his predecessors to expand Kansas agriculture.

While he didn’t grow up on a farm, Cramer lived in a small, rural town in Oklahoma. At 14, he began working for a local farmer. Cramer eventually earned his doctorate in agronomy from the University of Nebraska.

He worked for Monsanto for 17 years, doing field research. Among his duties was research with grapes, orchards and forestry in New England, no-till work in Kentucky and then to Kansas where he helped develop the weed compound Mavrick - an herbicide for wheat.

After operating his own contracting research company for a while, he took the job as the Sedgwick County Extension Agriculture Agent in 2001.

He moved into the agronomist in charge position at the south-central field in 2013.

“I have a natural curiosity of how things work,” he said. “I like doing research and I like working with the farmers, as well.”

Among the research done here includes everything from wheat and canola rotations to variety improvement, seed selection and alternative crops.

Experiments deal with problems related to production of wheat, grain and forage sorghum, oats, alfalfa, corn, soybeans, cotton, rapeseed/canola and sesame, among others, said Cramer. A large portion of the research program is dedicated to wheat and canola breeding and development and cropping systems.

He said some of the work deals more with yield and quality traits.

Cramer said he is working with Dow Agrosciences on short-season cotton varieties suitable for this area - which is the northern boundary of cotton country.

“We really push the envelope when we are waiting for harvest,” said Cramer. “We could potentially get caught early with a freeze, but the shorter maturing varieties are really working well.”

Also among the cotton traits is a variety with 2-4D resistance, which could solve an issue causing havoc in many Kansas cotton fields.

“I’m surprised we get the yields that we have with cotton,” he said. “We will get hit with 2-4D drift at least once if not multiple times in a year. But it is working - the new variety. … It’s night and day what it is going to yield. I’m getting anywhere from one to three bales an acre.”

Kansas State wheat breeder Alan Fritz also is doing research on different varieties he is developing, as well as Mike Stamm, a canola breeder. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also does research at the site.

Cramer said he also plans to do research looking at sorghum and the sugarcane aphid.

He is also is doing research for a company in Wichita that grows the organisms for seed treatments.

“I do some work with them on new microorganisms on soybeans, wheat, triticale,” Cramer said. “We are looking for, ultimately, increases in yields - that is the major objective.”

Cramer said the research farm doesn’t get any funding from the state. Limited funds are funneled from K-State, but a majority of the farm is funded through the crops it grows, as well as grants.

The purpose of the field is to evaluate crops in various environments, including different soil types and irrigation.

“The objective is to help the farmer makes as much as they can off the crops they grow,” said Cramer.

He has two full-time technicians, as well as student workers. Teaching others is one of the joys of the job, as well as continuing to learn new things every day.

“I enjoy it,” he said of his job. “I enjoy getting outside and working with the crops and working with the students from Hutchinson. I try to help them in terms of increasing their knowledge.”

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Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, https://www.hutchnews.com

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