Kansas Organic Farmer’s Profitable Operation Bypasses Traditional Market System Entirely

by Roger Blobaum

Bennie Unruh of Aulne, Kansas, is an organic farmer who has developed health food market outlets for all his grain and beef and bypasses the traditional marketing system entirely.

In additional to producing grain and cattle on a farm that has been in his family since 1872, he has been a registered miller for several years and grinds and packages a wide range of products distributed in Kansas and elsewhere.

He operates this year-around business from a new building at his home in Aulne, a small town about 40 miles north of Wichita. It brings a lot of people to town because one of his specialties is milling flour and cereals to order.

Anyone who has seen Unruh’s farm, which is a few miles northwest of Aulne, can see it is ideally situated for organic agriculture. It is on a hill, where the water drains off in four different directions, ruling out the possibility of chemical pollution from neighboring fields.

The turning point in his operation came during a visit to a health food store in Salina, where he heard the owner tell another customer he was looking for an organic farmer who could provide a reliable supply of whole grain flour.

He had been milling grain for family use since 1937, putting it through a coffee grinder several times. Neighbors and friends who tasted bread made from this whole grain flour began asking for it and he ended up buying his first stone mill. But it wasn’t until that day in Salina that he considered turning it into a commercial enterprise.

In addition to growing up to 150 acres of hard red winter wheat a year, Unruh also produces corn and rye for his milling operation. He gets good yields of up to 100 bushels an acre for corn, which is used for both feed and corn meal, and up to 50 bushels for wheat. He credits the regular application of organic fertilizers for the high productivity of his soil.

He remembers the first time he contacted Hy-Brid Sales Company, an organic fertilizer firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and reported that the family farm appeared to be run down. It had been cropped for nearly a century without anything except manure being applied to the fields. A company representative recommended some Calphos, which got results on all but one field. A soil test showed it had a serious potassium deficiency.

Although the company recommended 500 pounds of granite dust per acre in one area and 1,000 pounds in another on that field, Unruh spread a ton on a third area to see what would happen. The response from this heavy application of granite dust was spectacular and he was turned into a granite-dust enthusiast and one of the company’s best customers.

Like most organic farmers, he also uses legumes to put nitrogen back in the soil. He uses a lot of sweet clover, seeding it with wheat in the fall and letting it grow to full maturity before working it into the soil.

His operation also includes a herd of 20 stock cows and about the same number of steers and heifers being fed out on organically grown grain. “They’re all spoken for,” he reported, referring to standing orders from customers for cattle from his feedlot.

He has about 15 acres of alfalfa, which is important in his livestock operation. He noted that alfalfa needs minerals and phosphates and said he normally uses 150 pounds of Calphos and 150 pounds of granite dust per acre at seeding time.

Unruh said he plants seed varieties especially suited to milling and keeps back enough for his own use so he doesn’t have to use chemically treated seed. He emphasized that he has never had any mosaic in his wheat, a problem for chemical farmers in his area.

Roger Blobaum interviewed and photographed and wrote about organic farmers in the Midwest in the early 1970s. These organic farmer profiles were initially published during that period in Organic Gardening and Farming magazine or in the Organic Observer. Most were published again later in two Rodale Press publications, the Organic Farming Yearbook of Agriculture published in 1975 and Organic Farming: Yesterday’s and Tomorrow’s Agriculture published in 1977.