Saturday, August 26, 2006
The Plains Trip, Leoti, Kansas (Day 1)
Two hundred twenty miles east and a bit south of Denver, and
about the same distance west of Wichita, Kan., on Route 96, where
land is dotted with grain elevators, sits the small farming town
of Leoti. Named by Native Americans and pronounced Lee-oh-tah,
this little town (population 1,440) boasts one of the largest
cattle feed lots in the nation, the Hi Plains Motel (with a popular
coffee shop on the second floor) and the county courthouse.
As the locals say, no one new comes into town without being noticed
by everybody. Over dinner at the VFW Hall, they also told us that
there aren't many 16-to-25 year olds living in Leoti. But we managed
to find a few.
of them, a 24-year-old farmer named Cole Carpenter, was happy
to talk to us, and even spent some time showing us around. Tall,
cowboy-handsome, with sunburned cheeks despite the tractor cap
he never took off, Cole Carpenter was raised next to his maternal
grandparents' farm several miles out of town. He first rode a
tractor at age 3; and drove a tractor at age 10. "I've always
loved farming; I never wanted to do anything else." His father
had other interests, but for Cole, staying close to the land --
"to see something from start to finish, like your child"
-- is his passion.
While most young men and women from this area have left and headed
east, west, north or south to look for well-paying jobs, gregarious
Cole Carpenter has followed his heart to his grandfather Dale
Appl's 3,600-acre farm. "I know the reality; I know it won't
be easy," Cole told me, standing inside a huge barn filled
with farm equipment and furniture handed down by Appl ancestors,
who are originally from Austria and homesteaded the land in the
Mr. Appl -- who is 73 -- tells me Cole is a natural: "He
can smell the crops like few people can. He's always been that
But he says that he's always told Cole to have a backup plan
if he ever went into farming. As with medium-sized farms all over
America, it's getting harder and harder to compete with big landowners.
The grandfather, clad in pale blue overalls, says he hopes Cole
will make it but knows it will be difficult, especially if there
are many more years like this one with very little rain. "I
don't remember it this dry in a lifetime," says Mr. Appl.
Cole describes some consulting work he could do, and a few other
"backup" jobs he could get, thanks to his crop science
degree from Fort Hays State University in Kansas. But he makes
it plain that his priority is to stay in farming.
His wife of just one year, Bridgette, a blonde with delicate features,
also loves to work the farm, as she grew up on one, too. But she
and Cole have decided one of them needs a steady job, so she teaches
English at the junior high school, and works on her father's farm
in nearby Marienthal, Kan., during summers. I asked if Cole felt
they were too young to get married, at 23 and 22, respectively,
after which his grandmother informs me with a laugh that she and
Cole's grandfather were 18 when they were married in the early
If hard work were all that mattered, Cole would have no worries.
He puts in long days and nights, and works second jobs whenever
there's time to bring in extra money. But he points out that mother
nature "always has the last say, no matter how hard you work."
"It's a gamble -- you bet on the best time and the best
price to sell your crops, and that can make all the difference."
But you want to believe he can keep the farm viable for decades
to come: After all, although you'd never know it by looking at
him, he's been an insulin-dependent diabetic since third grade.
Grandfather Appl retells a scary moment when his grandson almost
went into a diabetic coma as a young boy. But Cole shrugs off
questions about how hard it's been to take five shots a day, and
to have to carefully watch what he eats. With a big smile, he
tells me, "It's all I've ever known."
-- Judy Woodruff