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Serving: United States

Works family balances farming with service

Richard and Karen Works limited the growth of their farm to keep time for family and community.

Richard (Dick) Works grew up helping his dad, uncle and brother on the farm they owned as a three-way partnership. However, Dick majored in political science at Kansas State University because he didn’t think there was room for an additional partner on the farm.

“I thought I would get my political science degree and go on to law school,” Dick says. “But when I was about to graduate, my dad and uncle announced their intention to retire and invited me to come back to the farming operation. So in 1975, I formed a partnership with the three of them. My dad retired three years later and my uncle two years after that.”

While a K-State student, Dick met Karen Wiley. Karen’s degree in dietetics and institutional management led to a career as a registered dietitian. The young couple soon realized that they shared the same set of values and a strong attraction. They married and settled into the Humboldt, Kan., community as Dick returned to the farm and Karen served as a regional child nutrition consultant for the Kansas State Department of Education, where she remained employed for 30 years.

Dick and his brother rented the land and bought his dad and uncle’s share of equipment, purchased additional acres of land, and continued to farm together until 2001, when Dick and Karen become sole operators of the farm.

While law school was derailed by an opportunity to return to the farm, Dick’s interest in government and policy issues remained strong. He has contributed his skills to local state and national agricultural groups, and served for 24 years as a county commissioner in Allen County. He has been involved with the Allen County Farm Bureau, Allen County Extension Council and served as a 4-H club leader.

He served on the board of the Kansas Corn Commission, the U.S. Feed Grains Council and the Kansas Association of Counties.

His service on the U.S. grains Council required quarterly trips to Washington, D.C., as well as traveling to Argentina, Mexico and Colombia to promote the use and sale of U.S. corn. During his four-year tenure on the USGC executive committee, he had the opportunity to learn the latest information on export markets and legislative initiatives, and bring that back to Kansas leadership.

He serves on the board of directors of the Kansas Agricultural and Rural Leadership program, which offers young people a chance to gain knowledge and understanding of how they can support, advocate and lead in rural communities.

Devoted to community

Dick has also been devoted to the community. In addition to his service on the county commission, he has been a member of the Rotary Club, Humboldt Library Board, St. Joseph Church Council, the regional Juvenile Detention Board and Tri-Valley Development Center.

In addition to being a member of the Kansas School Nutrition Association and Kansas Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition, Karen has been a longtime 4-H project leader, serves on a fine arts center commission, works with a philanthropic education organization and is a Master Gardener.

Karen says their involvement in the community started almost immediately.

“It seemed like one thing after another came up: The sheltered workshop for those in intellectual or developmental disabilities needed a board member; the Rotary Club needed a president; and the Biblesta parade needed someone to organize concessions,” she says. “As soon as we fulfilled one commitment, another would soon present itself. We demonstrated that we could be trusted to show up, work hard and provide leadership as needed.”

That commitment to hard work and integrity paid off for the young couple as the farm crisis of the 1980s, with its 18% interest rates, struck hard.

“Our bankers stuck with us because of our reputation of honesty and integrity,” Karen says.

Voluntary limits

The Workses chose to limit the growth of the farming operation in order to put more time into community service. Dick declined a request to get into state politics because that would have taken too much time away from home and family, and would have required hiring help on the farm and opted to be active in county government instead.

“We felt the rewards of having a balance between farm, family and community overweighed the push to ‘get bigger or get out,’” Karen says. “As a farmer, it is easy to become isolated. Community involvement allows for cultivating friendships and meeting new people and taking advantage of their varied interests in culture, sports, food, travel, art and music.”

The limited growth model has required Dick and Karen to look for ways to add value to the crops they produce in order to maintain profitability. In the early years, they grew white corn for human consumption and contracted for delivery to Shawnee Milles in Shawnee, Okla. The quality requirements were stringent, and the drying and handling of the corn required careful management.

They also grew certified soybean seed for a few years, but the increased value didn’t justify the shrinkage, and the labor involved in cleaning, bagging and marketing seed was overwhelming.

When they began growing field corn, they contracted for delivery to the Cargill Feed mill in Sherwin, where it was processed for turkey feed, but once the East Kansas Agri-Energy ethanol plant became operational in Garnett, Dick has been trucking corn there because it is much closer to their home than the feed mill.

Out of floodplain

The couple built their first home in Humboldt in 1986, 2 miles from the farmstead. They had planned to move into the farmhouse at the farmstead when his mother no longer needed it. Then came the flood of 2007, which inundated the farmstead. They decided they didn’t want to live with the continuous threat of flooding. Instead, they chose a centrally located site overlooking a native grass meadow that explodes with wildflowers in the spring and summer.

“We built a pond about a city block from the house, constructed a walk bridge over the stream leading from the pod, and enjoy feeding the fish and watching the sunset over the water,” Karen says. They have added native rock walls, a large bed of asparagus, fruit trees, blackberries and three vegetable gardens. Flowering trees, ornamental grasses and bushes provide additional landscaping.

The large machinery shed is located on the farmstead and experienced flooding in the 2007 flood and again in 2019.

“We had adequate warning and got the machinery moved to higher ground,” Dick says. “And the grain bins on the farmstead are built on a ridge.”

The farmhouse where Dick grew up was renovated after the flood and has been sold to a nephew.

The Works’ son, Adam, has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and construction management, and is vice president and project supervisor for Whitley and Associates in Overland Park, Kan. He and his wife, Kayla, have two young children, Ethan and Eliza.

Their daughter, Sarah, has a bachelor’s in general human ecology and a master’s in public administration, both from K-State. She and her husband, Mike McIntire, and their baby daughter, Charlotte, live in Houston, where Sarah is associate director of procurement for the Houston Food Bank, the largest food bank in the Feeding America Network. She works closely with the Texas Department of Agriculture, and local produce growers and brokers to secure produce donations. She also coordinates the food bank’s disaster response with the state and county offices of emergency management.

Karen and Dick are the third generation of his family to receive the Master Farmer award. Dick’s grandmother, Faith Dodge, was honored as a Master Farm Homemaker in 1930 and W.P. Dodge was named a Master Farmer in 1932. Dick’s parents, George and Jane Works, were honored in 1966.

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