Kansas profiles: Southwest Tortillas from the plains
Do farmers feed the world? In one sense, absolutely. But farm products go through a vast and complex system before they are consumed. Today we’ll learn about an entrepreneurial Kansas farmer who increased his product’s value by taking it directly to the consumer.
Last week we met Leon Winfrey, who farms and runs an outfitting business in southwest Kansas. Years ago, he was in his tractor listening to Paul Harvey on the radio and heard an ad with a line stating that “farmers feed the world.” Leon thought to himself, “I don’t feed the world. I feed my banker, and the fertilizer company, and the seed company.” His crop income was going entirely to pay these high-cost suppliers, and corn prices were low.
“In my hunting business, when my costs go up, I increase my price,” Leon said. “But with my corn, I haul it to town and the grain elevator tells me what price I have to take.” He researched some alternatives, one of which was growing corn for human food such as tortillas.
With research in hand, he went to his banker and told him he wanted to build his own tortilla factory. “I’ll bet,” the banker replied with a laugh. “Well, here’s the price of field corn, and here’s the price of corn when sold as a tortilla,” Leon pointed out. “When would you like the money?” the banker replied.
“I had a very good banker. He was willing to stick his neck out to support us,” Leon said.
With such support, Leon constructed a building, bought corn processing equipment, and started raising white, food-grade corn. He named his business Southwest Tortillas.
When a consultant named Pete came from California to set up the tortilla equipment, he was amazed with Leon’s corn. “I’ve never seen corn this beautiful,” Pete said. “How do you do it?” Leon explained that he grew and harvested the corn locally himself and had his own facility to clean and size the corn before cooking.
Pete moved on to his next job at a tortilla factory in Texas and told the plant operator there about Leon’s high-quality corn. The plant operator told Leon that he wanted to try some of it, so Leon shipped it to Texas. The plant operator tried the corn and was thrilled with the results. “You have the best corn in the world,” he told Leon. “These are the best tortillas I have ever made.” For several years, Leon shipped corn to that tortilla factory and others. Now he uses his corn exclusively in his own plant.
“The goal at Southwest Tortillas is to produce a premium product from our field to your table,” Leon said. The corn is cooked in 1,000-pound cooking tanks at a temperature of 195 degrees and then steeps for 12 hours. At that time, the corn is ground into a dough called masa. Then a very thin, 6-inch tortilla is rolled out by the tortilla machines and run through an oven at 550 degrees. After that, the tortilla is cut into fourths and fried to become Pedro’s Gourmet Corn Chips.
His chips are available at restaurants and local grocery stores at rural communities in the region, such as the store at Meade, population 1,721 people. Now, that’s rural.
Leon has also shipped them across the country for people who have tried them and want more. He said their local production makes it possible for them to achieve high quality control. “This is a small family-run business with just a couple of outside employees,” he said.
Leon also created his own brand of salsa using fresh ingredients to go with his chips. He credited the American Institute of Baking and food scientists at Kansas State University for helping with food labeling and processing.
Farmers produce crops to feed the world, but the value of those crops goes right back out along the way. We commend Leon Winfrey for making a difference by retaining value in his crop by marketing it directly to consumers. Such alternatives can make a world of difference.
— Ron Wilson is director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University. The mission of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development is to enhance rural development by helping rural people help themselves. The Kansas Profile radio series and columns are produced with assistance from the K-State Research and Extension Department of Communications News Media Services unit.