Field Notes: Local Food and Farm Task Force Hears from Specialty Crop Growers and Community Food Activists
The Local Food and Farm Task Force held its seventh meeting on Friday, May 8, 2015, at 9 am at the State Capitol Building in Topeka. The agenda for the day focused on briefings from specialty crop producers and local foods’ experts, updating the Task Force on various aspects of specialty crop production and locally-grown food distribution in Kansas.
Katherine Kelly, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Cultivate KC, opened the meeting with an overview of the organization and her thoughts on the possibilities for and challenges of scaling up production of specialty crops and increasing access to local foods in Kansas. Kelly explained to the task force that she had pared down the eight pages of notes she had created in preparation for addressing the committee to two central issues which she feels are the most critical to promoting and supporting local foods in Kansas. The first is a need for more farmers. The second is a need for changes in the values and economics around local food policy.
Kelly elaborated on her recommendations, pointing out that demand for locally-grown foods far exceeds supply in Kansas, and that Kansas needs both more farmers, and more farmers producing larger volumes of specialty crops, in order to meet the demand. Kelly stated that there is a tremendous need for education for specialty crop growers in Kansas, including hands-on training of new producers and education and support for existing specialty crop producers to scale-up production.
Kelly stated that she would like to see the Task Force report focus on farmer training, and outlined her vision for achieving the goal of increasing the number of farmers and the volume of specialty crops produced in Kansas. Kelly envisions incentivizing on-farm training through creation of entry-level jobs (such as a job corps) to fund, train and invest in new farmers. She would like to see 100 positions created, allowing for hands-on training of new farmers in specialty crop production while increasing the volume of food produced in Kansas.
Kelly feels it is critical to expand the capacity of K-State Extension for the purpose of providing appropriate education to a new generation of farmers who produce the food that feeds Kansas communities. She again stressed that there is a dire need for increased educational opportunities for specialty crop producers in Kansas.
“We are dis-investing in Extension at the very moment we need to be investing,” Kelly stated. She went on to say that Extension needs more money and more room to do what they can to encourage production of specialty crops in Kansas.
In response to a question about where new farmers will be able to sell their products, Kelly responded that she receives calls all the time from people who are starting farmers’ markets in their communities and that they are consistently looking for more farmers to fill their vendor slots.
“We need more farmers,” Kelly replied, “The supply of locally-grown food is not keeping up with demand.”
Barb Depew, Nutritionist and Farm to School Consultant with the Kansas Department of Education, addressed the committee next, providing information on locally grown foods being used in Kansas schools.
Depew reported on Farm to School programs in the Lost Springs, Highland, Brookville, Eudora, Maize, Scandia, Atwood and Saint Francis School districts. She outlined the successes and challenges of using fresh locally grown foods in school meal and snack programs.
Depew reported that there are a number of opportunities during each school day to add local foods to the menu, including breakfast, lunch, snacks and after-school programs. She mentioned the success of using school gardens to help educate children about growing food, in addition to serving local foods in the cafeteria. She noted that challenges to using fresh, locally-grown foods in the schools include helping cafeteria staff who are already strapped for time and money find ways to use new products, and helping them find ways of serving fresh, local foods that are appealing to the students.
Depew ended by pointing out that the number one need for increasing local foods in schools is finding producers. She stated that policy, procedures and paperwork also present significant hurdles for school cafeterias that are trying to incorporate local foods into their menus.
Donn Teske, president of Kansas Farmers Union and vice-president of National Farmers Union, addressed the committee next, explaining his role in Farmers Union and talking about producers in general.
Teske mentioned that producers tend to be really independent types, which can be a problem when it comes to marketing their products. Teske pointed to the food hub model as a potentially beneficial solution to this marketing and distribution issue, and stated that there is a need for a “coordinating force” around local foods in Kansas, as well as a need for increased production and sales of local foods, including value-added products.
Dr. Cary Rivard, K-State Assistant Professor, Extension Specialist & Director of K-State Research & Extension Center, Olathe, and member of the Local Farm and Food Task Force, presented information about the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa, providing an example of a funding mechanism for research, education and support for Iowa’s local food and farm system.
According to its website, the Leopold Center “is a research and education center on the campus of Iowa State University created to identify and reduce negative environmental and social impacts of farming and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources.” The Center provides grant funding for projects that “enhance sustainability for all Iowa agriculture.”
In 1987, the Iowa Legislature passed the Groundwater Protection Act, which included a fee on nitrogen sales and pesticide registrations. The revenue from these fees is used to fund a number of environmental programs in Iowa, including the Leopold Center, which receives about $1.3 million per year. Rivard noted that the fee for nitrogen applies only to weight of the nitrogen in fertilizer and not the weight of the fertilizer as a whole. He stated that 90% of the revenue derives from large-scale agricultural operations, with 10 % coming from other sources.
During discussion on the purpose and function of the Leopold Center, the organization’s affiliation with Iowa State University was explored and it was noted that Kansas State University currently lacks an interdisciplinary clearinghouse for information and education.
Rivard concluded his presentation with ideas on potential funding sources for local farm and food programs in Kansas based loosely on the model provided by the Leopold Center. These included fees for transportation costs, water use and/or rights, agricultural taxes such as fertilizer/pesticide taxes, and taxes on non-local purchases (prior to the consumer).
Representative Adam Lusker, member of the Task Force, noted, “We legislators should reach out to Iowa legislators to discuss this and get ideas on how to adapt it to Kansas’s needs and conditions.”
Don Stottlemire, Lake District RC&D president, addressed the committee next, explaining a bit about what the RC&D does and outlining several of the “outside-the-box” initiatives they have undertaken in order to remain viable, including partnering with producers and other investors to open a meat processing facility in their region, sponsoring an Adopt-a-Bike Program, and involvement in Kansas Hunters Feeding the Hungry and an Outdoor Wildlife Learning Site.
Stottlemire concluded his comments to the Task Force by pointing out that RC&Ds have the potential and ability to administer programs and activities on the ground, such as those that will stem from the recommendations of the Local Food and Farm and Task Force. Additionally, he stated that he wants to see the committee take action.
“I want this to be the last of these task forces,” he said, indicating his desire that the committee finish the business they have been assigned to do within the timeframe they have been given to do it, and not drag the process into another term or committee.
Sarah Key, South Hutchinson Food Policy Council and Reno County Health Department, addressed the committee, describing the region in which she works as a food desert.
“There is no grocery store, no farmers’ market, no place to sell produce for farmers.” Key discussed a grant they have been awarded from the Kansas Health Foundation, which is helping them work to increase access to healthy food in the region, in whatever form that may take.
Dates for upcoming meetings were discussed, with tentative dates and locations as follows: June 5 or 12, 2015, State Capitol Building, Topeka; July 10, 2015, K-State Horticultural Research Station, Olathe, including a tour of the station; and August 7 or 14, 2015, location to be determined. Members of the public are invited and encouraged to attend. Information about upcoming meetings can be found at http://agriculture.ks.gov/.
The Task Force was established by the passage of Senate Bill 286 in the 2014 legislative session, and is responsible for preparing a local food and farm plan containing policy and funding recommendations in order to increase locally grown food production. The recommendations are due to the legislature in January 2016.
Six members, along with Sen. Tom Hawk of Manhattan, the original author of SB 286, were in attendance on May 8, with about 15 guests present. Task force members are: farmer and Chairman Ron Brown, David Coltrain of Seward County Community College, Dr. Cary Rivard of K-State Research & Extension – Olathe, Julie Roller, representing KDA, and legislative appointees Rep. Adam Lusker, Frontenac, and Sen. Dan Kerschen, Garden Plain. Loren Swenson and Annarose White were not in attendance.
The task force is meeting monthly and has invited speakers who can answer questions pertinent to local farming and food systems in Kansas. Previous meetings have featured KRC’s Feeding Kansas http://kansasruralcenter.org/feeding-kansas/ report and the recently adopted Kansas Farm Bureau resolution regarding local food systems http://www.kfb.org/Assets/uploads/images/capitolgovernment/2015finalstatres.pdf).