From the Director – A Once and Future Vision for Kansas
by Julie Mettenburg, KRC Executive Director
As we celebrate the major milestone of KRC’s 35th anniversary year, we have engaged some of the most intriguing people working in farming and food today, for our upcoming 2014 Farm & Food Conference and 35th Anniversary Celebration. For me, the conference will cap a year of what one could only call bucket-list moments, spent with some of the world’s leading — and most controversial — voices in farming and food.
In the spring, I joined Cultivate KC for a morning with food sovereignty activist Vandana Shiva. For my summer vacation, I traveled to London for the Savory Institute’s “Putting Grasslands to Work” International Conference. Then I accompanied ecologist Allan Savory and a small group of grasslands managers to Zimbabwe to see Holistic Management in practice. And, while in London, I shared a double-decker bus seat and a conversation with farmer-activist Joel Salatin, the Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal author from Polyface Farm.
Here are a few conversation starters from the global ag scene:
Today’s ag science is not your grandpa’s ag science. Far from being “backwards,” ecological farming of today is on the forefront, utilizing cutting-edge technologies. The Savory Institute unveiled a global grasslands ecology database, in which farmers from Kansas to Turkey to Patagonia will be able to enter data about range and plant conditions measured at the same GPS locations in pastures year after year. The data will help them improve their land, learn from others globally, and work with scientists interested in holistic ag systems.
More scientists are working on the challenge of systems, which are inherently hard to reduce down to controlled variables. Noted scientists from fields like soil, range and meat science are engaging in interdisciplinary teams with sociologists, ecologists, geographers and more. The Soil Carbon Cowboys project is an example of a research collaboration of scientists from Arizona State, partnered with the World Bank and a filmmaking team to work with practitioners across North American to test claims about holistic systems’ impact on soil carbon sequestration, methane emissions and more.
Technology will not save the day where biological solutions are needed. A driving force behind galvanizing of new partnerships is an increasing global recognition that technology is not going to solve all of our problems — not for food, not for climate, and not for people. Technology will offer some solutions, such as how to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but there are problems for which biological, ecologically based answers are needed. Savory’s biological, holistic land management system is a Virgin Earth challenge finalist among a raft of technological solutions like air scrubbers.
Despite the current techie fascination with laboratory-invented meats, global public health advocates Bill and Melinda Gates are engaging in dialogues about the role of sustainable agriculture in feeding the world, as is Howard Buffett, whose father, Warren, has invested heavily in grasslands in South America.
Third-alternative collaborations are replacing old-school conflict. Globally, the hard-line stances over issues like climate change, “feeding the world,” and technology are giving way to cooperative solution-finding. Staunch conservationists like the Nature Conservancy are partnering with graziers, companies who use their products, and researchers from disciplines like range and soil science to determine the proper role of livestock in healthy ecosystem management.
New paradigms for nongovernmental organizations are also driving change. The Virgin Earth Challenge will award a $25 million prize to the most viable proposal for removing carbon from the atmosphere. To evaluate the proposals, the Challenge is vetting them through teams of MBA’s, economists, scientists and other experts.
Community is the unit in which change will occur. In Zimbabwe, we saw land restoration borne of small tribal communities coming together to create a greater vision for a restored watershed and greater economic possibility through regenerative agriculture. These efforts require sophisticated facilitation and setting aside of old ways, old conflicts, old beliefs.
We are also seeing this in Kansas. KRC’s Community Food Solutions project has taken us into communities across the state, where local leaders and citizens are working to create task forces to improve their food, health, community and well-being. Small groups of farmers are coming together around the state to share knowledge and experiences building soil health with cover crops and crop rotations to build diversity. Another group is exploring a cooperative meat processing venture.
Dr. Shiva related that food is a powerful driver of change worldwide — coalescing social and environmental change movements — because it is local. It’s tangible and it provides access to action that today’s politics, driven by power-brokers, does not. As the saying goes, through community food, we are able to think globally, but act locally.
Engaging youth in agriculture is the No. 1 challenge we face worldwide — and nowhere more than Kansas. The prevailing economic models and “wisdom” have moved people off the land as efficiencies have consolidated production and driven migration toward the cities. That strategy is coming home to roost with rural population decline.
The Census of Agriculture indicates that in Kansas, we have seen a 15% drop in new farmers over the past 5 years, whereas just over the state line in Nebraska, they have seen an uptick of nearly 10%. The age of the Kansas farmer is also older than the national average.
How do we reverse this trend? How can we care for our land without farmers? Who will own that land? In “Fields of Farmers,” Salatin presents a handbook for engaging young people and a model for farming that utilizes “enterprise stacking” to support multiple families on the land with limitless creative endeavors. As KRC promotes diversified farming systems, this is the potential we see for our future in Kansas.
Join the Conversation. The KRC conference will be a time to immerse ourselves in expansion of ideas, and work toward our own personal answers to these questions. In doing so, we engage in a global dialogue, yet also recognize that change occurs at the local level. We will chart our course forward as we celebrate our past.
From Sept-October 2014 Rural Papers