KRC Town Halls Inspire Hope & a Path Forward
By Rick McNary
This summer and fall, KRC hosted four virtual town halls that offered opportunities to share information and community dialogue on the unique challenges or opportunities communities face within the context of an election year and the new realities of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual space also allowed for the conversations to have statewide perspective. Over 200 Kansans as well as many out of state supporters tuned in.
These came at a time when Kansans are thinking about resiliency and what the future will look like for food, agriculture, and rural communities. This year’s Town Halls built on the visions and ideas outlined in previous years by focusing the first three town halls on regional food systems resilience, rural revitalization, and climate and renewable energy. Natalie Fullerton, KRC Assistant Director said, “We wanted people to come away from the conversations with a better understanding of common concerns, goals and reasons for hope now and in the future.”
The fourth focused on farm to school programs around the state as KRC launched their two year farm to school project. The project will help train producers and help build relationships with schools but perhaps most importantly, will provide platforms like this for Kansas to learn more about it and how to support farm to school.
Regional Food Systems Resilience
The first in the series was, “Regional Food Systems Resilience.” This town hall examined the three major components of a food system: production, processing and distribution.
During the early part of the pandemic, empty grocery store shelves illuminated a failure in each of these three parts of our once-reliable food system. For many Americans, empty shelves at a grocery store was a new phenomenon. However, the agricultural community brought a sense of calm and hope to a fearful public.
Consumers in cities found hope in producers in rural areas. The gap between rural and urban suddenly collapsed as thousands of urban dwellers began purchasing directly from farms and ranches. For those who adapted, this direct-to-consumer market prospered people in rural areas. In addition, consumers began to know the farmers who grew their food.
The first KRC Town Hall introduced us to four such producers; Donna Pearson McClish, Common Ground Producers and Growers in Wichita, Donn Teske, Farmer and President of the National Farmers Union, Mark Gawron, Cultivate Kansas City, and Chris Sramek with High Plains Food Coop in Rawlins, County. Gabe Spurgeon, owner of South Baldwin Farms near Ottawa and President of the Kansas Specialty Crop Growers Association led the conversation.
The pandemic highlighted the gaps in the food system related to providing health care and fresh produce and farmers were called up on to step in and fill that gap. But along with that comes the challenge of providing equitable wages to farmers.
McClish said, “I tell people, ‘You have no idea how much work it takes to get this food to your table.” However, the end customer has to be able to afford the product. “It’s important to adapt our food systems of the future, not just the present. We will never go back to the way we were. We are in a new phase of history and we must adapt our foods systems to what it’s going to look like.”
“Covid has shown the vulnerability of the system not only when it comes to livestock, but the industrial opportunity to abuse the system,” Teske said. “There is opportunity now with direct sales, but the week spot is the local locker plants and the waiting list.”
With the disruption in the supply chain with regards to meat products and empty store shelves, many producers like Teske found a ready market in direct-to-consumer sales.
According to Gawron, a lot of the work for Cultivate KC is done by small, specialty crop farmers in urban and peri-urban areas. For many of these farmers, the best market has been restaurants in the cities. However, with those closing, that market vanished overnight.
As Gawron states, “Those producers that were able to quickly adapt to technology, getting online sales, beefing up their direct to market footprint and their online footprint were able to increase sales.”
Panelists’ agreed farmers who sell direct-to-consumers have a new opportunity to ensure the economic sustainability of their farms. Farms that adapt to this shift will provide sustainability for their farms and blaze new trails for local and regional food systems that, as McClish says, “Farmers, families and food can create unity.”
At one time in our nation’s past, more than 98 percent of the population were connected to agriculture and were considered rural. However, those numbers are now reversed as only two percent of the population run the family farms in America. Surprisingly, 97 percent of farms in America are still family owned.
This divide between rural and urban is further illuminated in the population shift as now more than 80 percent of our citizens live in urban areas and less than 20 per cent live in rural areas.
Sarah Green, Rural Kansas Advocate led the panel featuring; Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers, Wichita, KS,Andi Dale, of Dale Family Farms, Protection, Kendall Carswell, Fort Hays State University, Matt O’Malley, Livewell of Crawford County, and Ben Whiteside, Butler Rural Electric, El Dorado.
Matt O’Malley knows that it is important that food stays in the small communities. As grocery stores close and are being replaced by gas stations and dollar stores, it is important to experiment with new things. “We might try ten new things and fail at nine, but we’ve been successful at one thing, so we build on that,” he said.
For many in rural areas and the small cities which once served as a thriving hub for a community, window shopping on Main Street is replaced with impersonal plywood coverings and No Trespassing signs. Food deserts are created as grocery store owner’s close up shop, restaurants replace billboards of daily specials with For Sale signs by the local realtor. When those two businesses leave a small town, it’s like the last box car full of community life trundles slowly down the track into the sunset taking hope along with it.
However, as Lt. Rogers pointed out, “When rural Kansas succeeds, urban succeeds,” Rogers said. “A one percent increase in income for rural Kansas helps urban income increase by a half of one percent. It’s important to remind urban neighbors that their success is dependent on their rural neighbors.”
Ben Whiteside believes there is not only a question of, “how do we keep people in rural areas, but how do we attract them there?” There are several people who would love to build in rural areas, but they have internet-based businesses so they can’t move their for lack of broadband. Broadband is the rural electrification of our generations.
Although that urban/rural divide has slowly increased, there is a shift now of a younger generation wanting to either return to, or start afresh, living in rural America. Weary of urban dwelling, this younger population brings along their tech savvy skills plus a new way of looking at agriculture. Even the younger generations of farm families have an entrepreneurial attitude of approaching economic sustainability.
Lt. Gov. Rogers shared there are three big things for any community to survive; good paying jobs, the ability to raise a family and quality of life issues. Focusing on these three bring people together for the common good. One of the challenges in community is that those who have been working on the issues have been working on them a long time and they’re tired. Often, they don’t want to let go so we need to know how to transition that. We have to make sure the younger generation understands that we are appreciating them and help them.
Climate & Renewable Energy
Prior to this town hall, KRC asked participants, “How is climate change affecting your life or what you do right now?” Woven throughout the answers was a concern that people don’t take the issue seriously, yet an awareness that true change happens if the issue becomes practical rather than theoretical or political. Kansans, by nature, are practical people who want to understand the practical impact so they can come up with practical solutions. While the messaging of climate change has focused on east and west coastal areas, or polar regions, there is a need to make it practical in the everyday life of Kansans.
Zack Pistora, an environmental champion, KRC board member and the Legislative Director for the Kansas Chapter Sierra Club, led the panel discussion that tackled these issues. Joining him were; Rachel Myslivy, Climate and Energy Project, Perry, Brian Grimmet, journalist for KMUW, Wichita and Sister Jane Belanger, Heartland Farm in Pawnee Rock.
For Rachel Myslivy, She couldn’t talk about climate change 20 years ago without derision, but now there is more open-mindedness and curiosity. “For a long time, it was about ice caps and coastal areas, but no one in Kansas made the connection in a practical sense,” she stated. For CEP, they decided to make a connection between climate change and public health.
Sister Jane shared that when the sisters bought the farm, there were some raised eyebrows about doing farming practices differently, but her experience has been there is a sense of solidarity. They raise alpacas, vegetables and other specialty crops in an area known for growing commodities like corn, soy and wheat. While they don’t all do it the same way, they deal with the same issues together. They find a connection with local farmers through shared values of taking care of the land and taking care of animals which are the bedrock issues. Cover-cropping and other practices can be used to find the solution is in the soil and the plants we grow on it.
Panelists agreed that although there is much work left to do, the nature of Kansans to find practical solutions to practical problems in the context of community ensures that the change already taking place will create a better Kansas for our children and their children.
Farm to School
According to Lindsay Morgan, Farm to School coordinator from USD 497 in Lawrence, students prefer eating the fresh vegetables and fruit over the industrially supplied food products, especially as they learn more about how it’s grown both in their schools and on field trips to local farms.
Joining Lindsay on the Farm to School town hall panel was Mark Jirak, Jirak Family Produce in Atchison, David Kirkendall principle at USD 326, a small, rural school district in Logan, and Sondra Davis food service director at USD 350 in St. John. Alicia Ellingsworth of the KC Food Hub lead the panel discussions.
The Farm to School initiative is an effort to connect K-12 schools with regional or local farms in order to serve healthy meals using local foods. The 2008 Farm Bill amended the Richard B. Russell School Lunch act to direct that the Secretary of Agriculture encourage institutions operating Child Nutrition Programs to purchase unprocessed locally grown and locally raised agricultural products.
However, town hall panelists shared one size does not fit all so it’s important that schools who want to do this find champions within their schools to help it succeed. They can help build the relationships between farmers and communities and schools together. It’ also important that the school’s administration sees the real value.
David Kirkendall, Principal for USDA 326 shared that in addition to receiving beef donations from local ranchers 80 percent of the student body is tied to agriculture. They often end up taking a sports team down to a local farm to help out on a Saturday covering exposed grain crops with tarps. Their FFA has a raised bed gardening program that engages everyone down to the preschool level. This has not only engaged all the students, but effectively cut down on destruction and vandalism since there is ownership for everyone.
From a production standpoint, Mark Jirak shared that the virtue of this model is that sales of produce to schools happens at the same time of the year that sales at farmer’s markets draw to a close. To adjust to that, Mark has to be careful to plant in such a manner that his produce is ready for that short window of time – 30 to 40 days – from August through September.
In working with schools, he’s found that the biggest challenge is logistics, but one that is easily remedied with good communication. This collaboration has helped both he and the school experiment on best practices. One real value to the schools is at reduction in waste since they can order specifically the quantities they want rather than having to order it to the nearest case size, then throw the unused part away.
While there is great success with a few Farm to School programs, the opportunities for more schools to engage with local farmers is exciting. Those schools, communities and farmers that have navigated this relationship have found that much more than nutritious food is being introduced. In addition, there is a whole new framework for them to benefit their community both with connections and commerce.
The town halls are part of KRC’s Integrated Voter Engagement project, funded by the Kansas Health Foundation and Farm to School project, funded by USDA. The projects aim to improve economic, community, environmental, and human health in Kansas by strengthening civic engagement and public policy support that better incorporates Kansas farms and communities into the state’s healthy food supply chain.
Rick McNary is the founder of Shop Kansas Farms.