Renewing the Commitment
By Mary Fund
“It was after the devastating once-in-a-hundred-year flood of June 1984. A federal official was visiting a small northeast Kansas town a few weeks after the flood waters had receded. Local residents were explaining that if requested conservation and watershed structures had been in place upstream, the town would have been saved many hours of shoveling mud out of its main street businesses, not to mention the averted damage to crops, roads and bridges.
“The Washington, D.C. based official looked up and down what could have been main street of any small rural town U.S.A., shook his head slowly, and commented that he really did not see anything much worth saving. Lucky for our Washington friend that his hosts were basically gentle, polite people, and he was allowed to continue on his way with no more than an earful.
“But as record numbers of farmers are driven from the land and increasing numbers of main street businesses close their doors, such comments force us to pause and reflect on questions fundamental to the future of agriculture and rural communities. What is it we seek to preserve and protect? What are the values that guide us? And on what principles do we stand?”
So began the 1984-85 KRC annual report, at a time of record numbers of farm foreclosures and bankruptcies. KRC was a fairly new organization in the 80’s promoting sustainable farming practices based on ecological principles. Our work (as did the work of sister organizations across the country) immediately gained traction as farmers searched for alternative practices that lowered production costs and offered new marketing ideas such as organic, value-added, direct marketing, CSA’s, and grass fed livestock and more).
Sustainable agriculture took root and has slowly but steadily made progress into mainstream agriculture—albeit not anywhere to the extent needed, but farming practices such as management intensive grazing systems, extended crop rotations, cover crops and legumes for soil health are more common. Growing fruits and vegetables is being explored as a way to diversify the farm and income streams. Beginning or second career farmers are looking at specialty crops as a way to enter farming. Some are adding specialty crop enterprises to existing farms. Organic and sustainable/regenerative farming practices are reducing farm chemicals and synthetic fertilizers. Soil health is the buzz word. Organic systems, local food systems, value added agriculture, and beginning farmer programs received more support than ever in the just passed Farm Bill.
That same 1984-85 annual report summarized KRC’s early values and principles in one sentence: “a diversified family size farming system based on principles of economic and environmental sustainability and social responsibility is necessary to a vital economy and a safe and healthy environmental and food product.” Over the years, we have periodically reviewed those principles and values—revising the language, adding or changing emphasis as issues emerge or intensify. But we always reaffirm them. The heart of our program mission and work is still to build an ecologically based farming and food system, based in a strong commitment to biodiversity and diversification, and to social and economic equity – on farms, in agriculture, and in communities and among both rural and urban people.
Unfortunately, today does not look much different from 1984, as financial stress on farms and ranches reaches new highs and as rural communities –think rural hospitals, loss of grocery stores, struggling schools– are stretched to the breaking point. Today, both rural and urban communities face economic and cultural challenges, as big national threats emerge –think divisive politics, never ending
military conflicts, increasing wealth concentration and income inequality—all amid the uncertainties of climate change.
The plight of rural communities in Kansas —continued depopulation, closed main street businesses, and struggling rural hospitals—has also become front-page news. Even the State Legislature has responded with forming a Rural Revitalization committee in the House this session, and the new Governor has created an Office for Rural Prosperity. Both hope to do more than plug the hole in the dike, but the role of industrial agriculture in creating the problem will make that difficult. The exodus of rural people and the decline of rural communities are due in large part to how and who controls how we grow, process and distribute food. The answer lies in how well we can regain control of that, and how can we can put people back into farming and communities—no small task.
In Kansas and globally we are seeing further homogenization of the landscape. Field borders and riparian habitat are being destroyed as grasslands and pastures are converted to corn and soybeans. Farmers plant more only to be caught with full grain bins and low commodity prices. Trade wars are showing just how vulnerable our agricultural economy is. Continued dependence on fossil fuel based inputs also contributes to longer-term problems, exacerbates carbon losses and climate change, and seriously compromises the resilience of natural systems.
Huge grain storage bins dot the rural landscape, but grocery stores continue disappearing in rural communities as well as in cities, reducing food access and availability to fresh, wholesome food. Income inequality has increased not just here at home, but across the globe, as opportunities for meaningful livelihoods diminish under the corporate industrial model that dominates not just agriculture, but our food system, and our overall economy.
Yes, the challenges KRC was formed to address still exist. Some might argue that if KRC was organized to fight the above, we did not do a very good job because today all of those issues continue. Indeed, they have intensified over the last 40 years. But the forces against us have been strong and pervasive, usually cloaked as benign or “signs of progress”. The dominant narrative, promoting the corporate industrial model as the only choice, encourages us to blame others, thus keeping us divided. (i.e. It’s environmental regulations; mis-information campaigns; low-income slackers; or unfair or corrupt international trade policies; or invading immigrant hoards.)
Since our beginning in 1979, KRC has expanded our vision of independent farms and revitalized rural communities to include local/regional food systems, new areas of related economic activity, urban-rural connections, and renewable non-carbon based energy. The expanded vision includes an enhanced partnership between rural and urban people, emphasizing an appropriate-scale, environmentally sound, food and energy system that provides opportunities for meaningful livelihoods and a safe environment and healthy food for all. We now include diversity of people
along with on farm diversity—realizing that just as multi-species plant mixes makes a stronger plant community, so multi-cultural mixes make for stronger human communities.
KRC will celebrate its 40th anniversary later this year (Annual Conference November 8-9, 2019). Throughout the year, KRC will be offering stories from our constituents, friends and partnering organizations of their journeys to more sustainable, ecologically based farms and ranches, to a more sustainable local and regional food system, and how their communities are discovering what community wealth really is. We will be assessing where we’ve been and what we’ve accomplished as we once more “Renew the commitment”. We hope you will join us.
For more information, contact Mary Fund, firstname.lastname@example.org.