Small Farmer Commentary: Parting Reflections — and a Call to Action
By Mary Fund
When I took the position as KRC Executive Director in June 2015, I never intended it to be for more than two or three years, then I would help KRC transition to the next era of leadership. It has been a bit more than 3 years, but it is now time. After nearly 40 years working for KRC, I will be retiring as Executive Director at the end of 2019.
My retirement has been in the works for over a year. I’ve spent the past year or more pushing information and instructions onto other staff, burying them in e-mails as I attempt complete transparency about my work and administrative details. I started querying unsuspecting potential candidates about their possible interest in working for KRC, and asked the board to do the same.
I have offered to help out after the first of the year to help ease the transition. Frankly, it will take a few weeks to clean out the home office and transfer necessary information to the new director. I have also vowed to organize KRC’s archival material to send to the Kansas History Museum so the history of our efforts are not lost.
But it is time for me to put the bulk of my energy into my farm and my personal and family needs. I plan to do more reading and attend to some personal writing projects that have taken a backseat. KRC needs new energy and a new generation of activists built on the foundation that all past staff and board members have built.
When KRC started out in late 1979, there were two other organizations born about the same time. The Land Institute, now a world class research institution, started its quest toward perennial grains in 1976. Kansas Organic Producers (KOP), (now known as Central Plains Organic Farmers) was also born in 1976 of a small group of organic farmers wanting to support each other against the prevailing chemical intensive tide. Leaders within KOP soon saw a need for an organization that could tackle broader social and political issues than just organic farming. KRC was the spin off.
The first issue of the newsletter was a two-page mimeographed sheet (July 1980) with the first page announcing the formation of the organization and explained why: “The decline of rural society is self-evident. The survival of the family farm and small rural businesses is being seriously threatened. Such a loss would be disastrous to rural communities. The issues within this problem are the subject matter of the Rural Center’s work.”
The second page dealt with KCC hearings on the KEPCO application to do business in Kansas as a public utility. Approval meant KEPCo, composed of 26 rural electric cooperatives, could finalize its plans to purchase 17% ownership in Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant. Subsequent newsletters in the early 1980’s dealt as often with energy issues as they
did with farm issues. By the mid-1980’s the pages were filled with farm crisis and foreclosure information, and the progress of KRC’s grassroots farm advocate networks around the state to offer solidarity and support in addressing foreclosures and bankruptcies and stress. By the end of the 1980’s, the pages were filled with news of sustainable agricultural practices that not only decreased the farmer’s reliance on purchased inputs and corporate control, but had environmental benefits.
It would appear we have come full circle. Energy issues are back on the front burner. The farm economy threatens another farm crisis. The USDA Secretary of Agriculture once more says small farms are obsolete. Farming practices that rely more on biological systems are now advocated by an increasing number of farmers and even institutions, who have come late to the understanding that industrial agriculture has been slowly but steadily destroying our soil and ecosystem. But implementation of those practices is still slow and hampered by the dominant entrenched capital intensive industrial model and the public policies that support that.
Local and regional food system development was added to the KRC vision in the past two decades. This was a natural progression for KRC and other groups’ thinking as sustainability ideas moved from individual farms to communities to the food system. It is now the topic of discussion across the country from county level eco devo groups and local food and farm councils to health and wellness organizations.
Climate change was not on the radar when KRC began, even though the fossil fuel industry knew by the late 1980’s what the burning of fossil fuels was doing to the climate and has deliberately deceived the public. But from our earliest days, KRC and groups like ours raised questions about the wisdom of a food and farm system built and dependent on fossil fuel use and non-renewable water like the Ogallala Aquifer. Now, scientists have given us ten years to act before irreparable damage is done to the world as we know it. Indeed, some say it is already too late to prevent that, but we still have time to lessen the impact or at least plan for a very different future.
KRC accepted the climate change science back in the 90’s, and by the mid-2000’s we recognized the need for a radical transition to renewable energy. As wind company developers entered the state, we began an education project focusing on community wind energy.
Then KRC director Dan Nagengast and others crossed the state talking to county commissioners and communities about the value and necessity of community wind development. There were few if any takers. Now rural communities are rising up against big wind development as being one more way corporations are exploiting them, thus halting construction of new developments. But the need for rapid transition of our energy infrastructure to renewable sources is even greater now. Working with opponents to find compromise for siting and community concerns is critical.
Social justice has always been part of KRC’s mission. Our values statement says “Farm policy is food policy. It should not benefit the few at the expense of the many…. As farmers and consumers, we cannot pursue our own narrow self-interest at the expense of the hungry at home or abroad.” A broad statement to be sure, but one that infers compassion and social equity. It recognizes society’s responsibility to the most vulnerable, and equal opportunity for minorities and for those who come to this country in search of a better life.
Recently I was asked what makes me optimistic that society will make the changes it needs to make as social and cultural habits that limit our ability and our will to change are deeply entrenched. I am optimistic because I see a growing awareness of the problems we face and the connections that link them. I am optimistic because I see more willingness among more people to engage and act. I am optimistic that a new generation of youth will hold us all accountable. I am optimistic because organizations like KRC have been right all along in our work toward sustainability.
I have been privileged to work for one of the most progressive thinking organizations in Kansas for most of my adult life, working with wonderful people who shared my concerns and my passions, who have been committed to asking the tough questions—not only of those in power but of ourselves as we imagine and work for a more sustainable future for all.
Support is growing for the kind of future that KRC has been working toward all along: a healthy, resilient world made up of a healthy food and ecologically based farming system, protecting our ecosystems, while providing meaningful livelihoods within a socially just society.
Our greatest challenges lie ahead, but we cannot do it alone or as individuals, or piecemeal. As climate activist and author Bill McKibbon stated at the Prairie Festival in late September, “We desperately need a new ethic of solidarity to replace the hyper-individuality that marks our culture and economic system.”
I am proud of what KRC and its many partners have accomplished over the years. I urge you to continue to engage in the issues, to connect with each other (and perhaps more importantly, connect with those you don’t agree with), and to act with care and compassion for all.
Mary Fund can be reached at email@example.com.