Small Farmer Commentary – Summer 2017 – An Ongoing But Crucial Conversation
By Mary Fund, Executive Director
The Kansas Rural Center board met in late July at The Land Institute in Salina, an apt location for the conversation we were to have, as many of our earliest board meetings occurred at The Land Institute. This was a special meeting to review and adopt a plan for present and future KRC work.
KRC has gone through this process several times over the years. Lest you stop reading, as we all know planning is incredibly tedious and boring, I will tell you that we accomplished great things at this meeting. No, we did not solve world hunger, or the health care debate, or cure cancer. But we continued the crucial conversation we began nearly 40 years ago – a conversation that offers practical, workable options to help people address the critical challenges facing food, farming, our environment, and our communities.
Topics of discussion at those early meetings included emerging energy issues and fossil fuel dependence, corporate dominance of agriculture and the food system, and the impact on communities and quality of life. Add climate change, the increasing economic disparities between the have’s and have not’s, and a growing unease about civic discourse and the future of democracy, and the conversation continues today. But more people have joined the conversation. The discussion is broader. The need to come together is stronger.
KRC’s board member and alumni roster includes some of the most well-read, thoughtful, creative yet practical individuals in the state. We are farmers, ranchers, teachers, editors, consultants, consumers, business owners, and more. We come from different community realities ranging from small towns and solitary farms and ranches in the middle of nowhere — although we all know there is no such thing as ‘nowhere’– and from crowded urban communities. Our experiences are varied but reflect the experiences of everyday Kansans. We do not always agree. Yet we came together this summer to reaffirm the basic values, principles, and purpose that have guided KRC’s work over the years.
The details of the new plan may put a new twist on some old topics but our discussion reaffirmed the following basics:
* Agroecology and ecologically based farming systems offer transformative solutions to hunger, food systems, and climate change—both at home and around the world. At the heart of KRC’s mission and program work is a strong commitment to biodiversity and diversification on our farms, in agriculture as a whole, and in our communities rural and urban. The ability to feed ourselves and the rest of the planet rests on the health of our soil and its ability to regenerate itself and support life, and our ability to adapt to changing climate conditions. Sustainable/regenerative farming systems must include complex crop rotations and livestock, which increases biodiversity and genetic diversity. Farming practices that include cover crops, extended complex crop rotations, and grass-based livestock systems restore and build biological health of soil, protect wildlife, pollinators and all living organisms, sequester more carbon, retain soil moisture, and store fertility. They also depend on fewer purchased inputs, thus giving greater control back to the farmer. Promoting the adoption of these systems is imperative to the long-term health of the planet and humans.
* Local and regional food production is smart; it provides healthier food close to home and offers economic opportunities for not only farmers, but related food businesses. Fruits and vegetables are crops too – crops that are in short supply in places like Kansas, where only about 5% of the fruits and vegetables eaten here are grown here. We see a need to increase food production (as opposed to just commodity crops), diversifying enterprises and crops, and to increase processing and related food businesses close to home. This will contribute to the availability of healthier food, improved food access, and ensure true food security for all including the most vulnerable. Local and regional food systems also create economic opportunities for more people.
* Establishing a new generation of farmers is essential. We recognize that it will take a concerted effort to ensure a new generation of farmers and ranchers. Land and resource access are the biggest challenges new farmers face. High costs of land and increasingly narrow margins, due to low crop and livestock prices, make traditional farming and ranching a risky business even for those with long histories in farming. There is also strong interest from a new generation of want-to-be farmers to start small farms, but they also lack skills and experience. Everyone eats or needs to, so we need to find a way to pass not just farms but farming knowledge to a new generation. We also know that there are alternatives to traditional land or farm transfers (i.e. land trusts and/or socially responsible investment companies or cooperatives that lease land to beginning farmers, community land trusts, etc.) Exploring these will take time and effort and thinking outside the box. More “eyes to the acre” is the best investment we can make, as opposed to assuming that technology will replace humans in the landscape. We still believe that widespread access to land ownership should be a goal. Also welcoming diversity in our communities is as sure a way to rebuild declining population and community vitality as planting a multi-species cover crop is to soil.
* The grassroots involvement of an informed people must determine the direction of our cultural and technological choices. From its inception, KRC’s actions have been prompted by the questions “who benefits?,” “at whose expense?,” “what are the hidden costs?”– and “what are the alternatives?” We cannot have an ecologically based biologically and socially diverse farming and food system without an engaged grassroots support base asking questions, having debates, and making decisions—and perhaps most importantly, taking action on a local basis. For this we need reliable information, thoughtful questions, the ability to think critically, and opportunities to work together.
As nearly four decades at KRC have shown, addressing all the issues and challenges listed above is not easy. That task has become more complicated as the issues and problems have become more complex. The importance of our work today is not just the practical solutions to problems such as what farming practices help reduce pesticide use, what cover crop mixes will work best on my farm, or how to maintain or rebuild a local grocery store. The real challenge is to understand how to build and maintain social cohesion as we work together to find solutions. What kind of economy will provide protection, restoration and regeneration of our natural resources and communities, ensure meaningful livelihoods for all people, and do so in a fair and equitable manner?
We do not have all the answers, but we came away from our meeting energized by the conversation and sure that we are tackling the right questions, which is half the battle. Hanging over my desk is a poster with the well-known quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” KRC is proud to be one of these small groups of citizens. Our numbers have grown. The conversation is broader. There is a greater sense of urgency today. We are ready to move forward.