The Changing Face of Agriculture in Kansas: A Diverse Community
By Tom Parker
The promotion of greater diversification and biodiversity in farming and food systems has long been a major goal of the Kansas Rural Center. However, the emphasis on diversification has mostly focused on complex crop rotations, rotational grazing, multi-species integration of both crops and mammals, specialty crop production and marketing, and other programs designed to insure greater environmental and ecological resilience.
Diversity is more than that, though. Diversity in people, cultures and ideas, and a small but growing number of foreign-born immigrants, are also changing the state’s demographics. According to the Pew Research Center, two percent of Kansas’ population in 1980 were foreign-born residents; by 2012, that number had grown to six-and-a-half percent. Immigration has benefitted rural areas of the Midwest by slowing population loss, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and because many immigrants have roots in agriculture, food and food production is a unifying force.
To illustrate the changing face of agriculture in Kansas, KRC presented “Diversity in Kansas: The People and Cultures of Food and Farming,” during its 2017 Farm and Food Conference, held November 17-18 in Manhattan. Panelists included Bertha Mendoza, Director of the K-State Research and Extension Southwest Kansas Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) in Garden City; JohnElla Holmes, Executive Director of the Kansas Black Farmers Association and founder of the Veryl Switzer/KSU Agriculture Camp for Youth; and Matthew Kost, Program Director of Cultivate Kansas City’s Farmer Development and Support Programs.
Teaching immigrants how to integrate into American society while not eating like Americans is the challenge facing Bertha Mendoza. “My role is to teach people not to learn the bad eating habits that we have here,” she said. “I help them understand that fried foods aren’t a good habit.”
Mendoza is herself an immigrant. She immigrated to the United States 25 years ago from a small farming community in Mexico, and remembers a sense of culture shock at the lack of familiar food staples, especially fruits and vegetables. While much has changed since that time for Hispanic immigrants—by far the greatest country of origin—other minorities continue to struggle with adapting to nontraditional diets. Within the 24 counties served by the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), at least 28 languages are spoken among the program’s low-income families and youth.
In addition to teaching immigrants skills for healthy cooking and eating the American way, Mendoza also instructs them in gardening. Growing their own vegetables, including traditional varieties, not only allows them to integrate traditional foods into their diet but to strengthen the bonds of their communities. “We’re helping them feel proud of their community,” she said.
Developing programs for schools is a priority of the program. Recently they’ve been able to add two sites to provide meals that can be prepared at home. Many students who are home in the summer often aren’t able to eat due to being too young to cook or not having adult supervision, Mendoza said, so the sites are a much-needed resource.
“We provide food they know and like, and we also add something new so they can learn,” she said. “The program has been a success so far, not only within the immigrant community but also in the community at large.”
“Historically, we welcome minorities,” Mendoza said. “That’s the sense I have, and not just us but the community as a whole. We come here not knowing what’s available to us, and we have to change our eating habits.” By collaborating and working together—as well as learning from each other—immigrants can continue to feel comfortable with their food choices.
In the greater Kansas City area, recently resettled refugees are learning to become self-sufficient farmers through “New Roots for Refugees,” a collaboration between the Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas City and Cultivate Kansas City. The four-year training program provides quarter-acre plots where refugees familiarize themselves with the Kansas City climate, learn to integrate with the local community, strengthen their marketing abilities, and increase their English language skills. Currently, 16 farmers are enrolled.
Diversity plays a crucial role in Cultivate KC’s mission, which can be summed up with “food, farms and community,” Matthew Kost said. Kost is program director for farmer development and support programs.
“A lot of the farmers we’re bringing in are coming from 10,000 years of agricultural heritage,” he said. “One thing we realize is that while we’re teaching a lot, we’re learning more than we’re teaching. This gets back to the point of having diversity in culture and perspective in the discussions we’re having around food and farming.”
Because most of the refugees are new to the area and don’t have a lot of money, the program is based on a stair-step policy, Kost said. For the first year, the program meets all expenses. During the second year, participants start taking on more responsibility, until by the fourth year they’re on their own. “We want to ease them into the financial responsibilities of farming,” he said.
Most of the refugees are from Burma, with others from Nepal and the Congo. The program starts early in the season with 18-20 workshops covering everything from production, planting, marketing and financing. Each farmer gets space in the greenhouse to get their seedlings started, and then they’re trained on modern farm equipment suited to small-scale farming. “Many of them were working with water buffalo, so we want to get them on a tractor,” Kost said. “At first they look freaked out, but then you see the confidence come in. It’s really gratifying.”
Once harvest starts, farmers are taught washing and preparation, selling at farmers markets and wholesale marketing. About 20 different restaurants and small grocers work with cultivate KC to distribute their produce, as well as CSAs. Remarkably, most farmers annually earn from $10,000 to $12,000 from their quarter acre plot.
“At the end of the day,” Kost said, “we want them to spin out of the program, have their own farm enterprise and be completely self-contained.”
Until last year, core plots have been scattered across the Kansas City urban area. Recently, however, rural farmers who have extra land not in production approached the organization with offers. The first graduate to take up such an offer signed a lease on five acres with a greenhouse. Kost said it was another instance of spreading diversity, one refugee at a time.
For JohnElla Holmes, the emphasis is on a younger group. “Statistically, only one out of 10 low-income youth have visited a farm,” Holmes said. “One. That means the other nine haven’t had the opportunity.” Rectifying that disparity was one of the goals she discussed with Veryl Switzer, a charter member of the K-State Sports Hall of Fame who had dreamed of creating a summer camp to make children aware of agriculture and how it touches every aspect of their lives. The Veryl Switzer/KSU Agriculture Camp, which they founded 2007, addressed those issues and more.
The week-long program is a residential summer camp for primarily low-income urban youth in grades five to ten, with a sprinkling of rural youth with 4-H experience. Campers stay at K-State residence halls while learning about Kansas history and agriculture, and spend time in Nicodemus, Kansas, where they engage in horseback riding, fishing and hiking as well as performing a service-learning project sponsored by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Center.
Agriculture is the heart of the curriculum, Holmes said. Activities include a water field day in Osborne sponsored by the USDA to teach campers about water conservation issues and water sustainability; tours of the Kansas Departure of Agriculture, the Manhattan Community Garden, the Kansas Wheat and Innovation Center, an ethanol plant, and the Hill City High FFA and 4-H Project, among others; and hands-on gardening experience in a variety of settings from a small garden plot to riding in combines.
While riding in the combine “blows their minds” according to Holmes, a popular part of the curriculum involves a gift card provided by Subway. “We’ve talked about fruits and vegetables, we’ve been to the garden and the farm, so we take them to lunch and they can spend the card on whatever they want—but they have to put at least four vegetables on their sandwich.” The camp has served more than 450 students and claims a 100 percent graduation and college acceptance rate.
In addition to the camp, the Kansas Black Farmer’s Association is developing several new programs that would increase diversity in the state’s agricultural fabric, Holmes said. One is a mentoring program that would pair experienced farmers with beginning farmers, and another is geared toward minority and women farmers. “We’re just as much farmers as the men,” Holmes said to wild applause.
Presentations from KRC’s November 17-18, 2017, conference can be found at KRC’s website at www.kansasruuralcenter.org.
Tom Parker is a freelance writer from Blue Rapids, Kansas, who prepared this article for the Kansas Rural Center.
Photos by Tom Parker