Women Explore Farming and Local Food Opportunities at Workshop
By Jennifer Kongs
About two dozen women attended the Kansas Rural Center’s Women in Farming workshop on May 6, 2017, in Walton, Kansas, to learn about local food and farm systems, farm financial planning and resources, soil health, and to tour Morning Harvest Farm, a small farm direct marketing meat, pork, eggs, and vegetables locally. This was the first of two workshops organized by KRC this year to provide women farmers with how-to information and access to farm-management resources.
“Women farmers make up a good portion of new or beginning farmers,” stated Mary Fund, KRC Executive Director. “Often women are interested in adding enterprises to existing farms, or maybe they are operating small farms with a local food or specialty enterprise not only as a business or for the income, but to serve a community need. The skills and information provided applies to any farm, but these workshops are designed to provide information and farm models that provide food for local communities and allow women an opportunity share their questions and experiences with each other.”
Many of the workshop participants gathered in Newton, Kansas, on Friday evening for a pre-workshop roundtable discussion about their farms and their roles as women in farming and agriculture, agriculture-related professions, and as local food advocates. The group included women involved in variety of farming operations ranging from urban farms in Wichita, to small farms growing specialty crops and/or livestock, cow-calf operations, and large commercial grain and livestock farms looking for new ideas and how to engage in the local/regional food movement.
One young farmwoman, who is in the process of finding her role in her parent’s farm, described the discussion as “empowering”. “Just listening to everyone’s stories, what they’re involved in, and why they do what they do, was inspiring.” The roundtable, with its informal presentations from the Harvey County Food and Farm Council, Women for Kansas advocates, and two experienced grass-fed beef producers, and open discussion from all participants, established a bond among the women and set the stage for the next day.
The full-day workshop on Saturday was held at the Walton Rural Life Center, a charter elementary school in the Newton school district, that has customized its curriculum to learning through hands-on, agricultural production in Walton, Kansas. Rows of garden boots and a wall of hanging garden gloves lined the halls. A huge map of the Flint Hills and the watershed hung beside the front door with a dot of “you are here” marking the school’s location and its place within the larger community.
Natalie Fullerton, program director with KRC, provided an overview of KRC’s “Feeding Kansas” report (Dec. 2014) with its recommendations to enhance local and regional food production and access in Kansas and the importance of local engagement in supporting the report’s recommendations. Missty Lechner, advocacy project director for the Kansas Alliance for Wellness, described what a food and farm council is, and described the diversity found in food and farm councils across Kansas. Some are paired with local health and wellness initiatives. Others focus on food production, farmers markets, and community gardens, and availability and access to food, and how to enhance those. Some are working regionally on infrastructures for transporting, processing and packaging food.
Four years ago there were only three councils. Today there are 31 counties and communities with active councils and 10 more in formation across the state as public interest grows.
Margaret Goering of the Harvey County Food & Farm Council provided a firsthand perspective of the food-council mechanics Fullerton and Lechner introduced. Her first recommendation: “Call Missty! She will help set you up. Also, reach out to diverse groups within the community to get input and ensure the council represents the full community’s perspective.” Harvey County council’s membership includes representatives from the retail and health industries, food producers, and members of the local Extension office and County Farm Bureau. From getting more local food into school lunches, to increasing community gardens and gleaning programs for the community’s food insecure, the one-year-old food and farm council is stepping forward to change the food system in its region.
Duane Hund, K-State Research and Extension Assistant Director of the Farm Analyst Program, spoke of his work with thousands of Kansas farmers to set up long-term financial plans. Hund walked the attendees through the questions and answers farmers-to-be need to address. “I’ve been truly amazed by how much variation there is in success and how little it has to do with work ethic, intelligence and luck. I think the difference comes down to passion,” Hund told the group. He also introduced FINPACK, a comprehensive farm financial planning and analysis system, that helps farmers answer these questions: Where am I (financially)? Where do I want to be? How can I get there?
Sheri Grinstead, farm loan officer at the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Hutchison office, covered the available loan programs available for beginning, women and specialty-crop farmers. These programs include a microloan program up to $50,000, which offers more flexible access to credit and serves as an attractive loan alternative for smaller farming operations. Grinstead stressed the importance of record keeping so a farmer can more readily access the programs when she walks into the FSA office doors.
Candy Thomas, USDA-NRCS Regional Soil Health Specialist for Kansas and Nebraska, highlighted the importance of cover crops and no-till operations in maintaining soil structure. She used two demonstrations of water infiltration on two different soils to show the vital role organic matter plays in proper soil structure and plant and crop health.
The afternoon concluded with a tour of nearby Morning Harvest Farms, owned and operated by Paula Sims and her husband, Eric. The Sims bought the farm in 2008, and Paula became the full time farmer while Eric maintains his job in Wichita. First, she decided to get chickens. She loved raising various breeds, but says, “We soon ended up with 24 dozen eggs in the fridge.” That’s when she began selling at a local farmers market.
The couple has diversified since, adding meat, pork, and vegetables, adding more markets and offering CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) memberships. The CSA provides a bag of food weekly to about 30 customers. Sims enhances her bag with products from other producers like honey or jam and bread, emphasizing the networking that goes on as producers help each other.
The couple has committed to organic, chemical-free production, and uses only organic, soy-free, non-GMO feed for their chickens, pigs and Dexter cattle. The chickens are housed in old stock trailers the couple has converted into chicken mobiles, complete with solar-powered automatic coop doors, and moveable to greener locations on a regular basis. The pigs are enclosed with electric fencing and are moved regularly, as are the cattle.
“We are learning everything as we go. And from YouTube,” Paula joked with the group. “You would be amazed at what you can learn from YouTube videos!”
The second workshop in this year’s KRC Women in Farming series is scheduled for Saturday, June 10. This all-day, women-only workshop and farm tour will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Palmer Community Center, (203 N Indiana St., Palmer, KS), and two nearby farms.
It will feature presentations by KRC’s Natalie Fullerton on local food systems and opportunities in Kansas, and Joanna Voigt on pollinators on the farm. Tom Buller, now K-State Research and Extension’s Douglas County Horticulture Agent but formerly with KRC, will talk about growing specialty crops in high tunnels or hoop houses. Afternoon farm tours will be at Sunny Day Farms featuring Lucinda Stuenkel’s grassfed beef and cover crop rotation, and Jay Sleichter’s five-acre specialty crop farm with six high tunnels and year-round production. More information is available at https://kansasruralcenter.org/women-in-farming-workshop-june-10/.
The 2017 Women in Farming workshop series is made possible by a mini-grant from the United Methodist Church Great Plains Conference, and additional funding from the Kansas Center for Sustainable Ag and Alternative Crops, and the Kansas Rural Center.