Women Explore Farming & Local Food Opportunities at Spring Workshops
By Jennifer Kongs
Last Spring KRC hosted two women in farming workshops – one near Newton at the Walton School in south central Kansas and the other in Palmer in north central Kansas. About 25 women attended each workshop to learn about topics such as soil health, farm financial planning and resources, local food and farm systems, and to tour local farms.
“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. While the information applies to any farm, these workshops were designed to give information and farm models that provide food for local communities and allow women an opportunity to share their questions and experiences with each other.”
Many of the participants in the Newton/Walton workshop gathered Friday evening for a pre-workshop 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 farm woman, 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,” she stated afterwards. 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 avail- ability 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 in Kansas 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. 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. Hund 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 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 through 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, 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!”
In north central Kansas, the workshops included sessions on pollinator protection and on-farm habitat and growing vegetables in high tunnels, with farm tours of Lucinda Stuenkel’s grain and livestock farm and Jay Schliechter’s high tunnels near Clay Center.
A healthy food system also requires healthy pollinator populations. Joanna Voigt, beekeeper and KRC’s communications and pollinator program coordinator, said that more than 85 percent of plants on the planet require pollinators. One in three bites of the food we eat require pollinators. “In the US, honeybees alone contribute $17 billion in pollination services, and native bees contribute an estimated $3 billion in pollination and agricultural services,” Voigt said.
Pollinators are declining around the world at a rapid rate: North American bumble bees have declined 93 percent since the 1900s. What can farmers do? Farmers can retain or restore natural habitat, such as windbreaks, fallow fields, edges and ponds. Farmers can also create pollinator habitat, such as foraging habitat and nesting sites and eliminate or reduce pesticide use.
Another way to diversify habitat and crop production is by adding high tunnels, which help farmers looking to grow specialty crops and extend their growing season. Tom Buller, longtime organic farmer and K-State Research and Extension’s Douglas County Horticulture Agent, presented the benefits of growing under cover: High tunnels help with moisture control, wind protection, provides a market advantage through a longer growing season, and boost yield and quality of production. “In the vegetable farming world, there is a saying, ‘you have to have things early, late, and ornate,’” Buller said.
Buller admitted challenges – including wind, soil salinity and expense – must be addressed. But, he cited the success of many farmers in adding high tunnels, including one farmer who increased from four pounds per tomato plant from field tomatoes to 18 pounds per plant per tomato plant by using high tunnels, black weed mats, and staking the plants.
To help with expenses, Buller said NRCS has funding through EQIP program for high tunnel purchase. Buller worked for KRC prior to moving to Extension and authored “Growing Under Cover: The Kansas Grower’s Guide.” Print copies are available from KRC, and online at KRC’s website.
Attendees spent the afternoon touring two local farms. The first tour was of Sunny Day Farms, a grass-fed and grass-finished beef operation run by Lucinda Stuenkel. Attendees saw firsthand how she plants cover crops for forage and has separated her pastures into paddocks to rotate her cattle. Stuenkel shared several of the innovations she has added to her operation to help her move and control her cattle, including her calving barn’s gentle traps. She also explained that she changed the timing of calving season to avoid dealing with calves being born in cold weather.
Attendee Cheyla Clawson helps her husband with his family’s cattle operation. She was struck by Stuenkel’s insistence that, with patience, she can move her cattle without prodding or exerting force. “We have done things the same way for years, but maybe we don’t have to keep handling our cattle in the same manner we have been,” Clawson said.
Fifteen miles away, the attendees next toured Jay and Linda Sleichter’s farm. On less than five acres, the family has six high tunnels and grows fresh produce nearly year-round, including hundreds of tomato plants. The family sells produce at several nearby farmers markets, and last year added a CSA delivery program. “We drop baskets of produce off each week to our customers,” Jay said. “After our first season, we had a waiting list.”
As Buller said in his morning presentation, one benefit of growing in high tunnels is wind protection. The attendees saw this firsthand as the wind tore across the property, but inside the tunnels, the tomato plants were strung securely and remained still. Jay told the attendees that the family does grow vegetables not under cover, but the majority of the farm’s profits came from selling produce grown in the high tunnels. “Our most profitable crops are tomatoes,” Jay said.
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.