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What farmers, ranchers teach about community
Courtesy photo Community farmers are vital to local economies.

I learned a powerful idea about community in an African refugee camp near Somalia. As thousands of refugees streamed into the camp, I was surprised at how quickly they shared whatever food was given them. Our guide summed up their philosophy of a survival-based community with this Swahili phrase translated into English: “Today it’s me; tomorrow it’s you.” 

In other words, if someone had food today, they would share with someone without food knowing that tomorrow, the roles might be reversed. Their ideas of community were based on needing each other to survive.

After 40 years of sharpening my skills in building communities, whether they’re online, such as Shop Kansas Farms (SKF), or geographically defined like the small town of Potwin where I live, I’m convinced farmers and ranchers understand the concept of community better than the rest of us.

They understand that community is based on needing each while most of us base our community on convenience. Let me explain.

Community based on needing each other

When SKF was launched during the pandemic and the grocery store shelves were empty, there was a new fear many of us had never experienced — what if we ran out of food?

But farmers and ranchers stepped in and calmed public fears. When people were concerned about their own survival, they turned to farmers and ranchers for the solutions. 

I began writing about farmers and ranchers more than eight years ago for Kansas Living as an outsider-looking-in and realized farmers and ranchers understand they need each other more than any other group of people I know. For example, when one of them is sick, surrounding farmers and ranchers will take care of their crops, livestock and their entire operation while they’re incapacitated.

In 2017, a television journalist in Ohio told me she was working on one of the best stories of her 30-year career. There were 50 semi-trucks loaded with donations of hay, fencing, medicine and other farm and ranch supplies from Ohio farmers convoying to Kansas to help farmers devasted by the 650,000-acre Starbuck Fire. Then she said, “Farmers and ranchers understand community better than anyone else. They know they need each other to survive.”

Community based on convenience

Many of us base community on convenience. We live in the same neighborhood, watch our kids in the same schools, and might see each other in other at church or civic meetings, but we don’t understand we need each other to survive. 

After I returned from my trip to the refugee camp, I flagged down my neighbor one day as he drove by. As he rolled down his window, curious as to why I stopped him, I told him the combination to my keypad for my front door and told him that he and his wife were welcome to use our house anytime they needed it. There was plenty of food, plenty of water for bathing and laundry, and a closet full of clothes to which they could help themselves. Puzzled, he reassured me that he and his wife were doing okay then asked me why I felt the bizarre need to offer our home. He knew I had a point I was trying to make, but he wasn’t sure what it was.

“I’m proving to myself that while you and I live a stone’s throw away from each other, we really don’t believe we need each other to survive. We talk with each other maybe once every six months, but we don’t understand we need each other.”

I then explained what I had learned in that refugee camp which led to an engaged discussion about what it means to need each other.

A few months later, we were awakened in the middle of the night by he and his wife furiously ringing our doorbell. Their home was on fire and they had barely escaped the raging inferno with their lives. For a couple of days, our home was their headquarters as people brought food, clothing and everything else they needed. 

“You were right; we do need each other to survive,” he said to me on the second day.

Shop Kansas Farms as a community

Shop Kansas Farms began as a community based on survival but has grown into a unique community based on the public’s love for farmers and ranchers and the food they grow. While we might not have always understood that we do need them to survive, that powerful lesson came to us during the pandemic. And because they rescued us from our fears, we will forever have a soft place in our hearts for them.

A good community is one that understands they need each to survive. The best community is one filled with love, admiration and support – all of which describe Shop Kansas Farms.

Rick McNary is a leader in bringing people together to build community and reduce hunger in sustainable ways. This article originally appeared in the Kansas Living Magazine.