“What in the world is going on?”
I asked myself that question frequently after I launched the Shop Kansas Farms (SKF) Facebook group in April of 2020 during the early days of the pandemic. I created it one evening after my wife, Christine, told me the meat counter was empty at the grocery store.
Since I knew farmers who sold food directly from their farm and had friends looking for new ways to buy food, I wanted to connect the two groups. Once I started SKF, it began growing by 10,000 people (about the population of El Dorado) a day in the first five days.
What in the world was going on?
It has been three and a half years since that launch, and we now have more than 163,000 members in our Facebook group. We have a website with a directory and map so you can find a farm near you. More than 10,000 visitors from across the U.S. visit our website each month searching for food grown on Kansas farms.
In addition, we began a destination marketing event called Market of Farms, which attracts vendors and shoppers from all over the state and region. The first one was held in Lyons in 2022 and drew more than 1,400 shoppers from across the region who bought food products from 42 vendors. Most vendors sold out.
Furthermore, the wonderful folks of Rice County listened to an idea I had been working on for more than 10 years about creating a practical, physical local food system, which is a supply chain comprising of producers, processors and distribution. They won a $100,000 USDA grant to start their work and titled it, the Harvest Hub of Rice County.
“What in the world was going on?
By the fifth day when we reached 50,000 members, I knew exactly what was going on. My four decades of professional experiences had prepared me to understand what in the world was going on.
I had created a digital hub for a regional food system of producers, processors and distributors. More on that, later.
This is the first in a series of articles to explain what in the world was going on and how we continue to “connect you to the wonderful farm and ranch families of Kansas so you can purchase the food they raise.”
The First Two Decades of Preparation: Building Community
As the pandemic reared its ugly head, my son, Caleb, told me, “Dad, you need to build a community. That’s what you love to do best.”
“What? How?” I asked. “We can’t get within six feet of each other; how can I build a community?”
He was right; I spent the first two decades of my professional life learning the skills to build a geographical community, but I had no idea how to build an online community.
I was 24 when I became the pastor of the First Christian Church of Potwin, a beautiful brick building built in 1917 with stunning stained-glass windows, one of two gorgeous churches in our town.
Our town sits right smack dab in the middle of corn fields, wheat fields and pastures filled with cattle. I can throw a rock behind my home and hit a cornstalk or sit on the deck and listen to the momma cows bawl for their babies in the pasture.
Our high school is named after Fredrick Remington, who tried being a sheep farmer in our area before he became a famous artist. Our high school sits in the middle of corn fields, wheat fields and pastures filled with cattle. We are rural by choice.
Fortunately, the church was not interested in a pastor concerned about the latest theological meanderings and pontifications of scholars. However, they were interested in someone who could turn faith into something practical and draw people together around the common good. I could do that.
Since I had an extensive history of carpentry experience and many of our elderly had homes in disrepair, I engaged volunteers in our church and community to do various housing repairs like roofing or painting.
One time, our community built a new home for a couple who lost theirs in a fire. They didn’t have enough insurance money to build a new one, but we raised enough money that we, along with their insurance money, were able to purchase all the materials to build them a new one. On a hot summer day in 1990, more than 125 volunteers arrived at six in the morning and, by the time the day was over, had built them a brand-new home. That’s the kind of community I love.
My son was right: I needed to build a community and Shop Kansas Farms is a community.
The Second Two Decades: Feeding the Hungry
After almost two decades of serving that church as a pastor, I went on a mission trip. I had never been outside of the USA and had only seen images of abject poverty and hunger on television.
Our destination was the village of Somotillo, along the northern border of Nicaragua and southern border of Honduras. We traveled the three-hour stretch of the Pan American highway from the capitol city of Managua to Somotillo dodging potholes so big you could lose a school bus in them.
Shortly after our arrival, we began walking the dirt streets dodging ox-drawn wagons and the steamy dollops they left behind. Crude houses were erected with rusted tin, sticks, rough sawn boards, black plastic and mud packed with grasses. I was not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
A 5-year-old girl came out of a shack and started begging. Her unkempt hair was red, and her tummy distended – both signs of malnutrition. Her dress was on backwards.
First, she patted my pocket looking for change. I had been told not to carry cash, so I shook my head no. Then she pointed at my shoes. No, I needed them. Then my hat. No, it was 100 degrees, and my bald pate would fry without it. She pointed at my watch, so I gave it to her.
She rushed into the shack to the excited voices of her parents. My guide told me that her dad would sell it at the market and that’s how they would feed their family that day.
“But what about tomorrow?” I wondered to myself.
She rushed back out and held her arms out for me to pick her up. As I did, she began giggling and rubbing her hands over my sweaty face. I could smell where her fingers had been, so I pursed my lips, not wanting to take a parasite back home with me. Then she threw her arms around my neck and hugged me tightly.
I was sure her hair was filled with lice, so I leaned away; it was not a feel-good moment for me.
She whispered, “Feed me. I’m starving.”
I sat with her on the ground, wept like a baby, and promised God I would do whatever I could for the rest of my life to feed hungry people.
I began by returning to America to raise money, then take teams down to Nicaragua where we purchased bulk rice, beans and other sundries from the local markets then delivered it to villages suffering with hunger. It was hard to choose which village; they were all hungry.
From that time forward, I have been a part of hunger-relief efforts in the jungles of Colombia, the high mountains of the Andes, and refugee camps so close to the Somalia border the BBC called them, “visions of hell.”
Chief among the lessons I learned in the past two decades are these:
• Hunger causes fear and rioting and is, therefore, a national security issue.
• Food insecurity is a fancy word for hunger.
• Efforts to help the poor must restore human dignity because hunger robs people of their worth.
• Relief (giving a person a fish) must be coupled with development (teaching a person to fish) or all you do is create dependency.
• The best way to end hunger is to have a good job.
• There is a difference between hunger and starvation.
• Hunger is a weapon some governments use on their own people.
• Hunger is the result of failed government policies and/or war.
• The Three Cs of hunger are: covid, conflict and climate change.
• Farmers are 2 percent of the population who feed 100 percent of us.
Once, a mayor of a village in South America pointed to a farm on the hillside and said, “Without them, we die.” That comment set me on a journey to understand the farmers and ranchers of Kansas. In learning and then writing about them, I fell in love with them.
Shop Kansas Farms is a result of me falling in love with farmers and ranchers and my efforts to help others fall in love with them, too.
You can find a farm near you at www.shopkansasfarms.com.