Oddly enough, I began my journey of understanding farmers and ranchers in an old village in Colombia, South America. Although I grew up east of El Dorado, surrounded by farmers and ranchers, and lived only a stone’s throw from a corn field for four decades, I knew little about agriculture. It wasn’t until 2011 when a comment from the mayor of Pacora jarred me that I began pursuing an understanding of agriculture.
I was in Colombia inspecting the distribution of food aid we sent because their farmers had lost their crops in torrential flooding. As we walked the cobblestone streets of his city, he pointed at a farm on the hill and said, “Without them, we die.”
I had already spent a decade involved in international hunger relief, which began when a starving 5-year-old girl in Nicaragua asked me to feed her. However, I suddenly realized if I was going to engage in the fight against hunger, I needed to understand agriculture. It was that journey of understanding which led me to start Shop Kansas Farms.
At the first agricultural conference I attended, I asked one of the leaders, “I see the signs that state, ‘Kansas farmers feed 155 people plus you,’ but how does that work? I have lived around farms and ranches all my life and have never bought anything from them?”
He began to explain how crops like wheat are grown here but are shipped somewhere else to be processed – maybe as far away as the east coast – then brought back to our grocery stores in a loaf of bread. However, he said there was a growing interest by both farmers and consumers in direct-to-consumer sales of meat, dairy, vegetables, honey and other food products grown on the farm.
Dr. Curt Kastner, the director of food science at Kansas State University, was standing there and mentioned direct-to-consumer sales was part of a bigger picture of a local food system, which was composed of three basic components: production (growing a plant or animal for human consumption); processing (preparing the plant or animal for human consumption); and distribution (getting that product to the consumer’s plate).
He was serving on an advisory committee for the Department of Homeland Security, which had an interest in developing local food systems with all three components. They were concerned about terroristic threats to our global food system so local food systems could serve as back-up and resilience mechanisms as well as provide additional revenue streams for current farms and ranches.
I had founded Numana, a nonprofit in El Dorado that engaged people to package meals for international hunger relief. One of the criticisms we faced was why we were feeding people abroad, but not at home.
The idea of starting a local food system in El Dorado intrigued me. At the time, we were part of the Alliance to End Hunger in Washington, D.C., which had a program under its umbrella called The Hunger Free Communities Network. They were looking for proposals with new ideas of providing food security at a local level, so my team and I began to write a local food system model we called, “Numana Gardens.” We won a National Innovation Award for the model and began implementing it in El Dorado with tremendous support.
As I worked with local, state, national and even international organizations on developing the model, I saw opportunities for business development more than just helping provide food security, but to create economic development and community engagement.
I began to understand how large- and small-scale agriculture works. Large scale describes commodities like wheat, corn, sorghum and soy. Small scale usually describes specialty crops like vegetables, fruits and meat sold direct-to-consumer.
I also observed two primary needs and opportunities for a local food system to thrive. The first opportunity was a digital hub that connected producers, processors and distributors to consumers. Second was the availability of commercial processors for both meat and vegetables. At the time, small meat lockers were closing their doors and there was no place for growers to process vegetables into salsas or canned goods, which must be done in a certified commercial kitchen or processing plants.
While our wonderful global food system is set up to produce and process commodities like wheat, corn, sorghum and soy at scale, over time we’ve lost the ability to process meat and produce at a smaller scale, largely because the processing component has either diminished or disappeared.
Although my time at Numana ended prematurely – thus ending the local food system work — I continued to research, engage myself in conversations at local, national and international levels and determine how I could help start one in Kansas. Alas, much of my work felt like trying to pound square pegs in round holes.
Another significant event happened in my journey to understanding agriculture when I attended the FFA Convention in Louisville in 2015. At one time, FFA stood for, “Future Farmers of America,” but they have reduced it to simply, the National FFA Organization. You can recognize the students by their blue jackets.
FFA includes high school programs designed to teach students the business side of agriculture. Although I knew many people involved, I didn’t understand how wonderful the organization is until I attended their national convention.
I was blown away. I met 65,000 bright, beautiful, brilliant, blue-jacketed people we ought to turn the world over to tomorrow. If you despair of youth in America, go hang around FFA people and your faith will be immediately restored.
At that convention, I kept hearing this phrase, “We need to tell our story better.”
On my way home, the idea occurred to me that I might be able to help tell their story, so I called a friend, Steve Baccus, who was the outgoing president of Kansas Farm Bureau. I told him I’d like to write a couple of articles about farmers as an outsider-looking-in. He set up a meeting with the incoming president, Rich Felts and the CEO, Terry Holdren. They thought it was worth a try, so they connected me with Meagan Cramer, the director of communications and marketing.
I began writing for their Kansas Living magazine with a target audience of people not as closely tied to agriculture as farmers and ranchers. With years of sermon preparation as a minister, I had learned to take complex ideas and boil them down into relatable stories and practical principles, so I approached my writing for Kansas Living in that same manner.
I learned lessons about agriculture by interviewing farm and ranch families as we sat around their tables drinking coffee in the early morning, bouncing in their trucks along their fields and occasionally having to wipe a bit of barnyard off my boot.
I learned how deeply they care about their land and animals and how weary they are of being painted the enemy by fear-based marketing tactics of groups who accuse them of trying to poison people.
Over time, I fell in love with farmers and ranchers who are now my heroes. One of my goals is to be known as their biggest cheerleader. I promise not to show up with pom poms or do a cartwheel, but I will grab the spotlight to shine the light on these wonderful, hard-working people who farm and ranch, not as a profession, but as a noble calling to provide nutritious, safe food to feed the world.
Therefore, my greatest joy with Shop Kansas Farms has been to watch our 163,000 members fall in love with them, too.
Incidentally, by the third day into the explosive growth of Shop Kansas Farms, I realized I had created the opportunity to fill the need of local food systems: I had created a digital hub to connect producers, processors and distributors.
I would encourage you to learn more, and better yet, fall in love with your local farmers and ranchers. You can find them on our website, www.shopkansasfarms.com.