Earlier this week, The Tribune reached out to a handful of knowledgeable experts involved with our local agriculture sector and asked them to attend a live internet conversation hosted by KMUW in Wichita, in collaboration with the national radio program 1A, Across America. The focus of the discussion was on the United states food supply chain, where our food comes from, how it is getting to us now, and what might change this year and beyond as the uncertainties of dealing with our current pandemic crisis continues.
While the event turned out to be Wichita-centric, it provided talking points for how we are getting by right now, and some bright spots for the future.
Earlier this spring, tons of food had to be disposed of when restaurants around the country closed and the food was not packaged properly for grocery store sales. Some restaurants in Wichita tried to give food away to those in need, but still much was simply wasted. Now, with meat packing plants around the country backed up due to workers testing positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, large producers are left with no choice but to euthanize animals that were scheduled for processing because of long-standing, highly scheduled production schedules that are far from flexible. With all this wasted food, the fact that so many unemployed are turning to food banks for help and shortages there are being felt is even more tragic. And then, there are the empty shelves and limited availability of many items at the grocery stores.
Small producers, it turns out, are seeing an increase in demand. They are better able to pivot than large producers, and are working now to capitalize on the situation through word of mouth and social media advertising. One market farmer reported the Wichita market where whe sells was open, and was considered an essential business. The experience was different, however, with social distancing and mask wearing interfering with the conversation and browsing.
A new Facebook group has formed in Kansas, and according to Alicia Boor, Cottonwood District Extension Agent, and Natalie Fullerton, Kansas Rural Center Program Manager, its reach is expanding quickly and other states are looking hard at how it works. Shop Kansas Farms has grown to 107,000 members since it started. It’s broken up into regions to make it easier for buyers and sellers to find each other.
Small farmers producing chickens, eggs, salad greens, farm raised beef, dairy and more are all there, and many of those farms are experiencing early season sell-outs and are gearing up to produce more than they planned. Hopefully in the weeks to come, we will see producers from our local area on the site, and they too will benefit from the demand.
This experience has cast a light on the weaknesses of our food supply. Perhaps the ability of small farmers to step up and fill in some of the gaps will have a lasting effect on how and where we buy our food. Already, US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is looking into a farmer to consumer food box program which we are bound to hear more about soon.
There’s room in agriculture for big players and small alike if the consumer, and by extension the government, is willing to give everyone a fair shake. Doing so only makes us stronger.
The Great Bend Summer Street Stroll Farmers Market and Saturday farmer’s market anticipates a June opening in observance of the phased reopening of the community, by the way, so keep an eye out for further announcements coming soon.