KU Statehouse Wire Service
On the same farm where Andi and Kurt Dale raise cattle, pigs and chickens, they will attempt to grow cantaloupes and pumpkins this summer to sell to their neighbors in the city of Protection.
The Dales’ southwestern family farm in the Kansas town of 500 has provided communities with beef, chicken, pork and turkey for more than 100 years, but Andi said they are now looking to expand their backyard garden to a larger operation.
“For any operation, the more diverse you can be, the safer you are,” Andi said.
Andi said the local grocery store threatened to close a few years ago, almost forcing residents to drive 15 miles for fresh produce. She said Protection is a food desert, where a candy bar is easier to come by than a carrot.
Farmers similar to the Dales, living in both rural and urban areas, are studying how to expand their farms, part of a statewide effort to increase the availability of homegrown fruits and vegetables.
An assessment of Kansas’ farm and food system published by the Kansas Rural Center (KRC) found that accessibility to and capacity to grow healthful foods could be improved by a gradual increase of local farming. The assessment found that .15 percent of total statewide agricultural market value came from fruits, vegetables and tree nuts.
Research indicated that 92 percent of Kansans are consuming a nutritionally imbalanced diet. Being in the nation’s breadbasket, Kansas is among the leading states in wheat, corn and soybean production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most produce found in commercial grocery stores is imported from other states with longer growing seasons, such as California and Florida.
“We need to be more connected to our food growers and more aware of where our food is coming from,” Andi said.
After meeting with farmers, health professionals and community leaders throughout the state, the KRC came up with seven recommendations to address food needs in Kansas. Cole Cottin, KRC community food solutions advocacy coordinator, prepared the 60-page assessment.
She said the plan’s intent is not to criticize the existing agriculture but to recognize the gap in production that Kansans need for a healthy diet. She said fruit and vegetable markets can coexist with grain and meat markets to create a well-rounded food system.
The recommendations are categorized into three goals with the first being to identify and advance community food solutions at the local level. Organizing task forces and councils can identify the demands of different regions — a farm in southwestern Kansas has different needs than a farm in eastern Kansas.
“It’s empowering people to take ownership of their food system and to ensure that their political system is meeting their needs,” Cottin said.
The second goal aims to improve state-level clarity and coordination of farm-to-fork food system planning. It suggests creating a new position to coordinate and monitor Kansas’ environmental situation.
A key component of the last goal suggests financially supporting the increase in production and consumption of fruits and vegetables by allocating public funds to Kansas State University for horticulture research. Before farmers can succeed with a certain crop, trial and experimentation is necessary to determine what varieties grow well.
“Having the research available on what grows best here and how to grow will really be an asset for beginning farmers especially,” said Natalie Fullerton, KRC project director. “There’s less time spent in that experimental stage and more time spent growing what we know works here.”
For the remainder of the year, Fullerton said the KRC plans to engage communities in grass-root advocacy with the hope that goals will become policy by June 2016.
During the 2014 session of the Kansas legislature, the Local Food and Farm Task Force was established with charges in alignment with the KRC’s initiative. Chairman Ron Brown, who grows pumpkins, potatoes and watermelons in Fort Scott, said residents can’t rely entirely on smaller, in-state farms to feed the market, but people need to know where to look.
“Doesn’t it make more sense to eat a potato that’s growing 10 miles from your house than one that was growing in Idaho and shipped all across the country?” Brown said.
Sen. Tom Hawk (D-Manhattan), who helped form the task force, said he sees no reason to oppose policy that could benefit the state’s economy and citizens’ health. He said encouraging local production and consumption might be what Kansas needs to keep rural communities vibrant and raise the next generation of farmers.
Hawk said the task force is scheduled to meet in May to examine outcomes of a potential bill.
Amelia Arvesen is a University of Kansas senior from San Ramon, Calif., majoring in journalism.