Flyover Economies

kbobblog_self_Topeka-farmPeople have been asking me why I landed in Kansas, of all places, to join a political campaign, of all things, this year.

Well, for starters: I grew up there. When the invitation came last winter, I leapt at it – not only to take communications in a new direction (personally), but to experience my old home as a grownup, and discover a place whose dynamics are lost on a schoolkid. And I was curious about the workings of our democracy: how politics worked, exactly, and what made a responsible citizen. And a dear friend managing the campaign asked for my help.

I brought a peculiar nonprofit perspective to dive into politics – including some principles I’d just encountered and come to celebrate. Given the now-familiar American brand of economic disparity, I wondered, as an aside to my duties, how receptive Kansans would be to a community-focused exercise called “Localism.”

Trending now in grassroots clubs from the Massachusetts Berkshires to Southern Appalachia to urban Vancouver and Phoenix, Oakland and Detroit, Localism’s simple aim is to stanch the bleeding of community resources to massive, impersonal businesses who don’t reinvest in that community’s well-being. A countermeasure to the Walmartization of America, with demonstrable positives for community wealth, Localism fights for “Prosperity For All.”

Which is to say: the movement should not overlook anyone, in any circumstances.

True, the Sunflower State has not been completely without its Localist practitioners. Lawrence, the liberal hotbed and host to the University of Kansas, has built an equally strong reputation of a healthy local downtown business district, and is home to a growing number of locally-sourced restaurants. Kansas City has organized advocacy for “sustainable economy” businesses. Even Topeka -state capital and outsized prairie town – is showing signs of a local resurgence along Kansas Avenue, in rebranded NOTO, and a couple hip hideaways, to combat the chain-heavy Interstate-geared west end.

Yet, believable as the progress is in cities, college towns, and rural mountain communities, I wondered how an investment-shifting revolution could take root on the vast prairie. The campaign visited, met in and paraded through dozens of modest and historic Main Streets speckled across 82,000 square miles; out here, traditional agrarian values of independence and the free market meet shrinking towns, vast spaces, monolithic, mechanized farms, and such straits that any business is good business.


Main Street of Council Grove, Kansas, the day of the Morris County Fair parade, June, 2014. All across the state, small towns and county seats like Council Grove are trying to preserve their vitality and viability.

A seasoned Kansas farmer will tell you things used to be better.

The 1980s Farm Crisis – an event so obscure today that it’s not on Wikipedia – catalyzed the disappearance of small, independent farmers, and the establishment of large-scale, low-labor farming as the industry norm. The effects have been longstanding. Today, the average age of a Kansas farmer is 58, and has climbed with each agricultural census for 30 years. Meanwhile, the sprawling underground Ogallala Aquifer, which enables production for half the state, is running dry, and Kansans have abandoned an early history of crop diversity for the various efficiencies of monoculture commodities, and import many foods that could still grow locally. A Kansas farmer may not hesitate to tell you the state’s agriculture industry is, in fact, unsustainable.

To listen to a panel of six former US Secretaries of Agriculture, you’d believe that the world-hunger-fighting mission of the American farmer is advancing confidently, and that the success of American agriculture is governed by foreign trade and exports – including the sale of rice to Japan. Suffice it to say, there’s some dissonance in professional views on the capacity, health, and future of an economic mainstay.

The conflicting forces in agriculture echo larger economic patterns facing the State of Kansas, despite assurances from those in office. Our candidate was concerned with ongoing institutional and educational losses, the expulsion of jobs, young talent, and ambition beyond the state lines, and the subversion of federal opportunities to set the state on a stronger course. We repeatedly encountered anecdotes of families having that hard conversation, or of entire classes of college students determined to move away.


Drouthy Kansas” (Henry Worral, 1878) may have been intended to combat perceptions of the plains as barren land and entice settlement, yet also illustrates a crop diversity that the state sooner imports today.


Still from Iowa Public TV’s 2013 documentary on the Farm Crisis. Some communities erected white crosses for each farmer whose externally-inflicted hardship forced them off their land.


KU-IPSR_map-avg-size-of-KS-farms-by county

Kansas farms have been growing in size, and owned by fewer people, for most of the 20th century. A 1980’s debt crisis, which struck family farmers particularly hard, perpetuated an agricultural infrastructure built for large-scale operations. Source: KU Institute for Policy & Social Research


A parade float built by high schoolers in Paola, Kansas. A large concern for the state is the loss of young, talented Kansans who cannot find job and education opportunities locally.

We endeavored to carve out time on the campaign trail to absorb expert advice, by building the sort of convention that an elected official would entertain…though we’d heard how alien this practice had become in Washington. So we organized a series of “Economic Roundtables” leading up to the 2014 election. Each roundtable would bring together a range of experts at different venues across the state to discuss Kansas’ largest economic opportunities, including the biosciences corridor, energy, health care, and small business. We only held one, on agriculture, before a September upset led to our candidate withdrawing from the race.

But this event, held over the course of an afternoon at the public library in Manhattan, infused the group with energy and optimism.

Astonishingly, the diverse guests – whose backgrounds ranged from crop insurance to farmers union communications, leaders of the cattlemen’s association, local lending, farmers market organizing, growing, pollination, research, and resource nonprofits – rallied together around deep-seeded issues with the industry. They agreed that the best, perhaps only, way forward would be through prioritizing “grow local,” “conservation,” “diversification,” and “education,” and, most critically, removal of every possible barrier to a new generation of young Kansas farmers.

Below I share specifics and draw connections that suggest that solutions for an unsustainable Kansas agriculture industry lie among the collective understanding and ambitions of those closest to the ground.

It was a Friday in late August in a reserved study hall at the Manhattan Public Library. Late summer storms had delayed the corn harvest, affecting attendance slightly. Still, the participant turnout exceeded our expectations; now we just hoped they’d get along.

At a few minutes before 2:00, people began to arrive. Modest attire, but neat – polo shirts or button downs; the banker wore a sports coat. A couple kids with textbooks and notepads – another came in in enormous canvas boots. A moment of chitchat was followed by the candidate’s welcome and the ground rules – namely that he would talk the least. The group was gathered to share their viewpoints on various topics, the prompts for which the candidate had taken the first stab at preparing. (It’s worth noting the candidate is himself a farmer; he alternates a small acreage each year between corn and [soy] beans.)

The prompts wouldn’t be needed. From the first question – “Does Kansas still feed the nation in 10 and 30 years?” – and its first response – “The real question is ‘what are we going to feed them?’” –  the conversation shot off, delving and migrating around the table and covering more than we’d hoped to unearth.

An unexpected but unanimous centerpiece of the afternoon was Scott, a twentysomething small-scale grower from Douglas County. Somehow he had established a profitable five-acre operation outside Lawrence. Finding capital was hard, he admitted. A single bad year could easily sink a starting farmer – but that could be getting ahead of the fact that young farmers aren’t even getting a start.

This was the first node of agreement: There’s no opportunity for young farmers. The conglomerate-heavy status quo has pinched off every chance for a toehold – from land availability to loan feasibility. Pat, the president of a community bank that works extensively with farmers (and much that he would love to support small operations) had trouble justifying the costs to the bank of qualifier paperwork or audits for small farms when they are the same requirements as for large farms. And the big banks, he added, could care less about these kinds of loans. Mike, a principal crop insurer who admitted the economist in him was skeptical of small farming’s efficacy, suggested that crop insurance could take on such a risk and may be the single most important program to benefit small farmers, with a bit of federal support.

The feds, it turned out, have already been a godsend for Scott’s farm. For instance, he leveraged a USDA grant to build high tunnels, which extended their growing season and allowed them to get into vegetables: a huge step forward.

Paul, a lobbyist and member of the Kansas Rural Center, ticked off more opportunities out there, like through the KDFA. Every state has a development finance authority, but a lack of promotional support would render their efforts impotent, as it has in Kansas. Scott corroborated that he had never encountered the organization, despite regular updates from the FSA and USDA.

Rhonda, an ag researcher at Kansas State University, stressed the need to look to other states’ initiatives for innovative ways of evening odds for starting farmers – mentorship programs, Land Link, and equipment sharing among them.


The young farmer in attendance, far right, was asked, simply, how he’s been able to make it.

Diversification and conservation followed as practices that would simultaneously improve soils and community resilience, and could benefit from further federal attention (but not too much). Responsibility falls onto every farmer to perpetuate healthy soils, fields and waters; cover crops, for instance, are specific crops planted after the main crop harvest to stabilize soil and nitrogen, as well as increase land productivity. Encouraging these practices statewide is an easy lift compared to the benefits in environmental health and farm longevity.

Where conservation would really have to play out, however, is in Western Kansas.

As the Ogallala Aquifer’s levels continue to fall, Nick of the Kansas Farmers Union pointed out, two million acres of irrigated Kansas will have little choice but to turn to dryland and pasture based practices within the next century.  This transition could have been delayed with stricter water use enforcement, such as what Nebraska has been able to pursue, but Kansas’ efforts broke down.

Nick offered the adage: “Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting.” Resolution will not come easily, and the economics will most certainly be shifting. No one disputed the efficacy of genetically modified crops in this arena.

“Today, Americans spend 10% of their income on food and 25% on medical needs,” Paul said. “That used to be reversed.”

Obesity, diabetes, and hypertension are related, ultimately, to our personal relationships with food, with agriculture. People’s connection to what they eat has deteriorated – and it doesn’t seem to matter how near or far you live from a farm.

Kansas once boasted an extensive public school ag program. Today, only a shadow of this program remains. Becky, who now runs the Downtown Topeka Farmer’s Market, recalled her time at Seaman High School, in rural Shawnee County, and the near-death experience of its ag program. “It took big people to save it,” she sighed.

The room commiserated that kids are farther and farther removed from the process of food cultivation. “You don’t see kids walking the bean fields anymore.” Pat indicated that the loss of generation farmers has furthered this divide. Mike indicated that no one has been spared – urban or rural communities.

Here Rhonda suggested that only an “artificial barrier” existed between these two populations. Urban agriculture is increasingly prominent, and the growing popularity of farmers’ markets, increasing interest in food origins, and burgeoning dedication by Kansans to seek out and pay more for Kansas-origin food, attest to a widespread desire to recover a lost tie.

The group discussed labeling reforms, KLA’s Demand U.S. Beef campaign, some rare advancements in the SNAP program for farmers market discounts and other concessions for food and nutrition in the federal Farm Bill, even grassroots systemic shifts such as the coordination of food hubs for small farms. This fall, the Kansas Rural Center assessed avenues and recommendations for strengthening the “farm-to-fork” movement across the state.

The majesty of this forum was how well folks embedded in dramatically different roles in the agricultural economy spoke the same language, uncovered similar frustrations and fresh insights to taking economic development in a healthy, sustainable direction.

It became increasingly clear that a combination of governmental and grassroots programs must work together to meet the true needs of communities. Ideally, politics and policy would work more efficiently for the benefit of as many people as possible. Unfortunately the exaggerated swings of the system will inevitably misrepresent or mis-serve groups of varying sizes, or evolve too slowly to meet shifting needs. In these conditions, grassroots efforts are exceedingly important. It was comforting to learn that, here too, efforts are underway to make up the difference.

And channels are open – on some level at least – to engage one another in meeting the needs of our community.


Old tractors line up to join the Osage County Fair parade in Overbrook, KS, August 2014.


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