By Tom Parker

As a member of the planning committee for the 2017 Kansas Farmers Union convention, she was instrumental in combining a diverse assortment of speakers, discussions and forums ranging from policy, personal narrative, history and art into a thematic whole, minus the thematic. “Your convention planning team is philosophically opposed to having a theme for a convention,” she said. “It’s not a theme, it’s a focus, which is totally different than a theme.”

This not-theme was structured around the idea of bridges, both real and figurative. When she welcomed KFU members and presented an overview of what could be expected during the two-day conference, she stood before a projected image of the Soden Grove Bridge, a 126-foot reinforced concrete Marsh arch bridge built in 1923 to span the Cottonwood River on the southern edge of Emporia. The sweeping curve of the bridge’s arch rising above two limestone abutments framed the water cascading over the old mill dam below.

“Bridges are a metaphor for our work,” she said. “How do we make progress on our farms, our state, our nation? What bridges can we build between conventional agriculture and specialty markets? How can we build bridges between generations?”

Bridges could refer to the act of meeting others with opposing viewpoints and finding ways to work together on tough issues, or to bridge differences at a time when people feel divided politically and socially. The word can be both noun and verb: To bridge.

Bridges illustrate deeper truths, too. Like relationships, they take a lot of time and effort to build but when complete provide a strong foundation. Some are majestic and scenic while others are rickety and worn, but even the less-maintained bridges have their merits. And like life itself, they offer their own sense of unpredictability.

“Sometimes we have to build bridges within ourselves,” she said. “Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, sometimes you feel like screaming, sometimes we don’t know what we’ll see when reach the middle or the other side. We don’t always get to pick the bridges we have to cross.”

The convention was held in Emporia on Dec. 1 and 2. Sponsors included Midwest Regional Agency, Frontier Farm Credit and Farmers Union Insurance. Kansas Farmers Union is the state’s oldest active general farm organization working to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life for family farmers and ranchers and rural communities.

Sarah Green discusses the concept of bridges.

Sarah Green discusses the concept of bridges.

NFU's Barbara Patterson and Matt Purdue

NFU’s Barbara Patterson and Matt Purdue.

With the 2018 Farm Bill up for renegotiation, policy played a key role in discussions. National Farmers Union Government Relations Representative Matt Perdue and Government Relations Director Barbara Patterson, both from Washington, D.C., presented updates on national policy issues that affect family farmers and ranchers. From trade to climate change to healthcare, the Trump Administration has complicated nearly every facet of public policy.

Purdue believes that Congress will have a difficult time passing a new farm bill due to staffing shortages within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The USDA is something of a ghost town now because positions haven’t been filled,” he said.

“The health marketplace is out of control and getting worse, especially in rural America,” Patterson said. “The expansion of Medicaid wasn’t universal, so rural hospitals are really struggling. Since the Affordable Care Act passed, 82 hospitals have closed. We’re telling Congress that they have to keep supporting rural hospitals.”

Both agreed that bipartisan legislation is needed, though neither offered much hope for it.

Patterson also presented an overview of the Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA, and why it matters to all producers and consumers. She outlined the food safety landscape, identified best practices, shared the consequences of the act and placed FSMA in the context of regulatory reform.

Tapping into the collective wisdom of experts on the front line of ag policies and food nutrition programs was the emphasis of “Bridges to a New Farm Bill,” a panel discussion on the 2018 Farm Bill and what it might mean for the state. Panelists included Lisa French, Watershed Project Coordinator, Cheney Lake Watershed Inc.; Jim French, Senior Advocacy Advisor, Center for Rural Affairs; Sandy Proctor, Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program Coordinator, K-State Research and Extension; and David Schemm, Director of the Kansas Farm Service Agency. High Plains Journal editor Bill Spiegel moderated.

Farm Bill Panel

The convention’s 2018 Farm Bill panelists included moderator Bill Spiegel, Jim French, Sandy Proctor, David Schemm, and Lisa French.

Schemm’s perspective is that a farm bill is a measure of a nation’s resources and determination. “It’s part of the core foundation of a country to be strong, to have adequate food production and to have a stable society,” he said. He quoted author Norman Borlaug, who wrote, “You cannot build a peaceful world on empty stomachs.”

Jim French felt that Congress mustn’t lose sight that food is an integral component of a farm bill. “If we look at rural population and rural influence, farmers are a very small percentage of the whole,” he said. “We need to create those bridges that generate common understanding of how our vocations and our lifestyles in rural America are totally united in the goals to feed people, to create food security and to create a nutritious foundation.”

Sen. Kassenbaum Baker, Erika Nelson, and Jason Schmidt.

Sen. Kassenbaum Baker, Erika Nelson, and Jason Schmidt.

In 1979, Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker was a freshman senator when the American Agriculture Movement’s tractorcade rolled into Washington, D.C. to protest. Her retrospective, “Thoughts and Reflections on the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, and How We Came Through It,” was a sobering look at some of the parallels bridging yesterday’s farm crisis to what many feel is a modern crisis in the making. While there are parallels, she said, protest methods must evolve with the times. “The ag economy is suffering again today, and how it’s addressed will have to be different,” she said. “No one would have tractorcades to Washington now, there wouldn’t be enough.”

Protest is still a time-honored tradition, and it comes in many forms and fancies. Kansans have always used art to express their opinions while pursuing the greater good, or what they perceive as the greater good, or to just express their opinions, no matter how outlandish. John Steuart Curry’s dramatic mural of John Brown at the Kansas Statehouse, S.P. Dinsmoor’s politically-arcane sculptures in Lucas, and M.T. Liggett’s bombastic fence-line creations are prime examples of the sometimes humorous, sometimes biting, and often clever uses of protest art. These and other fringe forms of protest were discussed in “Make Art, Not War,” presented by artist and educator Erika Nelson, Lucas. Nelson was provided through the Kansas Humanities Council Speaker Bureau.

Policy, protest, art and history are part of the narrative of farming and ranching, but nothing resonates more than personal stories. Newton farmer Jason Schmidt presented an intimate and deeply personal story about what happens when a philosophical quest for environmental stewardship meets the current reality of agriculture in Kansas. Fourth-generation Comanche County farmer-ranchers Kurt and Andi Dale spoke about transitioning strategies for generational succession and the benefits of having a nonconformist mindset.

Following the convention, a Beginning Farmers Bus Tour visited three local farms by Madison. They included Our Seven Acres, Mandy and Joe Kerns’ small-scale family vegetable and fruit operation incorporating hoop houses, small livestock and a CSA; Preston Beeman, a transitioning farmer who, after discovering that cover crops can be profitable when grazed, has changed his farming practices by planting cover crops and custom grazing his yearlings; and Jacob Knobloch, a young farmer who took over his grandfather’s farm in 2005, farmed conventionally for three years and now is in the process of moving toward no-till, cover crops and drastically reducing his commercial inputs.

The tour concluded after nightfall. Passing through a countryside luminous with Christmas lights and holiday decorations, the bus entered Emporia on the new bridge. It was broad and utilitarian and altogether featureless, unlike the arched outline of the Soden Grove Bridge which could be seen spanning the dark channel of the Cottonwood River. Below it, whitewater foaming over the mill dam glimmered like moonlight. Sarah Green was right. We don’t always get to pick the bridges we have to cross.

In the convention keynote, “Thoughts and Reflections on the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, and How We Came Through It,” Senator Kassebaum Baker had a conversation with former KFU V-P Nick Levendofsky about her time in the Senate, her role in the Farm Crisis of the late 70’s and early 80’s, women in politics, and how things have changed since she left office 20 years ago. Check out the Facebook Live video.

In the convention keynote, “Thoughts and Reflections on the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, and How We Came Through It,” Senator Kassebaum Baker had a conversation with former KFU V-P Nick Levendofsky about her time in the Senate, her role in the Farm Crisis of the late 70’s and early 80’s, women in politics, and how things have changed since she left office 20 years ago. Check out the Facebook Live video.