By Tom Parker

As an opening act for a discussion on cultivating healthy rural communities, Rosanna Bauman’s stunt with a big pitcher of water and a small drinking glass were hard to beat. As members of the Kansas Farmers Union kept one eye on Bauman and the other on their lunch, the crisp clatter of forks and knives on dinner plates faded to a stunned silence punctuated by nervous laughter and collective gasps.

“In case you couldn’t see, I overfilled the water glass,” Bauman said.

They saw, all right, and in the near-preternatural stillness that followed breathlessly awaited an explanation. Behind Bauman a projection screen flashed a single word: Why?

“You might be wondering why,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you, because lots of wonderful things happen when you start to wonder why.”

Bauman, a young entrepreneur from Garnett whose family began farming in 2001 with virtually no equipment and now operates 18 different enterprises, said “why” was rooted in the family culture. Much like the Amish or Mennonites, their Anabaptist faith puts certain strictures on the use of modern technologies such as the Internet, but rather than finding them limiting or restrictive, they serve as a catalyst for ingenuity and creativity. She addressed members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual mid-December state convention, whose theme this year was “Cultivating Healthy Rural Communities.”

“I got to thinking about why as relating to my family and our farm and our experiences, and I realized that every time we dared to ask why, it always resulted in something that really impacted our farm and our family and our community for the better,” she said.

For Bauman, the act of questioning established norms was not only liberating but ultimately inspiring. Her mentors, some Kansans, some farmers and others in such diverse fields as finance, investment and community development, posed questions that were seemingly basic and straightforward, but devoid of any clear-cut answers. And yet, their very unanswerability provided stimulus for deeper critical thought, and answers that came from detours and workarounds rather than linear projections.

“Why,” asked Ruth Stout, “do I have to plant in rows? Why does gardening have to be hard work? Why do I have to plow my garden?”

Here was Stout, called the mother of no-till gardening, asking preposterous questions no serious gardener would ever ask. “But she made me think,” Bauman said. “Who knew planting in rows was optional? And how many other agricultural practices out there are optional?”

When National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson addressed last year’s KFU convention with a slideshow exploring agricultural practices spanning the entire globe, the question he posed resonated deeply with Bauman, whose family still farms on 160 acres of land. “Why can’t five-hectare farmers feed five billion people?” she asked. “Why do we disregard historical methods that have sustained humanity for thousands of years?”

Then there was Woody Tasch. “He’s not even a farmer, he’s an investment guy in a financial world way above my head,” she said. “He’s asking questions that are breaking the investment world paradigm. He’s asking why don’t we slow money down and bring it down to earth. Why don’t we invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered. Why aren’t farmers an important part of the economy?”

For that matter, why can’t businesses be a force for community development instead of having to rely on non-profit organizations? That was a question posed by Bryan Welch, former managing editor of Mother Earth News who left to start his own private business called Be the Change.

And speaking of change, Bauman said, Kansas author and advocate Marci Penner asked why rural communities can’t be viable options for young people. More importantly, why can’t we change the world?

As far as Bauman is concerned, the world is mutable and pliable, given the right vision, and it always starts with a question.

Her own experiences bear that out, she said, and she provided ten examples where asking why led to innovative and far-reaching consequences.

“Why can’t farmers exist on small acreage?” she asked. “Why do we have to farm big? We began farming in 2001 with a ludicrous combination of 40-year old parents, six children, no farming experience to speak of and only 160 acres of land, which isn’t much in Kansas. We asked why not, and jumped in and started doing it, and 15 years later we not only survived but we still have 160 acres of land, and it’s thrived and is now on its way to supporting not just our original family but each child’s family as we grow.”

When the family looked into commercially processing chickens, they were told that it was a financial sinkhole on top of being a messy business. “People said no, no, no,” Bauman said, “but we asked, why can’t we dress chickens and have fun? Now, I don’t think anyone else has as much fun as we do.” Their business, ANCO Poultry Processing, dresses 50,000 chickens per year.

“Why can’t small towns have farmers markets?” she asked. Prevailing wisdom dictated that it was impossible, that customers in small towns weren’t going to pay the high prices found in larger markets. And yet the Bauman family found it ridiculous that rural residents didn’t have access to locally-grown food. “So we had two 18-year-olds and one newbie Kansan start marketing in a vacated town square about seven years ago,” she said. “Guess what? We’re still here.”

When seeking loans for the farm or its various enterprises, why can’t the farmer be considered as collateral? she asked. “What’s worth more, my work ethic and my inspiration and my brains and ideas, or a cow? According to the bank, the cow was worth more.” Fifteen years of asking the same question finally paid off in a different answer.

While the banks were dithering over collateral, the Baumans asked why they couldn’t borrow money from friends or relatives. Bad idea, they were told. “We were just asking to lose a lot of friends,” Bauman said. “But we got to thinking that we needed a lender we could trust, and they needed an investment they could understand. The challenge we have to ask ourselves is, do I have the courage to believe enough in my farm to offer it as an investment for my friends and family. That’s a hard question because farmers face a lot of risk, and you don’t want to risk relationships.” Those fears proved false after they approached the right people about a year ago, she said, and the decision has changed their lives.

Why, they asked, should farmers only do one thing but do it well? Why can’t they diversify? “What if our farm is actually healthier having ten species of animals instead of one?” she asked. “What if it’s more stable having 18 different enterprises instead of just one.” The Bauman family now owns and operates multiple enterprises including two USDA inspected plants (ANCO Poultry Processing and Bauman’s Butcher Block) as well as Bauman’s Farm Feeds, a non-GMO feed hub, the Garnett Farmers Market and Bauman Brother Custom Farming, among others. “And our farm is stronger for it,” she said.

After searching for locally-grown, non-GMO grain for their animals and finding none, they asked another question: “Why can’t I feed my animals grains that I grow in my fields?” The more people she asked, the more answers she received, all of them negative, and all of them based on the high cost of everything from infrastructure to storage facilities. Ten years later, they now feed their own grain to their own animals as well as process their neighbors’ grain.

The concept of using their grain processing plant to benefit not just their own operations but those of their neighbors would at first glance seem to negate any competitive advantage they would otherwise have, but that’s not how the Baumans see it. “They’re our neighbors, not our competitors,” Bauman said. “They’re part of our risk management. When we started, we had no equipment, and we had to rely on other farmers to share with us. Now that we have our own equipment, we want to share with others.”

The same thought process went into their meat-processing and chicken-processing plants. “I want to be able to say hi to my neighbor when I walk down the street rather than sitting on a resource they desperately need,” she said. “Why share our competitive advantage? Why take time away from the farm to share our experiences, our hard-learned lessons, and not keep them for ourselves? Because it goes back to the idea that a sustainable business is not an island unto itself. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t share.”

Other whys came to her, and one by one she found herself and her family trying to find answers. Why do I have to be afraid of failure, she asked. Why can’t we expect miracles? The latter seemed a culmination, a summation, of all the other questions. When taken together, they blended into one seamless query that hung in the air like a note of grace.

“As farmers, we see miracles every day,” she said. “We see germination, we see things growing, but we’re also as farmers very vulnerable in the fact that every day we deal with elements beyond our control. The weather, the markets, they’re all bigger than we are, and someday we’re going to find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, and the only thing left to do will be to pray for a miracle. Farming takes a lot of faith, but it takes a lot of miracles, too.”

Bauman spoke of a recent National Farmers Union-supported trip to Germany to the International Leadership Workshop for Rural Youth, and how she learned that problems facing the environment, community development, education and climate change are universal. It was her first time outside of the United States.

“We learned how big the world really is,” she said, “and we also learned how big the world’s problems really are.” Finding solutions to those problems won’t be easy, she said, and they won’t be quick, but they have to start with a vision and, yes, with questions that pore and probe into and through and around everything we think we know.

“I don’t want this to end with ‘I have a dream,’” Bauman said. “It’s good to dream, but vision without action is only dreaming. If every one of us stands up and takes personal responsibility, the change begins with us. When we step forward and take that commitment, these small steps are giant leaps for mankind. We can change the world.”

Cover of 2016 Spring Kontact

Find all the articles from the Spring 2016 edition of the Kansas Kontact here.