The Kansas Beginning Farmers Coalition (KBFC) held its first public meetings in conjunction with this year’s Kansas Farmers Union Convention. “These sessions were particularly interesting because they gave attendees the opportunity to network and tell their individual stories about how they got started farming, or what they want to do in the future,” said Nick Levendofsky, KFU Special Projects Coordinator and KBFC Steering Committee member.

“It was also encouraging to see a number of KFU members come up to our meeting to learn more about the group, those involved, and give advice,” Levendofsky added.

On Friday, more than 30 participants of all ages and experience levels got to know each other and hear the stories of Jake Johannes and Marvin Bauman, two beginning farmers.

Jake Johannes fits Marci Penner’s rural by choice Power-Up profile. He left Powhattan to study architecture at the University of Kansas. After working in that field for several years, Jake realized he actually wanted to be farming so he applied to the Growing Growers program and apprenticed at Gibbs Road Farm, the home of Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture (now known as Cultivate Kansas City). With several years of market farming experience, and with consensus from family members to diversify production, Jake returned to the farm.

Johannes Family Farm has added specialty crop production and season extension through the use of a NRCS EQIP-funded high tunnel. The farm is also diversifying by marketing small grains directly to consumers. Jake’s design background has proved valuable in adapting and improving equipment to process and package these grains. Jake acknowledged that direct marketing can be more challenging in rural areas which lack the population density and diverse markets present in metropolitan centers. Locally, Jake sells at the Horton Farmers Market and has become involved in the Brown County Healthy Food Coalition, a project that seeks to expand specialty crop production, marketing and consumption in the area.

Unlike Jake, our second presenter Marvin Bauman wasn’t born into a farming family. His parents, John and Yvonne Bauman, purchased their 180-acre Anderson County farm in 2001 when Marvin was fourteen years old. The family knew that to survive as a relatively small farm, they would need to be diversified and add value to products. While other family members concentrated on eggs, beef, lamb, or pasture-raised poultry, Marvin focused on row crops.

Around the time he married and moved off the farm, Marvin began exploring a business relationship with Al and Roxanne Mettenburg of Princeton. After months of research and negotiation, Marvin signed an enhanced rental agreement for Roxanne’s family homestead which permits Marvin to work off his rent via labor performed on the farmhouse, outbuildings and land. He believes it’s a win-win situation for both parties; the Mettenburgs benefit through farm improvements and involvement in all farm management decisions while Marvin has been able to funnel his capital into equipment and other non-land assets. Although he admits that a complex relationship like the one he has with the Mettenburgs may not be right for every beginning farmer, Marvin encouraged attendees to think outside the box and seek out landowners interested in leasing property to the next generation of farmers.

Saturday’s session focused on prioritizing the efforts and activities of the new group.
In exploring KBFC’s mission to engage, encourage and empower beginning farmers of all ages, attendees shared the following:

Developing a curated web site for beginning farmers is vital. “We know there must be an abundance of events, resources and research out there. We just don’t have the time to find it all ourselves.”
Creating a forum where farmers can ask questions and share information, similar to the Growers KC listserv, is another strategy identified to engage and connect farmers across the state.

Bringing together farmers of all experience levels for tours and farm days would be a key source of inspiration and knowledge transfer. “Practically everything I need to know already exists within someone. We just need the opportunity to connect.”
Providing informal mentoring opportunities is another top priority. One suggestion is to develop a database of farmers willing to share with those just starting out or looking to diversify their operation. The database would be searchable by crop/animal, farm size, location, production practices, etc. “I am scared of being a nuisance. Knowing in advance if farmers are willing to spare a few minutes of their time would give me the confidence to reach out.”

Tools, resources and advocacy all make the empowerment strategy wish list.
Providing access to tools, both figuratively and literally, is crucial. FarmLink and micro loan programs would connect beginning farmers with land and capital opportunities, two of the biggest challenges to those starting out in agriculture. Obtaining scale-appropriate equipment is another significant challenge. Cooperative equipment pools and a Craigslist-type platform specifically for Kansas farmers are examples of the type of tools beginning farmers would like to explore.
Developing resources, such as webinars, workshops and documents, would ensure that appropriate information for our state is available to beginning farmers and those who wish to support them.
Advocating for state and national policies and programs that support beginning farmers and encourage financially viable land transfers will be important in bringing the next generation of farmers onto the land.

Levendofsky summed up the KBFC meetings, “The diversity of participants was great, and that’s what sets us apart from any other beginning farmer group. We have big and little, those who were born into it, and those who are working on the side to get that farm or land.”