by Mercedes Taylor-Puckett
Grassroots policy development took center stage at the annual Kansas Farmers Union State Convention in Lawrence when more than 100 members gathered to debate and adopt policy for the 2020 legislative session.
KFU has a rich history of working to protect and promote the interests of family farmers and ranchers by taking a leadership role in advocating for farming, ranching and agricultural interests across the state. Led by Policy Chair Tom Giessel, delegates reviewed past policy and debated new issues including trade agreements and tariffs, industrial hemp, climate change, crop insurance and disaster programs, and the reestablishment of the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA).
Delegates also passed seven special orders covering the rural economy; statewide agriculture counseling and assistance; single-payer health care, Medicaid expansion and rural hospitals; our state’s mental health services; the U.S. Beef Integrity Act and Country of Origin Labeling; as well as beginning farmer support.
Pottawatomie County farmer Donn Teske was re-elected to his 19th term as president of the organization and Ryan Goertzen-Regier, Harvey County, was elected vice president.
Delegates also selected two new and two returning members to the KFU Board of Directors. In the North District, Jill Elmers, Douglas County, will serve a three-year term and Matt Ubel, Pottawatomie County, will serve a one-year term. In the South District Donna Pearson McClish, Sedgwick County, will serve a three-year term and Jason Schmidt, Harvey County, will serve a one-year term.
Members also elected delegates to the 118th National Farmers Union Convention, which takes place March 1-3 in Savannah, GA. They are: Donna Pearson McClish, Sedgwick County; Olivia Taylor-Puckett, Jefferson County; Matt Ubel, Pottawatomie County; and Jill Elmers, Douglas County. Alternate delegates include: Sarah Gideon, Wabaunsee County; Tom Giessel, Pawnee County; Don Stull, Douglas County; and Karen Wiley, Douglas County.
Each year KFU also honors the legacy of Ruth Hirsh through its award in her name which is presented to an individual who has made a significant contribution to agriculture and the efforts of the Farmers Union. This year the board broke with tradition with not one, but three awardees. Mary Fund, Jerry Jost, and Dan Nagengast worked tirelessly for the Kansas Rural Center (KRC) over its 40 year history, helping to cultivate sustainable agriculture, expand local and regional food systems, and support family farms across the state.
KFU also recognized the significant contributions of retiring board members Linda Hessman and Lavern Potuzak. Hessman was the organization’s vice president from 2016 to 2019 and had served on the board for more than two decades. She and her husband Jerry farmed and raised a cow herd in a family partnership for 34 years in Ford County. A past Kansas Wheat Commissioner, Hessman is a Certified Mediator specializing in ag issues as well as being a national Farm Aid Advocate. She is a 2012 recipient of the prestigious KFU Ruth Hirsh Award and the National Catholic Rural Life Award for her work with farm and ranch families developing programs for rural areas.
Lavern Potuzak, a life-long cash grain farmer and cattleman in Republic County, has been a KFU member since 1974. During that time, Potuzak has served the organization as a county officer, a four-term board member, and as vice president from 2011 to 2016. He received the 2014 Ruth Hirsh Award in recognition of his commitment to Kansas agriculture and his dedication to the community of Agenda.
KFU chartered its second new chapter in as many years during the convention’s banquet. Creative Grower Connections is the name selected for this new chapter in the Wichita metro area. Most chapter members are specialty crop producers and African-American farmers. Chapter president Donna Pearson McClish operates the Common Ground Producers and Growers Mobile Market in a three-county area serving over 30 senior centers and ‘food deserts’ in South Central Kansas. As far as KFU can recall, this is the first and only African-American chapter, not only in Kansas, but also in the National Farmers Union (NFU) organization.
Lieutenant Governor Lynn Rogers’ keynote presentation focused on the newly created Office of Rural Prosperity. Speaking directly to the dominant agriculture audience of farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness professionals, Lt. Governor Rogers said, “The Governor and I are concerned about the condition of our agricultural community.”
Acknowledging that the latest information shows approximately 37 percent of the 2019 Kansas agricultural income came from tariff payments, he said, “That’s not sustainable. Ag income did go up, but that’s how it came up, and that’s not a good long-term way.”
“We really need markets, and not bail-outs, so we are trying to bring that message to our federal legislators as much, and as often, as we can,” he said.
With the convention theme The Road Ahead: Framing a future for agriculture, Kansas, and our communities attendees heard from more than 20 speakers. In addition to exploring what a truly progressive farm program would look like and how we could make it happen, conference sessions focused on the challenges and opportunities facing rural communities, the significant issues for the upcoming legislative session, new developments with industrial hemp, and generational differences relating to climate change.
Speakers included Austin Frerick, Deputy Director of the Thurman Arnold Project at Yale University; Rob Larew, Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Communications for National Farmers Union; Dr. Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, founding director of the Chapman Center for Rural Studies at Kansas State University; Dr. Matthew Sanderson, Randall C. Hill Professor of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at KSU; and Tom Giessel, NFU Honorary Historian.
Sponsors for the 2019 convention included the Farm Credit Associations of Kansas, the Midwest Regional Agency, Farmers Union Insurance, Kansas State University’s Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, and the Organization for Competitive Markets.