By Tom Parker

When Rosanna Bauman took the stage at the annual Kansas Farmers Union State Convention in Topeka, she wordlessly held up an empty drinking glass and a saucer, placed them before her in a tray and began pouring water into the glass. Within seconds the water spilled over the rim and spread across the bottom of the tray like a rising tide. Despite uneasy laughs from the audience she continued to pour from the pitcher, while behind her a projector screen flashed a single word: Why?

For Bauman, it was less a a rhetorical question than a call to action. A young entrepreneur from a family that began farming in 2001 and now operates 18 different enterprises, Bauman is used to asking hard questions and for looking for answers in unlikely places. With a ceaseless curiosity that opens the world to unlimited possibilities and an Anabaptist faith that grounds it in divine strictures, she bridges the gap between Old World farming practices and new industrialized technologies to create a new paradigm for sustainable rural farms and communities whose shared tenet is that the status quo is no longer viable.

The message was not lost on the audience. “Cultivating Healthy Rural Communities,” the theme of this year’s convention, reenforced the concept through realistic, manageable and workable solutions that spanned the spectrum of small-scale operators and, as the theme implied, families and communities. It was also a timely message because, as Duane Goossen, senior fellow for the Kansas Center for Economic Growth and former Kansas State Budget Director for 12 years under three governors, said, the state’s ongoing budget woes have implications that are sure to impact rural areas.

“We’re broke,” Goossen said. “We’re spending more than we take in year after year and we take money from other things to shore it up. Everything is being downsized and scaled back. It’s now called the ‘Kansas effect.’ As other states explore alternate tax strategies, they ask how they compare to Kansas and take deliberate steps not to do what Kansas has done.”

Making matters worse is the toxic political climate in Washington, D.C., where the bipartisan budget agreement of 2015 unveiled nothing less than “an attack on rural America,” according to Tom Driscoll, a government relations representative for the National Farmers Union. Between trade agreements meant to benefit the wealthy, threats of budget sequestration, caps on government spending and congressional resistance, rural producers and communities are being squeezed from all sides.

“I really believe,” Goossen said, “that the future of our state hangs in the balance.”

And yet, despite all that and more, hope seemed to be in large supply among the speakers and, on the final day of the convention, among a half-dozen farmers, ranchers and dairymen who shared their stories during an all-day bus tour to Tecumseh, Lawrence, Ottawa, Princeton, Garnett and Parker. Driscoll expressed solace in a new incentive bill directed toward young farmers that could forgive student loans, and for a new education program for beginning or transitioning farmers. Both Ron Brown, chairman of the Kansas Farm to Food Task Force, and Kansas Senator Tom Hawk, conveyed hope that the task force could help diversify and strengthen the agricultural economy through the growth of specialty crops, food hubs, farmers markets and educational opportunities.

“Local food is a growing trend now, but we need more,” Brown said. The task force recommends a plan that would make growing, processing and storing locally-grown food more accessible, as well as a reduction in the state’s sales tax on food items. Kansas has the second-highest sales tax on food.

Hawk agreed that the task force has the potential to turn things around. “This is a great economic opportunity,” he said. “It’s a chance for young people to make a good living running a family business at home.”

Ultimately, however, lasting solutions might have to come from communities themselves, said novelist and playwright Robert Gipe. Gipe, director of the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Cumberland, Ky., delivered a keynote address that was both hilarious and deeply sobering, and, at first glance, an unusual fit for the convention’s theme on rural agriculture. Gipe admitted as much in his opening remarks.

“I come from a part of Kentucky where agriculture is highly regulated,” he said, “where it’s illegal and mostly marijuana.”

For much of Harlan County’s existence, coal was the driving economic force. It was dirty, dangerous work, and because of the rural characteristics of the county there was a shortage of health care and an abundance of medicine, much of it funneled toward injured miners. Employment continued to collapse and businesses closed down. But as bad as it was, the residents of Harlan County hadn’t seen anything yet. During 2001 the illegal use of OxyContin and other opioids exploded into an overnight epidemic, and the entire community transformed into something never before seen.

“We’re a family-oriented community,” Gipe said, “but when prescription drugs came in we suddenly started having a lot of overdose deaths, we started having a lot of drug-related crime, similar to what you’d hear about an inner-city when crack or heroin came into the community. Nobody was safe.”

A woman who dealt with community issues told him that they had always dealt with drunks, but pill-heads were a different breed. “She said if you found a drunk in the ditch, you’d set him on his feet and point him toward home. These pill-heads, you look them in the eye, you don’t see nobody home but the crazy. People didn’t know what to do.”

Gipe’s background in the arts led him to write a grant that would pay for disposable cameras—lots of disposable cameras. The cameras were distributed throughout the county at churches and schools, at boys and girls clubs, anywhere people congregated. The resulting photographic project was a visual census of the community, but more than that, it was a response to what was essentially a cultural crisis.

It was followed by several plays written and performed by residents. Each play was based on community themes colored by drug addiction, poverty and crime, as well as biblical stories such as the prodigal son. And then, in late 2012 and early 2013, the bottom really fell out.

“It was a disaster area,” Gipe said. “And it’s not coming back. What do we do next?”

While they haven’t found any clear-cut answers, the community has grown closer through dialogue—sometimes irrational, sometimes aggressive, sometimes passive, but always continual.

“It’s been nice to know that there’s 50 or 60 or 70 people in our community that have seen the value of talking with each other,” he said. “If I could preach on anything, that’s what it would be, to talk to our young people about things, and say things to each other. And really, the sky doesn’t fall. And I think that in some ways the sky is falling anyway, and we don’t know what our way out is, but that’s what we’re trying to figure out, to work together to open the sky up.”

There are no easy answers, he said. The theme ran through his story and all the others from Garnett and Parker to Topeka and Washington, D.C., and each had its own unique perplexity and bafflement. Finding solutions will be neither quick nor painless, most speakers stressed, and if they are to come it will be through communities working together, communities talking together, and communities exploring alternative directions together. Gipe’s story was another way of asking Bauman’s mysterious and wordless why. Why? Because maybe together, rural communities can work hand in hand to open up the sky.

The conference was sponsored by the Kansas Farmers Union and held in downtown Topeka on Dec. 10, 11 and 12. Other guest speakers included freelance journalist Sarah Green on her series, “Telling the Story of Water in Kansas”; Pete Lorenz, a consulting grain marketing expert and senior grain marketing analyst for National Farmers Organization, on marketing opportunities with NFO; EPA Region 7 Administrator Mark Hague on regulatory updates on the Clean Water Rule, Clean Power Plan and the Renewable Fuel Standard; and Josh Roe, recipient of a NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher Grant, on the economics of three after-wheat cover-cropping plots in Republic County.

Sponsors for the 2015 convention include the Midwest Regional Agency, QBE NAU, and Kansas State University’s Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops.

Robert Gipe is a novelist/playwright and serves as the director of the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College in Cumberland, Kentucky. For more than 25 years, he has helped connect communities to the culture of their region. Gipe shared his insights on rural revitalization and connection through arts and culture during Friday’s convention banquet.

Rosanna Bauman is a farmer and serial ag entrepreneur from Garnett. Together with her parents and five siblings, Bauman has developed businesses that expand opportunities for local food production in eastern Kansas through USDA-inspected poultry and meat processing facilities and a non-GMO feed hub. During Friday’s lunch banquet, Bauman reflected on how a family without an agricultural background has had a significant impact on expanded opportunities for diversified, family farms and direct marketers.