By Tom Parker

Ron Brown, Chairman of the Kansas Local Food and Farm Task Force, opened his statements to members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in mid-December with a pun that was so hackneyed and so clichéd that it almost obscured what came immediately after.

Almost, but not quite. For while his pun drew its intended smattering of laughter and groans, his statistics were nevertheless a sobering analysis of the decline of food distribution throughout rural Kansas, and the sniggering was quickly silenced.

“Let me give you some food for thought, pun intended,” Brown said. “According to information that the Kansas Legislative Research Department pitched together, in 2012, 51 percent of Kansas, or 675 cities, had supermarkets. Between 2007 and 2012, 82 of 213 supermarkets located in towns with populations less than 2,500 closed their doors. Distribution trucks full of food drive by grocery stores that don’t have enough volume to meet minimum orders, and couldn’t pay the prices if they could.”

The resulting vacuum forces rural residents to drive farther for groceries and, in many cases, shop around for the lowest prices. “That might save consumers a few dollars if they drive 15, 20 or 30 miles,” he said, “but who’s getting that extra money? It’s going to the oil companies, so it’s not a good tradeoff.”

Meanwhile, nutrient-poor and calorie-rich highly-processed foods are amply channeled through vending machines, fast food chains, convenience stores and gas stations, and in some locations these are the only nearby food outlets. “The sugar diet is readily available,” Brown said.

And all of that in a state where there are more farmers markets than Walmarts. Though more and more farmers are selling their products directly to consumers through CSA programs, farmers markets, food co-ops, farm stands, you-picks and other marketing channels, he said, the majority of foods Kansans eat is imported from outside the state even as the majority of Kansas ag products are exported out of state.

“Local food is a growing trend now,” he said. “But we need more.”

2015 Local Food and Farm Task Force Legislative Report Cover

Brown, a lifelong farmer from rural Fort Scott, has been producing strawberries, blackberries, potatoes, tomatoes and other vegetables for the Fort Scott Farmers Market for 15 years. He was appointed chairman of the Farm to Food Task Force by Gov. Brownback in August 2014. Other task force members included David Coltrain, Garden City; Loren Swenson, Concordia; Cary Rivard, Horticultural Specialist for the Olathe Research Center, Olathe; Sen. Dan Kerschen, Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Garden Plain; Annarose White, Kansas Dept. of Agriculture, Wellington; and Rep. Adam Lusker, Chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Speaking with Brown was Senator Tom Hawk, Manhattan, who represents Riley, Clay and portions of Geary counties.

The task force held meetings throughout 2015 and presented its findings to the legislature at the beginning of the 2016 legislative session. Some of the recommendations called for more collaboration from state agencies, such as the creation of a new position at the Dept. of Agriculture devoted to specialty crops, more emphasis on K-State Research and Extension services that would expand the use of horticulturists and develop training models to help beginning farmers, and, if possible, reduce the state sales tax on food items.

The last might be a hard sell, Brown admitted.

“We’re the second-highest state in the United States on sales tax for groceries,” he said. “Colorado has zero sales tax on groceries, Nebraska is zero, Missouri is 1.2 percent, and we’re at six percent. We’re advocating lowering the percentage rather than eliminating it, but the legislature isn’t going to be interested in making exemptions with the economy the way it is.”

Other recommendations included identification of financial opportunities, technical support and training necessary for local and specialty crop production; identification of strategies and funding requirements to make fresh and affordable locally-grown foods more accessible; identification of existing local food infrastructures for processing, storing and distributing food, as well as recommendations for potential expansion; and developing strategies for the expansion of farmers markets, roadside markets and local grocery stores in unserved and underserved areas, Brown said.

The increase in production for fruits and vegetables for local markets would help diversify and strengthen Kansas agriculture and the Kansas economy, he said. The question that arises is, can we justify growing specialty crops that this requires? According to a KSU study from 2007, the net income that farmers can derive from corn is $137 per acre, for soybeans $138 per acre, and $2,631 per acre for vegetables.

“Off the cuff, that sounds pretty good,” he said, “but considering that farmers may be able to produce 500,000 acres of wheat while doing one acre of vegetables, and most are doing it with automation, they aren’t interested in the vegetable side of it. So it’s a little misleading, but it’s true as it goes.”

Senator Tom Hawk, whose family was involved in produce, commended Brown and the task force for its findings. The process has been enlightening and, in some instances, shocking, he said.

“When I first heard of high tunnels, I thought they were growing vegetables beneath highway overpasses,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why anyone would do that. There was definitely a learning curve.”

The fact that only four percent of fruits and vegetables produced in Kansas are consumed by Kansans was surprising, he said. Even more so was the fact that in 1920 the state had 65,000 acres under fruit and vegetable production, but as of 2007 there were only 10,000 acres devoted to fruits and vegetables.

Locally-grown foods could be a great economic opportunity for people, even big ag producers, Hawk said, but we need to make sure that what we produce is healthy.

“Even though we Kansans pride ourselves on feeding the world,” he said, “we need to make sure that we’re feeding the children and adults of Kansas, and feeding them the right things that make them healthy.”

Expanding markets for local food, developing labor-saving technology, and education will be key points that the legislature will be focusing on, he said. The task force has proven essential, and the next step is to guarantee that it will be extended for another year.

“This is an exciting time,” he said, “but our work is not done.”

Download: 2015 Local Food and Farm Task Force Legislative Report 2015 here. Note: Large file, 16mb