By TOM PARKER
Kansas Rural Center
“That’s the thing about rural Kansas,” Corie Brown wrote. “No one lives there, not anymore.”
The Los Angeles author’s assessment on rural Kansas in particular and Kansans in general was the outcome of an odyssey across the state for an online article published in April 2018. Its title, “Rural Kansas is Dying: I Drove 1,800 Miles to Find Out Why,” set the stage for her thesis.
She interviewed farmers, university professors, politicians, local food system supporters and farm group leaders about the state’s rural population and community decline and what could be done to mitigate it. She found little hope in their responses.
While many felt some of her conclusions were accurate, many who were interviewed felt disappointed that she did not place more emphasis on the efforts being made to address the problems and challenges rural communities and farmers face. They ended up feeling used, and none more so than Marci Penner, who had recommended many of the locations and people for the interview.
As director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation and co-author of “The Kansas Guidebook for Explorers,” Penner has traversed the state countless times and talked with the same people Brown had, yet her assessment was totally the opposite.
“I feel very differently,” she said. “I’m not some Pollyanna who thinks we’re doing great, because we have many issues. There are reasons why it has changed over the years, and reasons why some towns aren’t thriving. But because of the people in this room,” she told a conference crowd last November, “I have confidence that we can create a new rural, a new paradigm, of what we want rural to be.”
Penner offered her upbeat perspective in “What’s Right about Kansas Farms, Food and Communities,” a panel discussion at the Kansas Rural Center’s annual Food and Farm Conference, held mid-November in Wichita, Kansas. Panelists were Luke Mahin, director of Republic County Economic Development and board member of the North Central Kansas Food Council; Debbie Beardon, Market Manager and secretary of the Allen County Farmers’ Market Board and founding member of the Core Leadership Team for Allen County Growing Rural Opportunity Works Food and Farm Council; Donna Pearson McClish, founder and director of Common Ground Producers and Growers, Inc.; Steve Swaffar, Executive Director of No-Till on the Plains; and Ed Reznicek, General Manager for Central Plains Organic Farmers Association. Keynote speaker Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, also offered insights about how rural communities can build social, financial, natural and cultural capital to address the changes facing rural America.
Luke Mahin, who was one of Brown’s sources, was puzzled at how few of the positive endeavors he mentioned made it into her article. While it’s true that Republic County has lost population, down from a high of 19,000 in 1890 to 4,700, by embracing economic development and investing in new technologies, the county offers more opportunities for entrepreneurs, small businesses and Internet-based businesses than most rural counties, he said.
Similar benefits apply to agriculture. Farmers are innovating and adapting new technologies, and there’s a lot of talk about pushing agriculture forward. “There’s no better time to come back to a rural area because of the flexibility it offers and the quality of life,” Mahin said. “Access to technology has leveraged all that.”
Several panelists felt that though Brown’s article highlighted the perils of commodity farming, it didn’t go far enough to recognize alternative methods farmers are using to go forward. Swaffar sees agricultural conservation practices reversing many of the ecological damages caused by conventional farming, and injecting hope among the state’s farmers.
“The folks I work with are very excited about dirt, though we don’t call it that anymore,” he said. “It’s soil. And soil is more than a growing medium—it’s a living organism.” Five years ago, he said, you wouldn’t have heard the term ‘soil health,’ but now it’s mainstream. Why? Because it turns farmers into biologists, and biologists are excited to see the soil come alive. For farmers, that translates into reducing input costs and being able to grow more than just wheat and corn and sorghum.
“Now that they see the capabilities, they’re thinking well beyond traditional commodity crops,” Swaffar said. “We’re seeing changes in the soil and in communities.”
For McClish, food and food production are the driving forces of rural sustainability, and nowhere are they more critical than in food deserts like rural Wichita and surrounding communities. Common Ground Producers and Growers began in 2014 after a friend asked McClish to provide fresh vegetables and produce to a low-income senior center where people had difficulty getting to the farmers’ markets. When other centers got word of it, they asked to be included. The company now serves 33 sites and several rural counties surrounding Wichita, through a network of growers and producers, and continues to expand. “Our motto is, ‘all are fed, no one is hungry,’” she said.
The experience taught her that food is an economic stabilizer and could contribute to the expansion and resurgence of family farms. “Rural Kansas can rebound,” McClish said. “We do good with adversity. We’re all looking at the same problems but we have different ways of solving them. Food is the basis of relationships. We can make this work together.”
Beardon also lives in a food desert in Southeast Kansas, and knows firsthand the importance of food for community growth. After a local farmers’ market folded, Beardon spearheaded a campaign to restructure the market. In the spring of 2010 it reopened with more than 60 vendors, 27 of whom were there for the entire season.
Beardon also worked with the county commissioners and the residents of Moran to purchase their grocery store, which now serves customers for 30 miles around. “There are needs out there beyond our imagination, and as an individual you may not think you can do a lot,” Beardon said. “Keep your ears to the ground and find out who else is interested, put your heads together and just start walking.”
Cooperatives like the Central Plains Organic Farmers Association (formerly Kansas Organic Producers) embrace a different approach by cooperatively marketing certified organic grains, Reznicek said. It is a system that resists corporate capitalism for a system that is ecologically sound, economically viable and socially just. “Because of its social goals and purpose, cooperatives represent a form of social economy, which is a much broader-based economy than the commodity and financially-driven market economy,” he said.
Public schools are one example of successful social economies. They function outside of market support with an unusual level of harmony, he said. The electrification of rural Kansas was another. Farmers contributed their time and machinery to set poles and string lines to reduce the indebtedness cooperatives would have to pay to electrical companies. The same model could be used again.
“That history is worth looking into,” Reznicek said. “The future of healthy rural communities is cooperative.”
To turn the tide of rural depopulation and economic decline, Hendrickson said in her keynote speech preceding the panel, communities are going to have to think creatively and to both identify and invest in capital—financial, social, natural, human, cultural and political. Of critical importance is resilience, the capacity of a system to absorb shocks and bounce back.
“There are different ways of thinking about what makes a community wealthy, but most mean the same thing—ownership, control, lasting livelihoods,” she said. “We need to put all the capitals together to make our food and farming systems resilient to shocks.”
Hendrickson compared the changes facing rural America to the changes farmers face with climate change. “It’s been weird, weird weather, but we’re in something we’ve never experienced before,” she said.
After asking people to identify what makes their community livable, the answers largely centered on its people. “People are engaged in a community and the dedication to its quality of life,” Hendrickson said. “This has to be measured, but nobody measures it. We don’t have a happiness scale, though that might be more important than the gross domestic product.”
Then again, maybe there is a happiness scale that can be measured in those who, in spite of the challenges and difficulties of living in rural Kansas, not only choose to stay, but strive to make them better. If so, Penner wants to be included in that group.
“If you’re rural by choice, I want to be in your tribe,” she said. “We can repurpose these small towns with the things you’re doing. This team we have can really make a difference for our communities to be livable, lovable, visitable, workable, with better health care and broadband, big things, but we have big hearts. And I want to thank Corie Brown for writing that article. I love getting fired up.”
Tom Parker is a freelance writer and photographer from Blue Rapids, Ks. who prepared this article for the Kansas Rural Center.