It's one of the ironies of our food system that here in Kansas, one of the largest agriculture states in the union, we don't have a whole lot of local food. It doesn't have to be that way. What's more, a turnaround in that situation is a good economic development plan.
That was the message that two sustainable agriculture experts and a tourism specialist delivered Saturday morning in Lawrence at a meeting called (among other names) "Lawrence Food Future."
The sustainable ag people, Ken Meter and Rhonda Janke, in good Ph.D. fashion (as expected here in a college town), plowed acres of numbers to show that farms in the Kaw River Valley (or Kansas River, depending on whom you believe) are capable of supplying the fruits and vegetables that we eat. In fact, area farms used to do just that, and local processors packed the foods that weren't consumed right away.
Can we, should we, will we?
I won't begin to try to recount the numbers for you, but you can get some samples at the Crossroads Resource Center (for many locales) that Meter runs, plus some Kansas information at a K-State Extension project page, Welcome to the Kansas River Valley. The Kansas Rural Center, one sponsor of the session, promises to have both their presentations posted shortly on its website, but they weren't up yet (or I couldn't find them) at this writing.
The presentation built its pro-local argument in three steps:
These presentations weren't intended merely to ring the cowbell for local-food believers. Indeed, organizers specifically hoped to capture the interest of policymakers, and several of them were in the audience of 60 or more at the local county extension office.
The crowd included not just State Sen. Marci Francisco and City Commission Boog Highberger, both well-known for their environmental leanings, but also County Commissioner Charles Jones, City Manager David Corliss, and Judy Billings, head of the local Convention and Visitors Bureau. I also spotted a produce man (maybe the manager?) from Checkers, a locally owned supermarket; Nancy O'Connor, nutrition educator at the Community Mercantile; Subarna Bhattachan, co-owner of three Lawrence restaurants; Mercedes Taylor-Puckett of the Lawrence Farmers Market; extension staffers; farmers; as well as regular folk. The omnipresent operators of Local Burger were there, too, dispensing some of the local fare that has helped make it a publicity factory for local foods and Lawrence.
Just a beginning?
The amount of information dispensed was a little overwhelming. Presenters covered the territory in three hours, including breaks, and it was a lot to digest. With all the number and charts as background (all of which, of course, could be disputed on one ground or another, as can most statistics), I suspect the biggest impression may have been made by Meter's recounting of local-food success stories. The numbers can seem abstract, but stories and photos of projects that have succeeded made the ideas concrete. Here are some of them:
Dan Nagengast (small PDF), executive director of the Kansas Rural Center, assured the crowd that the meeting was just the beginning of a drive to promote more local food production. Unsaid, but a strong underlying message, was that using the fertile soils in the flood plains to raise local food is a much better idea than a controversial proposal to build an industrial park on that prime farmland.
We'll see whether anything comes of it.