Local food promoted as economic development tool
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:
- Janke asked, "Is it possible to grow a significant amount of the fruits and vegetables we eat here?" in the seven eastern Kansas counties that she focused on. Her answer: an unequivocal "Yes." Indeed, after the height of produce growing (in the 1910s, I believe) vegetable and fruit production, always and still labor-intensive, fell off in the two world wars.
- Meter’s charts and numbers explained a little about why Kansas farmers, collectively, have made a profit in only four of the years from 1980-2006 while sending some $95 million a year out of the region for “inputs.” The reasons for the losses are complex and include everything from excess debt to farms that have grown beyond the size of peak efficiency. He went so far as to contend that “local food may be your strongest path toward economic development,” because it would keep consumers’ food dollars in the community, allow farmers to grower higher-profit crops and provide the potential for other, related businesses, such as distributors.
- Scott Allegrucci, former head of the Kansas department of tourism, showed how the area could reap far more tourism dollars by capitalizing on its local products, particularly with "heritage travelers." The infant Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area (so declared in late 2006) provides added opportunities to capture those funds.
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:
- The Northern Iowa Food and Farm Partnership
- A winter CSA in Milan, Minnesota
- The Northeast Iowa Farm and Food Coalition
- Growing Power, an urban project in Milwaukee
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.
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