Mar 26, 2011

KRC Sponsors Local Foods Seminar at Kansas Department of Agriculture

The Kansas Rural Center organized a local foods seminar for the Kansas Department of Agriculture on Friday March 25. This four- hour seminar featured some of Kansas’ most successful local food entrepreneurs. Local Burger and The MERC from Lawrence provided a local foods luncheon of local meat/veggie sandwiches, local mushrooms/greens salad and cookies made with Kansas’ flour. Besides the leadership staff from the Kansas Department of Agriculture, attendance included the directors of USDA - Rural Development, USDA – Farm Service Agency, Kansas State University Research & Extension, Kansas Small Business Development Centers, and the Beginning Farmer Loan Program at the Kansas Development Finance Administration.
Dr. Rhonda Janke from Kansas State University started the discussion with an overview of local foods consumption data in Kansas. Rhonda detailed a balanced diet and how that compares to existing local food production in certain counties. The bottom line is that consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is too low and Kansas needs to increase production. While Kansans consume $767 million in fruits and vegetables annually, only $32 million (4%) is grown locally. Historically, Kansas had 109,708 farms selling vegetables in 1920 while in 2007 the number was just 473. Some good news is that there has been a slight increase in vegetable and fruit farms from 2002 to 2007. Key challenges are making a “living wage” growing produce in Kansas and scaling up production from direct sales such as farmers markets to supplying supermarkets or institutional accounts such as schools or hospitals.
Rita York – general manager of The Community Mercantile or The MERC in Lawrence – gave an overview of the successes and challenges The MERC has faced since it’s beginning in 1974. The MERC is the largest natural foods coop supermarket in Kansas. Sales were over $12 million in 2010 with an average of 10,500 customers weekly. The MERC has over 5,200 member owners. In terms of local foods, 78% of the eggs sold are locally produced at 11 farms. Even though the MERC has 30 local farms providing produce, just 8% of the produce sold is grown locally. The MERC is committed to buying more local food and is exploring the options to scale up local food production.
Diana Endicott is the founder and manager of Good Natured Family Farms – an alliance of 100 farms in Kansas and Missouri that sell at the Hen House supermarkets and the Balls Price Chopper supermarkets in Kansas City as well as The MERC in Lawrence. Sales will top $5 million this year. Their local foods include beef, pork, eggs, cheese, honey, bison, heritage turkeys and produce. By offering a wide variety of local products, they have more leverage in the market and more acceptance by the supermarkets. Diana has a federally inspected meat processing plant at Uniontown, KS that now processes poultry in addition to the red meats.
Hilary Brown is the founder of the Local Burger restaurant in Lawrence that opened in 2005. Local Burger serves locally raised grass-fed only livestock and pasture raised pork and poultry. Hilary is now expanding her production of ‘The World’s Best Veggie Burger’ made with organic ingredients. Hilary has also developed a ‘Spicy Green Chili Adzuki Bean Burger’ that is made with organic ingredients. Hilary buys organic Kansas’ flour for her sandwich buns.
Mercedes Taylor-Puckett from the Kansas Rural Center gave an update on farmers markets in Kansas. Kansas now has over 102 farmers markets. By the end of this year, 19 of these farmers markets will have electronic benefit transfer (EBT) capabilities to accept the Vision Card (electronic food stamps). In 2010, over $29,000 in Vision Card transactions were processed at 13 farmers markets. In 2011, over $500 million in food stamps will be received by Kansas’ residents; the EBT program increases access for these folks to farmers markets. Helping gardeners to scale up production is a major challenge for farmers markets and meeting the growing consumer demand for local produce.
Ed Reznicek, General Manager of the Kansas Organic Producers (KOP) provided information on organic farming and markets in Kansas. Started in 1974 as an information sharing group, today KOP is a marketing/bargaining cooperative that markets organic grains and other products for about 60 active members from Kansas and bordering states. The grains include wheat, corn, soybeans, milo, millet, barley, oats as well as alfalfa, clover and other forages. KOP is in the process of purchasing a soybean processing facility in Dubois, NE. KOP is also a partner in the ownership of Central Soy Foods in Lawrence, KS, which produces tofu, tempeh and soymilk from organic soybeans.
Erik Wisner – Food Safety director at the Kansas Department of Agriculture - gave a presentation on the state inspected meat slaughter and processing facilities. Kansas has 58 state inspected meat processing plants and 32 custom slaughter plants. In the 2008 federal Farm Bill, provisions were made to allow state inspected meat processing plants to sell across state lines but USDA is still drafting rules and regulations to make this change possible.
In conclusion, the Kansas Rural Center requested that the Kansas Department of Agriculture designate one of their rural development division staff as a “local foods coordinator”. KRC also recommended that a local foods council should be established to identify the resources and opportunities for Kansas to increase local food production and consumption. This council should consist of representatives from K-State, Kansas Small Business Development Centers, Beginning Farmer Loan Program, USDA – Rural Development & FSA, SRS, WIC program, advocates and entrepreneurs.
Time will tell whether KDA and others will be able to respond to the growing interest in local foods and the opportunities local and regional food production and its related businesses present for economic development in Kansas.

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