Nov 9, 2011

Small Farmer Commentary

A Different Kind of Harvest
by Mary Fund

The 2011 Kansas harvest has been a mixed bag- depending on your location. Drought in most of the state cut yields, forcing many to cut crops for silage, and causing reductions to cow herds as pastures dried up and hay crops dwindled. In the part of northeast Kansas where I live, we had adequate to more than adequate rains, and farmers quietly admit to good crop yields -- knowing they may be in the eye of the drought by this time next year.

As we gathered at the September 14 NRCStraining on organic farming in Sabetha, a different kind of “harvest” was going on outside the building. The semi-trailer truck belonging to Harvesters- The Community Food Network, a non-profit anti-hunger and food bank organization, made its monthly stop at the church parking lot to distribute free food.

Harvesters has been operating in the Kansas City area since 1979 acting as a clearinghouse for the collection and distribution of food and household products. They collect food and other items from industry and community sources. They then redistribute these through a network of non-profit agencies.

Today that network covers a twenty-six county service area in northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri, serving as many as 66,000 people each week. Half the people served are children or senior citizens, and 40% of the households served have at least one person working.

Within the last year or two, the mobile food bank began making monthly rounds to small rural communities. In Sabetha, cars lined up for two or three blocks waiting for their turn to pickup a box of free food.

It was only one of the small rural towns the truck would be stopping in that day-- all this in a largely agricultural area, rich with natural resources and, one would think, rich with business or work opportunities related to food.

Those receiving the free boxes of food have many reasons for being there-- loss of jobs, disabilities, health issues, and limited incomes-- all pointing to the need to supplement their incomes with free food. But the Harvesters truck in the parking lots of resource rich agricultural communities helps drive home the contradictions of our food and economic system. While we claim to feed the world, increasing numbers of people have trouble accessing food and/or the jobs or resources needed to buy it.

Inside at the workshop, speakers talked about a more ecological agriculture--building fertility and nutrients from legumes and cover crops in rotation; weed and pest control from rotations and mechanical controls; energy saving practices; and the conservation and production benefits from building better soil.

They also talked about production of food via seasonal high tunnels or hoophouses, a new conservation practice standard available through USDA NRCS programs. High Tunnels promise to increase the amount of local fresh produce available around the state and around the country. They also promise opportunities for existing farms to expand into new enterprises, as well as for beginning farmers to enter agriculture.

“That, “ I told the conservation professionals, pointing to the food distribution line in the parking lot, “ is what conservation is about. It is not conservation for conservation alone, but ultimately it is about preserving our ability to produce food.”

Conservation practices that protect the soil’s ability to renew itself, and to hold precious water and nutrients are critical to being able to feed ourselves. But the current food production system may need to stretch beyond the usual corn-soybeans-corn-soybeans- farm to do it.

Yes, those corn-soybean farmers are raising “food” but it must go through multiple transformations and many miles before it comes back to us in grocery stores or in that box of food in the Harvesters truck. All of it is also dependent on fossil fuels, distant markets and high inputs owned by global corporations. And when those mountains of corn and soybeans leave rural communities, they take with them local job opportunities and true food security.

Wouldn’t it be nice if even some of that transformation occurred closer to where the crops are grown? wouldn’t it be smart for more horticultural production to happen closer to home, where the need is? and wouldn’t the jobs and businesses generated be better for all?

KRC’s annual conference on November 19 will explore the ideas, questions, and practical how-to’s of a more local and regional food system-- a food system that increases local and regional production, distribution and consumption of fruits, vegetables, food grains, meat, dairy and poultry-- and the farming, jobs and business opportunities that go along with that. We hope you will join us.

“Hunger knows no boundaries” is the Harvesters motto. I hope that is something more of us understand and try to address, but do not have to experience personally.

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