Why I’m Working for the Kansas Rural Center
By Julie Mettenburg, Executive Director
In the summer of 1853, a caravan of wagons arrived at the mission that would become Eudora in the Kansas territory. They carried the families of minister Abram Still and his grown sons and their wives and children.
According to written histories, the Stills were banished to Kansas by the Methodists for preaching abolition with a bit too much zeal. Thus, they found fertile soil in the territory, with some of the men eventually taking up with John Brown.
The Stills went on to establish the town of Baldwin City along with its small university and eventually migrated elsewhere in the state. My ancestors, the offspring of Andrew T. Still, ended up in Franklin County, Ks. where my grandfather was born in the spring of 1919 on a 160-acre home-stead just northeast of Princeton.
In 1948, the homestead across the road came up for sale on the sheriff’s steps, so my great-grandparents purchased the place and moved into its sturdy old farmhouse. Around the same time, my grandfather came home from KU and the war with his bride, and bought his own farm where my mother was raised.
My grandfather farmed these family homesteads on the Kansas Osage Cuestas during the great heyday and transformation years of American agriculture. He farmed rotations of wheat, barley, corn, beans, oats and alfalfa. He dairied, butchered beef, fed hogs and put up silage and hay. The land usually supported extra men on the payroll. They worked hard but it was a good living.
I was raised in my great-grandparents’ old farmhouse bought on the sheriff’s steps. But by the time I came along, farming had been reduced to a figment of American nostalgia, although no one was admitting it yet.
My parents had a cow-calf and seedstock operation and tried some cropping, but our small piece of the Osage Cuestas was mostly a shelf of rocky hillside. They tried expansion with the purchase of my aunt’s farm in 1977 (paid for years earlier with butter and egg money that supplemented her schoolteacher’s income), but they nearly lost everything as interest rates ballooned and the payments doubled.
I milked a guernsey cow, slopped pigs, bucked hay bales, drove the old M Farmall, herded cattle on horseback. I also survived the experimental strawberry years, the sweet corn years, and the triticale years, as we tried anything that would help keep the farm afloat.
To this day, my dad says one reason they still own their farm is that he ignored the advice that Sen. Bob Dole delivered to a luncheon in Ottawa one day in the late 70s, to plant fencerow to fencerow, to take on debt for the big equipment needed to do so, to get big or get out. Ultimately, my parents’ off-farm jobs supported the farm and paid it off, too.
Go Big or Go to the City
For us children of the 1980s, raising 4-H steers and sewing quilts and canning garden vegetables provided the illusion that rural life remained a viable choice, but we could look around and see that there would be no future in it. Many kids like me went on to professional degrees and careers in big cities, leaving behind rural communities in decline, although some economists say that’s the benefit of one Kansas farmer feeding 125 people plus you -- that we can move on to these “higher value” positions.
I stayed in ag for a while, with my first job as a reporter for a major beef industry magazine. I was suspicious that the way the livestock and grain industries were going, toward “efficiency” -- via industrialization, mechanization, concentration, economies of scale and vertical integration -- was not positive for the food, the animals, the environment and certainly not the farmers doing it. This put me in an adversarial position as a reporter within the industry.
I spent those few years in the feedlots and on the high plains of western Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and eastern Colorado. I spent hours in meetings of the Beef Board and National Cattleman’s Association. I can’t count the times in which I was “schooled” in the realities of “the way it is”, that these changes not only were inevitable but an improvement because we could produce so much cheap food. Only I could never quite square that with my own experiences.
In recent years, I have found that I couldn’t give up on our family farm legacy so easily, and besides, those “higher value” jobs are in decline too. I now suspect that “the way it is” is not so certain, and we are seeing the devastating effects of industrialized food. With the benefit of my years spent in marketing, communications and small business, I believe we can rebuild the small-business sector of American agriculture in a more ecological, sustainable model that’s more economically viable too, and our rural communities along with it.
I now actively work on and manage the family farms with my parents and my siblings. A few years ago, we decided to try grass-finishing some of the steers from my parents’ herd. This has been revelatory for our family, rejuvenating not just our soils, but also our spirits and our bottom line. The Stockman Grass Farmer newspaper has become a new family bible, our zeal nearly like those Methodist abolitionists so many years ago.
During this time of transition to a diversified, more holistic animal and direct marketing system, we have sought all the help and information we could find. Fortunately, we discovered the Kansas Rural Center. Dale Kirkham came to our farm and taught us about the grasses. Mercedes Taylor-Puckett hosted workshops on direct-marketing, where we learned about rules and regulations and agritourism opportunities to expand the bottom line. I joined Mercedes in the Our Local Food program in the Kaw River Valley and learned more about the fruits and vegetables industry, a truly untapped potential for our state.
If we had worked with KRC years earlier, we might have made these transitions long before -- or at least would have known there were kindred spirits out here, pursuing a different course, seeking more environmentally sustainable methods for long-term farm viability and human and ecological health.
KRC’s Role in the Future
It would be easy to say that this is all a fad or a flash in the pan. But gathering evidence indicates that the forces of history and climate change have tipped the balance, so that we face global and epic, if not catastrophic, upheaval. And not only are consumers demanding more from their food, but population explosion and political realignments are also likely to force systemic change for good.
In the midst of upheaval, tempers can flare and rhetoric becomes heated. Neighbors clash and communities become tense, like the West Virginia coal mine communities where citizens who speak out are pitted against those whose livelihoods come from the mines. We are seeing this in Kansas.
This is where the Kansas Rural Center plays a vital role that will only become more important in the coming years. KRC takes a stand, to be sure, but at its core, KRC is about rolling up sleeves and getting to work.
We come together for a variety of reasons, whether a love of the natural environment of Kansas, a belief in sustainable and ecological agriculture, or a desire for a healthy local-food system, to name a few.
KRC works on the solutions that will heal parts of the system in very real and tangible ways for real people. We are mending streams, developing markets, teaching new farmers and new methods and much more, while helping forge a new agricultural tradition for Kansas. Because of this sensible approach, KRC tends to inspire dialogue between factions and build bridges over gaps.
My challenge in leading KRC will be to help us gain the capacity to do all of the work that will be needed, as well as in getting the message out to more people and broader audiences, to help those families like mine. I believe we have turned a corner from the days of my childhood, so that the future looks brighter for our youth and rural communities, but we have to repair what’s been lost plus institute new systems not yet imagined that will be needed for a world we cannot yet fathom.
I am honored to be working in this organization that I believe is uniquely poised to meet this future, and I look forward to working with each of you. I welcome your input as we go forward. Please be in contact with me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @juliemett.