By Tom Parker
When it comes to agriculture, there are few places in the state of Kansas more applicable to the phrase “thinking outside the box” than GreenFin Gardens, James Sperman’s blue tilapia, fig and banana aquaponic operation located west of Wamego. Which was why several dozen Kansas Farmers Union members visited the place on Saturday, Dec. 6, as part of the annual KFU State Convention held Dec. 4 through 6 in Manhattan.
“Thinking Outside the Box,” the theme of this year’s convention, stretched the boundaries of standard agricultural practices with the visit to Sperman’s gardens, a sobering analysis of hunger in a primarily agricultural state by Cole Cottin, primary analyst for the new study, “Feeding Kansas,” and rotational cattle grazing practices based on low-tech, low-cost electrical fencing by visionary Missouri farmer and rancher Cody Holmes. In addition, National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson presented a keynote presentation on the upcoming challenges of feeding nine billion people with a slideshow of his photographic work documenting farmers and soil health around the world.
Sampling Kansas bananas certainly stretched the boundaries of Kansas agriculture. It might also be the future of banana and citrus production to avert catastrophic collapse from new diseases ravaging those species. By mass producing bananas, oranges and other specialty crops in climates where relevant pathogens cannot exist, Sperman said, the food supply could not only be preserved from extinction but also add tremendous robustness to crops, produce healthier and tastier foods and pave the way for hyper-localization of food supplies.
Sperman’s greenhouses, though relatively inexpensive, were efficient solar collectors. The afternoon was cold and gray with a light drizzle falling, but inside the greenhouses the temperature was almost tropical. Visitors snapped photos of the small clusters of unripe bananas and the green clumps of figs, and stood watching the gray-sided tilapia swim in the pond. At the end of tour visitors were treated to small slices of ripe bananas—Kansas-grown bananas.
Sperman’s vision of greenhouse complexes saturating the world might be one way to feed the nine billion people estimated by 2050. However, it would be short-sighted for Kansas producers to focus on global hunger when so much of it exists within our own state, Kansas Rural Center’s Cole Cottin warned.
“The issue is much bigger than production,” she said. “Agriculture is the foundation of our economy, but we’re underutilizing our healthy foods. The truth is, we’re all affected. Ninety-two percent of Kansas counties are affected with limited availability of healthful food, low-income, and a reduction in grocery stores and farmers.”
Buying foods directly from farmers would strengthen the economy while simultaneously providing fresher, more healthful food, she said. Changing diets, eliminating food waste, conserving water and increasing food co-operatives are other ways Kansas needs to explore to feed the world, and its residents.
Finding ways to make farming more profitable for small-scale producers is also critical for the future of farming, Cody Holmes said. Only two percent of the population farms, and each year there are fewer and fewer farmers. The reason farmers are getting out isn’t because they don’t like farming, Holmes said, but because don’t like losing money.
“We’re not only farmers and ranchers, we’re creatures of habit,” he said. “We’ve been taught that bigger is better. We went in the wrong direction.”
Multi-species grazing—cattle mixed with pigs, sheep, goats and chickens—rotational paddocks, miles of poly wire and a complete absence of heavy farming equipment, fertilizers and herbicides, all earned him a dubious reputation when he switched from orthodox farming to what Allan Savory has called “holistic management.” But his own skepticism had to be surmounted first—he thought holistic was a religion or a cult. After several years of holistic practices, however, he was a believer.
“It was like waking up or getting hit in the head by a ball bat,” he said. “It made sense. I’d been pounding my head on the wall for thirty years trying to make it work, and it didn’t. Holistic farming was an epiphany. It showed me something the universe wouldn’t dream of showing me.”
By altering conventional farming and ranching practices, the few remaining farmers can easily feed the world’s population, he said. “North America is highly productive,” Holmes said. “We haven’t reached capacity for food production. But we’re going to hit a brick wall in this nation if we don’t make some changes.”
In addition to National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson, keynote presenters included USDA GIPSA Administrator Larry Mitchell speaking on Working for Fair and Competitive Markets for Farmers and Livestock Producers Locally and Globally and National Farmers Union’s Chandler Goule discussing the 2014 Farm Bill and current national ag issues.
Friday speakers were: Mark Rude, Executive Director of Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3 on Water for the Future of Kansas; Leon Atwell, Chris Schmidt and Chris Sramek, all with the High Plains Food Co-op in northwest Kansas, on Building a Successful Food Co-op; and Forrest Buhler, Staff Attorney for the Kansas Agricultural Mediation Services (KAMS), on Farm and Ranch Succession Planning. A panel session on family farm advocacy was provided by Mary Fund, Program and Policy Director for the Kansas Rural Center; Linda Hessman, Certified Mediator and KFU board member; Rachel Myslivy, Program Director for the Climate + Energy Project; and Ed Reznicek, farmer and Kansas Organic Producers General Manager.
In addition to Cody Holes, Saturday presenters were: Kerri Ebert, Coordinator for KSU’s Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, on Sustainable Agricultural Programs for Kansas Farmers; Patty Clark, USDA Rural Development State Director in Kansas, on Opportunities for Beginning Farmers; and Bob Atchison on Kansas Forest Services Available for Beginning Farmers and Ranchers.
Sponsors for the 2014 convention include the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Midwest Regional Agency, and Kansas State University’s Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops.