Of course, top of mind of all attendees and speakers was the current COVID-19 pandemic and how agriculture and the food industry were impacted and how they may come out from the storm.
“Agriculture is and always will be the backbone of our economy,” said Gov. Laura Kelly, as she addressed the summit attendees Aug. 20 in the final seminar. She said the state’s ag sector’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was critical to its residents’ health and security.
“Because of the actions we took and the contribution of the agricultural industry, our economy was able to weather the damage better than other states, including Texas,” Kelly said. “Kansans demonstrated incredible resilience and compassion. Ag workers, farmers, ranchers, meat plant workers and others adapted quickly to successfully maintain the food supply chain and to feed the state, our nation, and the world.”
The Ag Growth Summit is used to gather grassroots ideas and hot topics from residents so that state lawmakers and agencies can better prepare for the future. Past summits have brought to light issues regarding rural health care, rural broadband communications needs and rural school funding, as well as opportunities to be found in industry sectors. Each virtual session was recorded and is posted for viewing by the public at https://agriculture.ks.gov/AgGrowthStrategy/ag-summit-2020.
For example, from the Ag Technology session, participants discussed the need for ensuring that the next “big idea” has an opportunity to be created and nurtured in Kansas. One way identified in the session to ensure that happens is to foster youth engagement at an earlier level by creating entrepreneurship mentoring opportunities as well as creating a framework that keeps great thinkers and our bright talent in the state instead of looking for opportunities elsewhere.
That theme of keeping Kansas talent in the state also ran through many other sessions, such as Animal Health, where participants overwhelmingly supported the need to prioritize the supply of mixed animal practice veterinarians in rural Kansas, according to Assistant Secretary Kelsey Olson.
From the Beef session, Randy Blach and Kevin Good of CattleFax spoke about the growing need to increase the state’s processing capacity to match up with the region’s cattle feeding capacity. One encouraging aspect of the state’s agribusiness environment is that rural Kansans are often open to expansion projects that will bring jobs and tax dollars to their communities.
The Dairy session noted that the state continues to be very inviting for large dairies to resettle from other states, particularly in western Kansas, and there is a large potential for continued growth. However, participants identified obstacles to that expansion, particularly in expanding new milk processing facilities, and dairy beef processing facilities for cull cows and fat dairy beef cattle, and supporting critical federal immigration reform for dairy workers who are vital to the success of farms.
Labor was a strong theme running through many sectors. The Food Processing and Pet Food sessions identified a critical need for an agricultural workforce able and willing to meet the skilled labor demand.
Kansas Ag Heroes
For the first time, KDA recognized several residents of the state for their outstanding work in the food and agricultural industry over the past year. These Kansas Ag Heroes were nominated by the public.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen Kansas farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses in our communities performing essential functions day after day to keep food on tables across the nation and the globe,” said Sec. Beam. “KDA was motivated and inspired to find a way to acknowledge these people and their amazing work. These Kansas Ag Heroes have gone above and beyond serving their communities when the state needed them the most.”
The honorees included:
• Rick McNary, founder of the Facebook group, “Shop Kansas Farms,” which now boasts 143,000 members and continues to grow. At the beginning of the pandemic, McNary saw problems with food shortages in grocery stores and created the group as a way to provide the general public connections to local farmers with food for sale.
• Bob Morando is CEO of Farmer Direct Foods, a flourmill near New Cambria, Kansas. Farmer Direct Foods mills King Arthur Flour for the retail and wholesale sectors. When grocery stores were running short of retail packages of flour, Morando expanded the mill’s schedule, bringing in K-State milling and baking science interns and even Farmer Direct retirees to run more shifts to fill the need.
• Scott Thellman, Juniper Hills Farm, partnered with a local protein distributor to launch an online grocery store for locally and regionally sourced products called Sunflower Provisions. This new marketplace for local foods provides non-contact delivery and pickup options.
•Gaeddert Farms Sweet Corn has donated more than 454,000 pounds of fresh produce to the Kansas Food Bank over its 12-year history. This year, with a 30% higher demand in services since March, Gaeddert Farms stepped up to the challenges and provided meals for neighbors in need.
• Ashley Goss, deputy secretary of public health at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment raised the alarm at the state level when calls started coming in from meat processing facilities in southwest Kansas. She and her team were implemental in calling for vital testing resources for Lyon, Seward, Finney and Ford counties to keep workers working in a safer manner.
• Farmers Coop of Cherokee County saw local food pantries struggling in the pandemic, and Manager Matt Case created a 2-week “County Food Fight” that matched donated pounds of food pound-for-pound up to 2,000 pounds. More than 10,000 pounds of food were donated to 8 different locations in the county following the challenge.
• Hayes Kelman, co-owner of Boot Hill Distillery, quickly saw the need for hand sanitizer at the start of the pandemic and soon the distillery converted production from vodka and whiskey to a CDC-approved hand rub. Working with local partners, BHD staff were able to help local communities in southwest Kansas.
• Keri Harris, district manager for the Franklin County Conservation District, has put her sewing skills to work for her neighbors. Since the start of the pandemic she has sewn more than 400 masks, donating them to anyone in need.
• The K-State Hal Ross Flour Mill and Kansas Wheat answered flour demand in the Wheat State by bringing the mill back online this summer to manufacture flour for those in need. Kansas Wheat donated 20,000 pounds of wheat that was locally produced and the mill packaged the flour made from that wheat into 10-pound bags, all distributed free in mid-June.
• The Haskell County 4-H Ambassadors knew that cancelling the Haskell County spring livestock show would be devastating to 4-Hers in the county. So teenagers Ashley Kennedy, Sean Wagner, Dalton Winfrey, Kara Kunselman, and Bailey Briggs, used their talents in technology to create a virtual livestock show open to 4-H and FFA members across Kansas. The effort was a success with 221 head of livestock entered.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.