Climate change, the 1980s farm crisis, and the future of family farming discussed at the Kansas Farmers Union convention

26 01 2014

By Tom Parker

MCPHERSON, KS- “Celebrating the International Year of Family Farming” was the theme of the annual Kansas Farmers Union convention, held Jan. 3-5 at the Ramada Topeka Downtown Hotel and Convention Center. Farmers and ranchers from across the state convened to discuss policy, climate change, the farm crisis of the 1980s and how its memory still shadows modern farming, the farm bill, and other subjects.

A diverse group of guest speakers offered a broad array of topics applicable to today’s farmer. “There was a nice mix of topics that set the convention apart from others like it,” said Mary Howell, KFU membership specialist. “There was something for everybody.” National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson gave an update on the lingering effects of last year’s government shutdown, provisions NFU would like to see added to the new farm bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the furor over Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL).

Dr. W. Chris King, chief academic officer for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, discussed rising risks from climate change such as loss of arable lands, depletion of the world’s aquifers, and reduced access to clean water. King also noted how overpopulation magnifies environmental, geopolitical, and militarization stresses, and why it’s a national security interest for the U.S. military.

Larry Mitchell, administrator for the USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), spoke of new threats to grain and livestock production and exports, the push toward privatization of grain exports and how their precedence in early scandals and compromises dates back 100 years, and why Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” is as applicable today as it was in 1906.

Adrian Polansky, executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Kansas, outlined micro-loan programs for small and niche producers, the importance of the school nutritional program, and modernization of the USDA’s public information outreach.

Linda Sheppard, special counsel and director of Health Policy for the Kansas Insurance Department, explained enrollment cutoffs, benefits, packages and financial subsidies available through the Affordable Care Act following the initial enrollment deadline and offered real-world advice for navigating the government’s Web site.

Tom Giessel, honorary NFU historian and Pawnee County Farmers Union president, presented a brief history of farmers’ co-ops in Kansas in conjunction with a broader research project on Kansas co-ops currently in progress through the Chapman Center for Rural Studies based at Kansas State University; interns Rebecca Hall and Billie Chesney gave a slideshow about their findings for their recently completed Kansas Co-Op History Research Project.

Jeff Downing, general manager of the Midwest Agency, LLP, presented the agency’s year in review.

Karen Pendleton, co-owner of Pendleton’s Country Market, Lawrence, spoke of the farm crisis in 1980 from a beginning farmer’s perspective and of how she and her husband reinvented their farm in the wake of a drought to become a successful agri-tourism industry.

In addition, KFU projects and communications coordinator Nick Levendofsky spoke of his three-week international rural leadership conference in Germany last summer, Sen. Marci Francisco provided an update on recent agricultural legislation in the statehouse, Douglas County Sustainability Coordinator Eileen Horn spoke of the new Douglas County Food Policy Council’s food hub program, the first in the state, and Republic County Economic Development co-director Luke Mahin explained social networking for farmers, producers and small businesses.

A special screening of the documentary, “The Farm Crisis” was aired on Saturday evening, followed by a panel discussion of its effect on Kansas farmers and the advisory role played by members of the panel.

Participants also toured the recently-renovated Kansas State Capitol, which opened to the public on Jan. 2. The $320 million project included a new visitor center, 550-vehicle underground parking garage, site utilities and infrastructural upgrades, replacement of the copper roof and dome and maximization of existing spaces.

“I’m very proud of how the convention turned out,” Levendofsky said. “Some of the highlights were the tour of the beautifully renovated Kansas Capitol, hearing from both state and national agriculture leaders, and discussing the grassroots policy that will guide our organization through the coming year.”

Kansas Farmers Union, based in McPherson and affiliated with the National Farmers Union, is a general farm organization working to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life for family farmers and ranchers and their rural communities since 1907.

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