Supporters of a proposed task force to promote and accommodate the demand for locally grown Kansas foods said they are pleased the Legislature is still considering the idea but that they are concerned the panel - as modified by a Senate committee - might not include enough voices of the small farmers the panel was meant to benefit.
The Senate Agriculture Committee endorsed Senate Bill 380, the task force proposal, just before the Legislature adjourned for its brief, mid-session break. But the committee also rewrote the bill so that the Local Food and Farm Task Force would have only seven members instead of the 18 originally proposed; Gov. Sam Brownback would appoint three of the seven.
The smaller task force also would include a member appointed by the secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture and one named by the dean of the College of Agriculture at Kansas State University. Two legislators of different political parties would be appointed by the chairs of the House and Senate agriculture committees.
Paul Johnson, a lobbyist for the nonprofit Kansas Rural Center, which is one of the bill’s lead backers, said his worry was that the membership changes would leave out of the process the small farmers and others who are “working on the front lines” to build local food systems. The task force, he said, was intended specifically to help them.
“We feel like those folks needed to be at the table as voting members to develop a really comprehensive, actionable plan,” Johnson said.
The Kansas Rural Center, based in Whiting, promotes sustainable, smaller-scale farming.
The original bill would have included on the task force representatives of the rural center, the Kansas Farmers Union and the state agency that oversees safety-net programs for children and families. In addition, the secretary of agriculture also would appoint two members to represent farmers’ markets.
Despite the committee's changes to the bill, Johnson said, the backers are pleased the proposal is still alive heading into the second half of the legislative session.
“We need this task force to go forward. We need this discussion of how much more we can do with local food in Kansas,” he said.
Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat, is the chief sponsor of the task force bill. He said he introduced it after learning that only a fraction of the more than $760 million in produce purchased each year by Kansas consumers is grown by local farmers.
“We really only produce 4 or 5 percent of the fruits and vegetables that are consumed by Kansans and I thought that would be a great market for small, to medium maybe even some larger farmers in Kansas,” Hawk said.
The bill would charge the task force with developing a plan for “expanding and supporting local food systems” across the state. The plan would be submitted to the agriculture committees of the House and Senate at the start of the 2016 session.
Representatives of large “conventional agriculture” organizations have said they aren’t opposed to the task force but warned against setting it up in a way that pits the interests of small producers against those of large farmers, ranchers and meat producers.
“There are a lot of hard-working Kansas farmers and ranchers that have decided to adopt a conventional view of agriculture to not just feed their neighbors but the entire world and we shouldn’t criticize them to promote local (agriculture),” said Aaron Popelka, vice-president for legal and governmental affairs for the Kansas Livestock Association.
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