Wichita — With the public's attention riveted on terrorism threats against urban financial icons, Kansas agricultural officials have been quietly building defenses to protect the nation's food supply.
Their newest ally? The U.S. military.
Since the terrorist attacks made agroterrorism a part of the language, rural states such as Kansas have struggled to protect the nation's crops and animal herds from a biological attack.
Kansas officials say the state has received no specific terrorist threat against agriculture. But limited state resources, vast distances and the ease with which a crop or herd can be infected make agriculture an easy target for terrorists.
Earlier this month, state agriculture and emergency disaster agencies put that military support to the test with an agroterrorism exercise they dubbed High Plains Guardian. The scenario played out was an simulated outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
Among the 75 participants were representatives of the Kansas Highway Patrol, Kansas Bureau of Investigation and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Military participants included the U.S. Northern Command, the Kansas National Guard and military reserve units.
"It is refreshing," Kansas Animal Health Commissioner George Teagarden said. "But people have to understand the military is not an unlimited resource either."
Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, Kansas adjutant general and the state's director of homeland security, said Kansas typically had just under 8,000 soldiers and airmen who could be available on a short notice to respond to an agroterrorism attack.
"We are better prepared than we were. I think we have established relationships with all the players," Bunting said. "We have thought this through, and the people involved know each other and each other's capabilities."
While the National Guard would provide the primary military assistance, the state could draw on the reserve units of other military branches once local and state resources are exhausted, he said.
"The diseases that we would expect to be used by terrorists are highly contagious -- and every minute counts when we are trying to get control and eradicate those," Teagarden said.
The state's disaster response plans for an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease call for all hoofed animals, even deer, to be killed within a mile and a half of any infected farm or livestock yard. Surrounding six-mile areas around such locales would be quarantined to all traffic.
National Guard troops would also be posted on roads in and out of Kansas to prevent any livestock movement. Bunting said that initially 2,000 Guardsmen would likely respond to a foot-and-mouth outbreak.
In a state where cattle outnumber people, Kansas has only three staff veterinarians on the state payroll. The U.S. Agriculture Department has seven vets who work in Kansas.
So state officials organized a voluntary core of more than 200 veterinarians who signed up during the past two years to respond to a terrorist attack on Kansas livestock, Teagarden said.
Construction also began in October for a new research center to strengthen defenses against accidental or intentional threats to the nation's food. The $50 million Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University is expected to be completed in two years.
Because the first 24 to 48 hours are crucial in any kind of foreign animal-disease outbreak, the state has been working with counties to develop their own county emergency planning.
While foot-and-mouth-disease is probably the best-known potential foreign animal disease that could be used as a weapon, others are equally devastating, such as the swine fever -- better known as hog cholera -- that was eradicated here in the 1950s, he said.
An outbreak of a wheat disease such as Karnal bunt in the nation's breadbasket would close export markets and trigger crop quarantines that would also devastate the agricultural economy.
Quick response at local levels will be crucial to containing a crop or animal disease outbreak before it spreads.
"We will be very dependent on county emergency planning for our first 24 to 48 hours in any kind of foreign animal-disease outbreak," Teagarden said.
Last year, only one county -- livestock-dependent Ford County -- had a tested, written disaster plan tailored to deal with a foreign animal-disease outbreak.
Today, the majority of Kansas counties either have a completed agroterrorism emergency plan or are well along in their planning for one, Teagarden said.
"The sooner we get started, the sooner we get done," Teagarden said of the response to an outbreak. "We need to act quickly and effectively, and we will not be able to do that from a state and national level as quickly as we would like."