Funding channels for Farm Aid in Kansas lack adequate cultivation

Are you a farmer in need of help?

There is one state-level agency that might be able to help, and then there is Farm Aid’s national network.

Kansas Agricultural Mediation Services: 800-321-FARM (3276),

KAMS helps resolve conflicts and can aid farmers facing financial adversity through the mediation process.

Farm Aid: 1-800-FARMAID (1-800-327-6243),

Farm Aid’s hotline can help refer farmers to more than 500 organizations across the country that help farmers.

Since 1985, Farm Aid has given $71,000 to farm advocacy organizations designated to help Kansas farmers.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Douglas County — or most anywhere in Kansas — who has seen one red cent.

In fact, the Kansas farmers who have been helped by Farm Aid in the past 10 years aren’t those fourth-generation folks whose lands click by on the western stretches of Interstate 70.

No, the most recent farmers to see Farm Aid funds are a group of 19 urban farmers in Wyandotte County.

Farm Aid helps dozens of organizations and thousands of farmers each year through its programs and grants. But, for those expecting their dollars from the group’s Aug. 13 concert at Livestrong Sporting Park to make their way from ticket sellers to grandpa’s chicken coop, think again.

Consider this: In 25 years, Farm Aid has made more than $36 million in the name of helping farmers. Therefore, that $71,000 amounts to about 0.2 percent of the funds raised by the organization. That means Kansans have received less than a quarter of 1 percent of Farm Aid’s revenues. This, in a state with 65,500 farmers.

Before you start firing off letters to Farm Aid President Willie Nelson, know this: It’s not Farm Aid’s fault.

Not entirely, anyway.

The group’s records show that it spends more on salaries than on direct grants. In 2009, Farm Aid spent $525,341 on grants and $633,503 on salaries and compensation — including more money for its chief financial officer that year than Kansans have ever gotten from the organization.

But those numbers don’t mean farmers aren’t getting aid. They are, by the thousands each year. Just not here.

As an organization, Farm Aid can funnel its funds only through nonprofit groups. Those nonprofits don’t get their hands on Farm Aid funds simply for being viable. They must apply. Funds won’t magically appear just because an organization is dedicated to Kansas farmers.

And these days, the only folks asking are the folks at Juniper Gardens Farm Business Development program in Kansas City, which received $9,000 during the past two years.

Asking and aid

Back in the early 1990s, several people were asking for Farm Aid grants big and small.

The Farm Crisis of the 1980s had given way to several organizations eager to seek Farm Aid funds to help struggling Kansas farmers and ranchers.

The Rural Areas Foundation in Concordia received $8,000 in Farm Aid funds in 1990. The Kansas Swine Growers Association in La Harpe was granted $5,000 in 1993. The Kansas Rural Center, then headed by Lawrence resident Dan Nagengast, received three Farm Aid grants totaling $18,000 from 1992 to 1994.

But the major recipient of Farm Aid grantees was exactly whom Nelson pegged as the perfect vehicle for getting money directly to rural farmers: churches. More specifically, the Kansas Ecumenical Ministries in Topeka, a council of most of the state’s church denominations. KEM, as it was known, received $31,000 from 1990 to 2000.

But then, Kansas groups stopped asking. Or were asking and weren’t receiving. All told, no organization or farmer in Kansas received direct state-level help from Farm Aid for nine years until Cultivate Kansas City received its first Juniper Gardens’ grant — $5,000 — from Farm Aid in 2009.

In the meantime two of the original groups receiving funds went belly up: the Rural Areas Foundation and the Kansas Swine Growers. The Rural Center is still thriving, but it hasn’t asked for Farm Aid funds since the mid-1990s, says Mary Fund, acting executive director.

“We have not handed out money to farmers from them in a long time. Gosh, I can’t even remember the last Farm Aid grant that we had, it was so long ago,” says Fund, who has been with the organization for the better part of three decades. “We just haven’t applied to them. I’m not sure quite why. I think we got turned down on one and then you just kind of get out of the cycle.”

But the biggest factor in the aid puzzle and its biggest loss was KEM, which was, and still is, the average farmer’s best hope at receiving monetary help in times of personal crisis.

A dissolved web of help

Once upon a time, the Christian organization known as KEM worked through pastors in Kansas churches to reach in-need farmers. The idea, says Linda Hessman, was that if a small-town farmer needed help, he wouldn’t broadcast it, but rather, he’d go through his pastor. Or maybe even a pastor the next town over. Those pastors would contact someone like Hessman, who worked as a liaison for a division of the KEM, Interfaith Rural Life, which granted farmers $250 for household needs and $500 for medical expenses. Hessman dealt specifically with the health expenses, which were paid for through a pool that included Farm Aid funds.

“It was $500 a family, they could apply more than once, and it was used to help with medical needs,” Hessman says. “Now, that could also be like to cover fuel or whatever it would take to ease that piece. You could also use that money to pay your health insurance, because that was, very consistently, what we all saw across the board — that was one of the expenses that was just dropped to help out with the cash flow.”

But KEM, which had its own hardships during the past decade, is reorganizing. Without KEM, the state doesn’t have an umbrella organization to hand out money to struggling farmers, let alone ask for such funds, says Charlie Griffin, an assistant research professor at Kansas State University and longtime farm advocate.

Griffin, whose last aid effort, the Kansas Rural Family Helpline, lost funding more than a year ago, says that, in other states, funding can be obtained because of stronger aid networks. Many, including Nebraska, went the same route as Kansas and have networks set up through the state’s council of churches. Others, such as Iowa, went through the state’s extension services to help hurting farmers. Still more, as is the case in Wisconsin, work through a state’s department of agriculture.

“There’s no substitute for an organized statewide assistance program of some sort that has high visibility. The states that do have programs like that have, I believe, even a track record of reduced farm suicides and things like that. Having that contact is a vital doorway into the many, many sources of assistance that are available,” Griffin said. “After that, I would say that since we do not currently have that here in this state, our system is quite fragmented. I wouldn’t hesitate to say it’s difficult right now for people to have assistance.”

Kansas State Research and Extension can help farmers only so much. It does provide what is called Kansas Agricultural Mediation Services, but can help only in cases of legal and financial need through consultants, not dollars.

Without a centralized group, that also means when there are natural disasters — such as the tornadoes, droughts and flooding Kansas farmers have already seen this year — it’s nearly impossible to help those farmers with Farm Aid grants because Kansans don’t have a nonprofit web though which to funnel the money. This is unlike other states, which have organizations that have been able to tap into more than just the federal and state funding that comes along with a natural disaster declaration.

Farm Aid spokeswoman Jennifer Fahy gives the example of working through nonprofits after Hurricane Katrina to help those working destroyed lands. Farm Aid contacted one of its longtime partners, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, to dole out aid.

“The focus was on the Ninth Ward and people living in New Orleans, but just outside the city we had rural residents and farmers flooded just as much as the people living in the Ninth Ward,” Fahy says. “We worked with them to make sure we were assisting farmers in that area.”

Dollars and need

The other part of the reason why Kansans aren’t getting many Farm Aid funds is a simple matter of mathematics.

As stated above, in 2009, Farm Aid spent $525,341 on grants and $633,503 on salaries and compensation, out of a total take of $1,526,916. That’s 35 percent for grants and 42 percent for its employees. And many of those salaries went to workers on the group’s many national programs, such the Farm Aid Hotline and The Farmer Resource Network that help farmers across the country.

But the group also spent $128,170 on a public relations firm. On advertising and promotion, it spent $111,198. And the group’s 35-hour-a-week CFO, Glenda Yoder, made $76,384 in total compensation — more than Kansans have received in the past 25 years.

Most of Farm Aid’s most recent grantees received funds of $5,000 or less, but every dollar is important in the agricultural arena these days, and Kansas is no different. While it’s not tantamount to the Farm Crisis of the 1980s that launched Farm Aid, the fiscal situation isn’t great.

It’s something the Rural Center’s Fund calls a “low-level fever” waiting to explode. Commodity prices are artificially high, which looks good if you have crops to sell, but many in the state are hurting for various reasons. Drought. Flooding. The extreme heat. Storm damage. High price of land. High price of feed.

It adds up to a state on the verge of crisis, says Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union.

“We’re in a bubble right now, but there are tremendously high input costs, too. All these people in Kansas with their crops drying up, good crop prices aren’t going to do you any good if you don’t have any crops to sell,” Teske says. “It could get to be a serious situation because they have such high-input costs to put the crops in and they’re still going to owe that money. Crop insurance will help with some of that, but it doesn’t pay that much.”

This makes Juniper Gardens’ Jill Erickson heartsick, even if her organization, Cultivate Kansas City, is being funded. So much need and so little help, and no one to ask Farm Aid or anyone else.

“There’s just a lot of factors. Are there viable organizations that are eligible? Are they aware that Farm Aid has support?” Erickson said. “It’s kind of like, what are the chances of meeting your soulmate with all the millions of people that there are and the two of you happen to meet at an airport in Italy? It’s just that kind of a thing sometimes.”