Opinion: Grateful for urban farming revolution

While over 80% of the land area across Kansas qualifies as rural, the population of our state, which is mostly concentrated in about 10 of the state’s 105 counties, is increasingly urban, something which geographers and political leaders and others have been aware of for decades.

This urban-rural divide creates all sorts of long-term problems, especially since the state as a whole is growing very slowly, both economically and in terms of population, meaning that even as Kansans gradually become more urban and more diverse, patterns of rural conservatism nonetheless continue to dominate our politics.

But there are upsides to the pervasiveness of Kansas’ rural self-understanding. Among them is the fact that many urban Kansans, motivated by concerns over the sustainability of our food systems, and reminded of the possibilities for healthy food production in every empty rural acre around our cities they see, are becoming leaders in small-scale agricultural innovation.

That’s not to say that Kansas is likely to turn into a Vermont or an Oregon anytime soon, with their long countercultural history of well-funded farmers’ markets, food co-ops and state-supported local agriculture initiatives. Farming and food production in Kansas remains very much the domain of big agricultural operators and the national Farm Bill subsidies which undergird them.

Still, if one pays attention, the innovations of urban gardeners and local farmers across the state is attracting the attention and support of food sustainability visionaries (and the governmental and private programs which support them) from across the nation. For example:

In Salina, the Land Institute has spent decades developing kernza, a perennial grain. This environmentally friendly relative of wheat may finally be finding its financial legs — partly due to small batches being grown for distillers in towns throughout Kansas, Colorado, and elsewhere who are looking to bring a new flavor of whiskey to the market.

In Lawrence, Maseualkualli Farms has become a pioneer in the Peoples’ Century Farm project, sharing food and providing workshops, particularly with and for lower-income and non-White neighborhoods, upending and diversifying the usual farming model.

In Ottawa, gardeners fought — with the surprising assistance of the normally business-friendly Kansas Policy Institute — to change zoning codes and other rules which stand in the way, as they do in too many towns, of a flourishing economy in locally produced honey, fruits and more.

Of course, these and hundreds of other local successes across the state in making Kansas’ food systems more diverse and resilient face many obstacles, one of which is the frequent resistance to composting that exists throughout America’s homeowners associations and its suburban neighborhoods generally.

With food waste — and the methane it releases — being such a major factor in the impact that landfills have on climate change, getting county and city governments to support community composting stations (including educating people about comparatively easily controlled smell or pest problems they are too often associated with) is not only a smart way to mitigate the heat sinks that urban areas create, but would also be a major step toward helping many backyard gardeners up their game, and join the low-key, small-scale revolution in urban agriculture taking place across the state.

This Thanksgiving week, many celebrators will give thanks for food produced in the rural parts of Kansas. But let’s remember to also be thankful this holiday for the many urban Kansans who, wanting to make our food systems more environmentally sustainable, and inspired by the fertile land all around us, are finding new ways to bring healthy, local food into our cities as well.

— Russell Arben Fox teaches politics at Friends University in Wichita.


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