KHI News Service

Paul Johnson, lobbyist for the Kansas Rural Center, and Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for Lawrence and Douglas County, listen during Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on a bill to create a state Local Food and Farm Task Force.

TOPEKA - Lawmakers are looking at creating a task force focused on increasing demand for locally grown foods and lowering market barriers for the farmers who produce them.

The proposal has support from the Kansas Rural Center, the Kansas Department of Agriculture and Douglas County.

"While Kansas agricultural exports lead the nation, here at home farms capture less than 5 percent of the food dollar spent on fruits and vegetables in our state," said Julie Mettenburg, the rural center's executive director. "With $767 million spent each year on produce alone, that represents a significant economic opportunity that we are leaving on the table."

Mettenburg said one of the aims of the task force would be to increase demand for so-called specialty crops, including fruits and vegetables, and encourage more farmers to grow them.

She said local food producers could use help marketing to large buyers such as school districts, hospitals and restaurants.

Senate Bill 380 would create the Local Food and Farm Task Force and charge it with developing a plan for "expanding and supporting local food systems and for assessing and overcoming obstacles necessary to increase locally grown food production."

The task force would then submit its plan, which presumably would call for some changes in state policy, to the agriculture committees in the House and Senate at the start of the 2016 legislative session.

KHF grant

The Kansas Rural Center is one of five organizations awarded Kansas Health Foundation grants in May of 2013 to spearhead a series of initiatives aimed at encouraging healthier eating. The foundation is a major funder of the Kansas Health Institute, the parent organization of the KHI News Service.

The proposal was the subject of a hearing today by the Senate Agriculture Committee.

'Conventional agriculture'

A lobbyist for the Kansas Livestock Association, which represents ranchers and large feedlots, said the group is neutral on the bill for now. But KLA would oppose it, he said, if it appears the measure is a vehicle to provide subsidies to local food producers.

"Our members believe in a free-market system," said Aaron Popelka, KLA's vice-president for legal and governmental affairs. "KLA is opposed to ag policies that pit one industry group against another or distort market signals."

If the task force is formed, Popelka said, the livestock association would scrutinize its recommendations to make sure they don't disparage "conventional agriculture."

"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)," Popelka said.

Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat and the main legislative backer of the bill, said he would try to add language to the bill to assure that locally grown meat would be among the foods promoted.

Seeking to avoid conflict

Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for Douglas County and the City of Lawrence, said the bill's supporters want to avoid conflict with the KLA and other large-scale agriculture groups. She said smaller, local producers and commodity growers that sell to national and international markets should be able to coexist.

"We have talented commodity producers who are feeding the world and then we have really talented small producers who can sell to more local and regional markets," Horn said. "They are functioning at such different scales that I think the state can support them both. I don't see a conflict in that."

Horn is overseeing a feasibility study on a possible regional food hub in Lawrence that would coordinate the growing and marketing of local foods throughout northeast Kansas. The study should be complete in June, she said.

Mettenburg said the list of agencies and organizations that the bill would guarantee a seat on the task force should be adjusted to include more producers and purchasers of local food and more people involved with public health.

Currently, the bill would let the governor appoint two members. The state health and agriculture secretaries and the secretary of the Department for Children and Families would each get to appoint a member. The Kansas Farm Bureau, the Kansas Farmers Union and the rural center would each be represented. Kansas State University would send representatives from its college of agriculture and departments of agricultural economics and horticulture, forestry and recreational resources. In addition, the secretary of agriculture would appoint two members to represent farmers' markets.

Sen. Marci Francisco, a Lawrence Democrat and a member of the committee, suggested that the Kansas Department of Education also have a task force seat given that school districts are among the largest purchasers of local food.

Hawk said there was no assurance the committee would work the bill but he said several members are farmers that seem open to supporting it.

"I think we'll just have to see how this bill fits into the priorities of leadership, but I think it's really a nonpartisan effort to try and create jobs and make the economy better for local Kansas people," he said.