People from small towns have big dreams. Typically, there’s a strong sense of community pride and a desire to be part of the greater good. When individuals with big dreams get together, magic happens.
That’s exactly what occurred in Rice County, where leaders had big dreams and executed them to achieve a regional food system.
A regional food system is what it sounds like — a system of three important cogs that moves food from farmers’ fields to processing facilities and finally to consumers, all in the same region.
“In some of our first conversations, we had these large white sheets all over the room so we could visualize production, processing and distribution, the three components of a local food system,” Stacy Clark, Rice County Economic Development director, says. “As people were adding things to the list, we were impressed with what was being grown locally but realized we had very little processing opportunities and almost no paths of distribution.”
If this seems like an unusual community conversation to have, you probably haven’t met Rick McNary, founder of Shop Kansas Farms.
“I’ve been in the hunger space for decades and have studied local food systems,” McNary says. “In late 2021, Stacy asked if I’d consider holding a Shop Kansas Farms event in Lyons at the Celebration Centre and Bar K Bar Arena. I was already planning to host some kind of event, so I told them Rice County would be a great option, but only if they let me talk to them about this crazy idea I had that involved building a functioning and sustainable local food system.”
Clark says she was intrigued with his ideas and the framework he provided. Together, she and McNary invited community members to monthly meetings, and the ideas and excitement began to grow.
“It was amazing how many different people were interested in local food systems for many varied reasons,” Clark says. “From the bankers to soil conservationists, economic development and community development people and the farmers. Everyone started coming and wanting to talk, and it just grew from there.”
One of those “development” people was Karly Frederick, executive director of the Rice County Community Foundation. Because she works closely with Clark, it was a natural fit for Frederick to be involved.
“We do things that are good for Rice County, and we thought this was good for Rice County. It just made sense,” she says. “At first, I just listened and learned and then was like, ‘OK, there has to be a structure, and I think the community foundation structure could provide the springboard for at least making it from something intangible to tangible,’ because that’s how my mind works.”
To say everyone in the room was a fan from the start would be misleading. Chad Hook considers himself a conventional farmer. He and his wife, Leanna, grow corn, wheat, rye, soybeans and milo, and they feed cattle for a local feedlot in Sterling. He is also president of the Rice County Farm Bureau board of directors.
“I had a lot of concerns when I first started attending,” Hook says. “When you sell directly to a consumer, you worry if your product is going to cause some health issues or liability for your operation. The more I learned, though, I saw there were ways to avoid those situations and protect yourself from those liabilities.”
Besides learning more about selling directly to consumers, Hook also found himself inspired by his fellow community members.
“It never failed that somebody could find a solution to a problem before you even really finished a sentence about the problem,” Hook says.
Besides Clark, Hook and Frederick, others have been integral to the work happening in Rice County. They include:
• Joseph Kern, owner of Plum Hill Farm and grant writer
• Wendy Hughes, K-State Research and Extension director for Rice County
• Alan Seimer, Bushton city council member
• Dr. Paula Boyea, local resident
• Doug Keesling, local farmer and U.S. Agency for International Development international food security advisor
• Lee and Susan Sankey, local agricultural leaders and specialists
This diverse group of local movers and shakers has brought various skills to the table, but one person is helping build an often-missing piece in local food systems.
“For me, one of the most exciting parts is that Alan Siemer and the incredibly visionary folks of Bushton are repurposing the kitchen cafeteria in the former high school into a commercial kitchen,” McNary says.
“They have repurposed the entire school into multi-function uses and will create opportunities for local
growers to not only process their vegetables and fruit into value-added products, which suddenly have the potential for a national market, but Bushton will also provide a place for them to sell right out of the former school.”
In less than a year, these community members have organized the Harvest Hub of Rice County by:
• Applying for and being awarded a $106,000 grant from USDA to help them build out the Harvest Hub;
• Receiving grant funding to update their wastewater plant, which will help them build a processing facility that can process local beef and pork products; and
• Creating a board of directors led by Hook.
The USDA grant also meant the group of volunteers could hire someone to manage the work of the Harvest Hub. In July, the board of directors hired Kristi Showalter. Not only is Showalter a community member who’s lived in Rice County for more than 22 years, she also understands conventional agriculture. She’s raised three kids who participate in 4-H and FFA, and she is a firm believer in education.
“I have seen the commercial side of farming for years, and when they started talking to me about the commercial kitchens and providing guidance on how to get licensing, I realized the opportunities for people in a community this size are tremendous,” Showalter says. “Then I think about the opportunities for 4-H kids to take a vertical farm, use a commercial kitchen and produce something to create their own product or business, and that’s pretty huge.”
BIGGER THAN US
When you ask this group of doers and dreamers what the future of Harvest Hub looks like, it’s not surprising they’re looking further than just their community.
“I have dreams of Harvest Hub being in every county in Kansas because what we started here in Rice County is just a steppingstone to greater things further down the road,” Hook says. “We don’t need to accomplish everything in Rice County. We just need to keep moving forward, and as other communities build their own food systems, we will learn from them.”
And the fact that this work started in the geographic center of Kansas is further proof to Clark that the work happening here is just the beginning.
“When you drop a stone in water, it ripples, and that’s what we’re doing here.”
For McNary, the work happening in Rice County affirms what he’s dreamed of for more than a decade.
“It’s exciting to know my dreams weren’t pipe dreams or that I wasn’t Don Quixote chasing what I thought was a good idea but nobody else buys it,” he says. “It’s solidified to me that if you lay a vision out, and people come to it and see their places, and see where they can insert their gifts, amazing things can happen.
Learn more about the Harvest Hub of Rice County by visiting Facebook and searching for “Harvest Hub.” If you or your community are interested in building your own regional food system, reach out to McNary at [email protected].
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Story by Meagan Cramer via Kansas Living Magazine