In rural areas, an opportunity to innovate
Almost anywhere you go in rural Kansas, you’re surrounded by locally produced food — wheat, corn and cattle are everywhere.
But local food choices for the dinner table, that’s another matter. Local food takes on a whole different meaning in the vast open spaces of rural Kansas.
“We have some of the worst food deserts in local communities where food is produced,” said Mike Callicrate, a cattle rancher from St. Francis, in the far northwest corner of the state.
Food deserts are low-income areas where a large portion of the residents have a hard time getting to a grocery store. Essentially, it’s tough to find fresh food.
As for all that food in Kansas? Mostly commodities, and most of it is sent outside the state or even the country.
And as opportunities for exports expand, opportunities for local production become more limited. So to make local food work out here, you’ve got to innovate.
The first trailer
In the livestock industry, more than 50 percent of the smaller slaughterhouses in Kansas have closed in the last 20 years. Callicrate said the consolidation of more than 80 percent of the meat packing industry into four big companies has taken away the market and passion from many smaller cattle ranchers.
“I think the passion comes back to ranching and cattle production with a market. If you give a person a market to make a living at what they do, they’ve got a lot more reason to get out of bed in the morning,” Callicrate said. “Some people say well you can never go back and I agree you probably can’t, but you can certainly go forward in the right direction.”
For Callicrate, that direction involves strengthening local food systems with a slaughterhouse on wheels.
That’s why today you’ll find on his feedlot in St. Francis a semi-trailer retrofitted to be a slaughterhouse. The slogan on the side of the trailer reads “Rebuilding local processing one trailer at a time.”
This mobile meat processing unit concept was launched in 2002 in Washington state, and has been tried in other coastal locales with mixed results. A shorter distance to slaughter puts less stress on the animal and results in better meat, according to supporters.
The unit at Callicrate’s feed lot, though, is the first in the Midwest. Because it is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Callicrate can sell the resulting beef at retail stores.
This slaughterhouse semi is actually owned by the Nebraska Environmental Action Coalition, an organization working to preserve family farms and rural communities. It’s being tested on Callicrate’s property as he waits for his own trailer to be finished this fall.
A USDA inspector currently visits two days a week for three hours. Eventually running at full capacity Monday through Friday, Callicrate hopes to slaughter up to 50 animals a day.
On a recent afternoon, Dennis Weeden stopped in to check out the unit. His property is a couple miles down the dirt road. He has an injured cow that needs to be slaughtered quickly or else he’ll lose the meat used to feed his family. A two-month wait then at the nearest brick and mortar slaughterhouse 40 miles away isn’t an option.
“I’d say word of mouth will spread the story around and more people will be bringing more animals here I think,” Weeden said.
In this case, the commodity product becomes local food.
Kernel of an idea
The idea also is championed by Shirley Voran, though she’s trying to crack a less-obvious market. Because while most of us eat wheat every day, it’s mixed in with other ingredients to create food products.
But as a young girl on the family farm, Voran wondered why they brought their entire wheat crop to the grain elevator, rather than using some of it locally.
“Why aren’t we part of the food chain?” Voran said.
In 1986, Voran took matters into her own hands and opened the Kansas Wheat House. She took the protein-rich, tasteless wheat nub and added flavorings to create a healthy, filling snack.
“Out here in the heartland, wheat is the most readably available asset that we all have,” Voran said.
Voran and her husband David bring their wheat crop into the store straight from their fields 10 miles outside Cimarron in southwest Kansas. All the production and packaging is done by the couple inside the small storefront.
Today, they also sell wheat-centered chocolates, snacks and bread mixes, plus a small cookbook on how to add the grain to a family dinner.
“If it’s in your backyard, sometimes you‘re too close to the situation to see it and you don’t understand it ‘till you step away,” Voran said.
The typical backyard foods, though — fruits and vegetables — present a different challenge in rural areas.
“Out here you just don’t go out in the middle of a center pivot field and block off a little part that you want two acres for melon production or something, because the field is laid out by design for one uniform crop most likely,” said Dean Whitehill, a Finney County ag extension agent for Kansas State University. He also heads up the Garden City farmers market, one of just eight in 24 southwest Kansas counties.
Generations back, growing vegetables in a rural area was nothing special. It was how you fed your family. Now, it’s almost starting again from the beginning. Whitehill said lack of infrastructure such as high tunnels and the varying Kansas climates limit the growing season of vegetables.
In Garden City, Whitehill said, they typically see 120 frost-free days to grow and the most commonly grown foods in the area are tomatoes, peppers and melons.
Limited by the weather, many of the western Kansas farmers markets run June through early October.
And most of those at the Garden City farmers market are just regular folks who grow a few things in their backyards. They’re not traditional farmers by any means.
But Kerri Ebert, coordinator of the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture, said local food creates opportunity for seasoned and beginning farmers alike.
“I think we’ll see the number of farmers perhaps increase with this,” Ebert said.
She said the center’s next big project will be to identify the foods that can be best grown in different regions of the state.
Because with more than half of Kansas counties considered food deserts, developing local food production may be the best way to fill rural plates with fresh food.