National Ag Hall of Fame charting new course

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A view of the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame looking out from a window in the National Poultry Museum, which is also on the grounds. (Photo by Eric Durban/Harvest Public Media)
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Supervising Editor

Donna Vestal is the supervising editor of Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR in Kansas City.

Bob Dole, Abraham Lincoln, John Deere and Willie Nelson have something new in common.

Nelson, the famed country singer, is being inducted into the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kan. — like Dole, Lincoln and Deere before him.

You might be thinking the notion of installing Willie Nelson as the newest member of the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame is mostly a publicity stunt. Or you might be thinking: "Gee, I didn’t know there was a National Ag Hall of Fame."

Well, Carl DiCapo has news for you.

 “If you believe in America, this is where you come,” DiCapo said.

DiCapo is perhaps Kansas City’s most well-known modern-day fundraiser, helping to raise $40 million toward the reconstruction of the Liberty Memorial and the installation of a new World War 1 Museum. He’s also raised money for the Salvation Army and other nonprofits.  

But the 83-year-old former restaurateur has a new mission: Saving the National Ag Hall of Fame, which was chartered by Congress and has been in Bonner Springs, just outside Kansas City, for 50 years.  It’s a museum, actually, and a shrine to the legends of agriculture.

However, a couple years ago, the board of directors decided to close the center and operate it as an online entity. The endowment was to be spent down; press releases even went out saying operations would end. There was talk that the county government might take over.

Then came the second thoughts — though by then, just $80,000 was left in reserves.  That’s when the board of governors – which numbered about 30 or so at the time— took over.

They reached out to former executive director Cathi Hahner, who returned to that role in April 2010 and started to work on new strategic plans.

With the help of a loan from county farm bureau agencies, the hall managed to open this year. It’s not exactly been a high-dollar operation.

“Everything has been donated. Everything from the buildings … to the manpower to fund it,” Hahner said. “We have some very, very expensive pieces in our collection.  But they’ve all been donated.”

Part of the problem is that even the people who live around here, don’t really know what it is. Maybe they’ve seen the signs flying by as they breeze past on I-70 heading to Lawrence or Topeka. But the center itself – on 165 rolling acres – is a few miles off the highway, and a little tricky to find.

“I think most people have no idea what we are,” Hahner said. “The name throws people off. A lot of people don’t realize we’re a museum. They think we’re a research facility or something as well. Most people when they come out are surprised by how much is here and what we do.”

Money does come in from corporate events, weddings … and there’s a big lineman’s competition held here each October.

But for the center itself, the big focus is education. Classes of kids visit to learn about food production. They come in busloads, mostly during the school year.

“We particularly like to get children who have no agricultural background. Because a lot of the time they don’t even think about where their milk comes from, where their food comes from, where their clothing even comes from.” said Karen Meredith, who’s on the board of directors and has been a volunteer educator at the center for about 10 years.

“We just don’t want to let this go,” she said. “We had someone come in a while back and look at it and he said ‘you just don’t realize what you have here.’ And a lot of other people don’t so we’re trying to get more advertising out, get more information out.”

And that’s where Carl DiCapo comes in.

Cathi Hahner, executive director of the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame, takes a few moments in the hall's entryway with Carl DiCapo, who has been named national president of the hall's board of trustees (which he is creating). (Photo by Eric Durban/Harvest Public Media)

“They’re going to have to build a special road to come in here when we finish,” promises DiCapo, who was named national president of the board of trustees a couple months ago.

DiCapo said that when the board of directors asked him to help raise funds, he came out to visit the hall.

“And I fell in love with the place,” he said, adding that he’s not getting paid to help out. He just feels like this is what he’s supposed to do.

And he’s got big plans.

 “There are other buildings we need. We need a church here. We need a general store here. There are other things we desperately need to put in here,” he said. “We need to make this Miss USA of America.”

And that board of trustees? He’s creating it, bringing in 25 people from the Kansas City area and another 75 from all over the United States.”

Today, July 18, the board of governors is meeting to discuss the center's future. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback will be there as well. It's a critical discussion because the center continues to operate in “crisis funding” and may sell some land.

But initial community outreach is starting up. The hall of fame is a marquee partner for the upcoming Village West Wine Fest in Wyandotte County, and DiCapo is going to be grand marshal for the American Royal Parade in .

And then?

“First step is they haven’t had a person inducted in the hall since 2006. We want to put some people in there this year,” DiCapo said.

Which leads to Willie Nelson, who will be the 39th person inducted into the hall next month.

Nelson’s ag cred? He’s president of Farm Aid, a nonprofit whose mission is to keep family farmers on their land. And it just so happens the 26th annual Farm Aid concert is being held in Kansas City, Kan., in August.

As for the others mentioned earlier:

Sen. Bob Dole, the only current living member of the hall, played a key part developing the Food Stamp Program, the School Lunch Program, and every major farm bill from the 1960s through 1985.

President Lincoln signed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) into existence in 1862.

And John Deere? Well, if you don’t know that one – you really need a lesson in agriculture.  Which you can find at National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kan.

Harvest Public Media's Eric Durban contributed to this story.