Feb 26, 2020
The production of food includes everything from large-scale growing and processing facilities to small backyard gardens. Our guest this episode, Dr. Jeremy Cowan discusses teaching future growers —and eaters— the importance of growing food with people in mind at every point in the production-consumption loop. As a land-grant institution K-State is challenged to teach, learn and research ways to feed the world. Local fresh produce has long been lacking in most diets and questions on the sustainability of current large farming practices is top of mind when considering our long-term ability to produce food. So where does the small farm fit in today’s food production realm?
The Three-Legged Stool of Sustainability – The Intricacy of Teaching and Producing Healthy Food with Dr. Jeremy Cowan, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food Production Systems at Kansas State University
We as a society are so focused on convenience when it comes to food that we tend to ignore nutrition and we see that in our health bills or medical bills and things like that. Obesity rates, cancer rates, people are not feeding themselves well because they don't take the time to feed themselves well.
Something to Chew On is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of Global Food Systems produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Maureen Olewnik, coordinator of Global Food Systems.
I’m Scott Tanona. I'm a Philosopher of Science.
And I'm Jon Faubion. I'm a Food Scientist.
Hello everybody and welcome back to Something to Chew On. In this episode, we will be discussing the complexity of teaching and producing healthy, affordable local food. Our featured guest, Dr. Jeremy Cowan, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food Production Systems, focuses on regenerative agriculture and specialty food crops systems and explores the possible contributions of biodegradable plastics and permaculture, an agricultural system or method that integrates human activity with natural surroundings to create self-sustaining ecosystems. His work focuses on training future growers and eaters, the importance of growing food with people in mind at every point along the production consumption loop. As the land grant university we are challenged to teach, learn and research ways to feed the world. Food production can include everything from large scale growing, and processing of food products to small backyard gardens. Local fresh produce has long been lacking in most diets. And questions on the sustainability of current large farming practices is top of mind when considering our long term ability to produce food. Another major consideration of food production is one that we probably don't often consider, and that is the social implications of moving off the land. So where does the small farm fit in today's food production realm? Welcome to the podcast. Jeremy.
Thank you. Happy to be here.
Your area of expertise is in small farming, which I am sure as we get through this discussion is going to be explained in much more detail on what small farming actually means. In the past, we've done a lot of several podcasts with researchers on campus that have talked about very interesting research in soils, soil health, microbiology in various areas. And it seemed to me that a lot of that research is more geared towards large scale farming. Having listened to all of those and really thinking about what you do, though, I think there's probably a good potential for a lot of that information to have direct impact on what you're doing as well. So I would like to get into a little bit more of that, hopefully, as we talk through this. But initially, I'd like to step back and learn a bit more about you how you got interested in this. And what brought you to K State.
Oh, that's a story that could go way back. So a lot of them do it for me. So when I started my undergrad, I was polisci major, I was planning to go to law school and then be a staffer for some congressmen somewhere and get into politics. And that didn't work out for my family too well. And about a year from finishing that degree, my I was faced with a choice to change majors. And I had a really hard time with that. Because the I think the dominant social expectation is that you go to college to get a high paying job. And you know, the path that I had looked at taking would have been decent, or at least I thought it would have been decent in that regard. And all of the other ones that had any kind of interest to me would have sent me back a year or two in college. And so I sat back and had some reflective time and I thought to myself, well what do I enjoy, because you can still go to law school with any degree. And so I thought back to some of my pre adolescent years when I felt motivated to go start a garden in my parents backyard, and how much I enjoyed that process. And so I figured, I looked at I looked at the requirements of a horticulture degree, and it would have only sent me back one more semester from what I was currently Because I'd picked up a few courses that were related in community college. And so I went majored in horticulture, and I loved every minute of it. I thought that I never really realized that there could be that much joy in plants generally. And actually, at that time, I was more focused on landscape plants and not in the food world. And I enjoyed it and did so well in it at the time that I applied for grad school right off the bat. And I started a Ph. D program right outside right after my Bachelor's, and quickly ran out of money and decided not to go load up on student loans, I went and got a job. And I was working in landscaping for a while, and still had that desire to go to law school. And so I applied for law schools and went to law school and was doing a joint JD MBA. My goal wasn't at that point, it transitioned from politics to real estate. And this is a really long story, transition into real estate. And this was in the early 2000s. And I was finishing up my MBA in I finished in 2007. And if you recall, the real estate market in 2007, was about to take a giant crash. So I was in real estate, I was doing some consulting at the time, I was actually making really good money, and then all of a sudden the floor was dropped out from underneath everything. And I was struggling to make ends meat. Well, I had gotten married about the same time and my wife is working. And so I had some freedom and said to start my own landscape company. And at the same time, we found some property to hold all of the landscaping equipment that happened to be on an avocado farm avocado orchard. And we made ourselves a big garden. And I was just like, Oh, I remember how much I really liked this. And about that time, we started having children. And with that we were thinking about nutrition and lifestyle and things like that. And I thought to myself, you know, I'd probably do really well, in my mind anyways to focus more on sustainable food and healthy food. And from the growing standpoint, so I started looking to go back to school and finish the PhD. Learn what I could about sustainable farming, I decided I wanted to shift to vegetables. So I was looking specifically at sustainable vegetable production. And I called faculty all over the country. And everybody said, Sorry, we don't have money. And then I got a random call one day from professor at Washington State University saying how would you feel about working in plastics. And I was like, that doesn't sound very sustainable. Right. And so, but I knew that, you know, grad school was just the stepping stone to academia. And you're not necessarily stuck in the realm in which you go to grad school. And so I took on a project, looking at the use of biodegradable plastic mulch films for producing tomatoes in high tunnels. So that is how I that was my path.
As far as the small farming thing went, I guess to me, I don't know that my specific expertise is in small farming, as much as it is in vegetable production. I would say that if I had personal preferences, I'd probably lean towards small farming, especially when we start the conversation of sustainability. And especially when we contemplate the three legs of that sustainability stool. I think that in large scale farming, we see a lot of work in economic and environmental sustainability moving forward. But I think the social end of it is completely neglected. And so to me, it's really difficult to manage a program in sustainable agriculture without contemplating labor and community and things like that, that often are either shunned or overlooked entirely in more large scale agriculture, at least from my perspective.
So can you say more about the three legged stool of sustainability?
Sure. I, you know, and there's always this discussion about what does sustainability mean? And I think the general consensus question, yeah, well, I honestly don't think that there should be a single answer. I think that sustainability should be highly context dependent. But I think what, at least I've gathered as the consensus is, is that in order to be sustainable, it has to be economically viable, environmentally sound and socially responsible. And so for any enterprise, and in any field, it doesn't necessarily. It's not necessarily just within agriculture, that that's the case. So I like to keep my answer to that question intentionally vague because I think it should be because I think it's context dependent.
Interesting so you in reading through your bio. On the website you talked about the work you did with plastics and with what is biodegradable I mean you did a fair amount of work in that area obviously what what is that?
So biodegradable plastics are just what you would expect they're plastics.
Sounds like an oxymoron to me, right, right.
So, since the 1950s, polyethylene plastics been the go to mulch material and in generally plastic material and agriculture, specifically in mulches, polyethylene is very workable, it's very functional as a mulch. Biodegradable plastic films, substitutes that polyethylene with molecules that have the potential to break down completely into nothing but carbon dioxide, water and microbial biomass. Now in practice, we've had things on the market since the 80s, that have claimed to be biodegradable and early on, they were not actually biodegradable, but rather they were photo degradable, or Oxo degradable, meaning that they would weather to the point that they'd fragment and they might fragment to the point that you don't see them, but they don't actually go away. And so when you talk about microplastics, and nanoplastics, that's usually either you've got some sort of photo, or Oxo degradable, some sort of degradable plastic that doesn't get fully broken down through those microbial processes. So when you're talking about biodegradable, there's several different feedstocks that can be used to create a product that would that has the potential to break down fully. One of those complicating factors is the soil environment isn't necessarily ideal for the early stages of breakdown. So biodegradation is a two stage process. It starts with weathering, which you have heat, light water, and things like that will start to break down the molecules to the point that they they shrink up enough that increase the surface area, and once it hits some certain threshold, then the microbes can start going to work on it, but it has to break down enough for them to have access to the to the molecules to start consuming them to complete their own microbial processes. And so once it gets to that point, it tends to speed up and that's when the bio degradation actually happens.
Does this have to happen in fallow ground? Or can it be? Is it process that works in ground that's actually in production?
I mean, the short answer is it can be either I think that in production, it's probably more effective at the breakdown insofar as so one of the studies that I did, we looked at post tillage degradation, right. And I used the word degradation intentionally because we weren't measuring bio degradation. So we didn't have the capacity in the field in my lab to measure carbon dioxide evolution in the soil and things like that and actually measure the bio degradation. So what we did was, we planted a broccoli crop on plastic, we used two different biodegradable films and then a nonwoven fabric, which is kind of like a landscape fabric. And at the end of the broccoli season, so during the season we we followed the or we measured the amount of visual degradation. So our surrogate for that was how much soil is visible in what was originally mulched. So you'd get pinholes and then pinholes would open the cracks. And so we'd measure that pre tillage. Then when we tilled it down, we'd go and get a golf cup cutter. So it was about four inches in diameter and six inches deep. And we'd pull soil cores and then spend a lot of time sifting out plastic fragments from the soil cores. And we did that every couple of months for the next for 13 months post tillage. And during that time, we had two other tillage events. So there were at least three tillage events. We had the one where we tilled it down, and then we had to in prepping the beds for the next season. And so when I say that in production, it's probably more active. It's because there's more mechanical processes that work on breaking things down small enough for the microbes to actually attack it. And so in that study we had the nonwoven fabric was made out of poly lactic acid. I don't know if you remember the I Yep. PLM the SunChips bags, compostable and obnoxiously loud. Those are PLA and PLA is fully has the potential to completely biodegrade. But the limitation is that it will only biodegrade at higher temperatures, like what you would find a municipal compost, so over 150 degrees Fahrenheit, and you're never gonna see that in the soil unless you're solarizing and you have the right environment for it. And so it didn't degrade at all. I shouldn't say that it broke into smaller fragments, but we were still able to capture 100% of what we expected to capture based on what we were sampling. We had another product and once you get into commercial products, we start talking about trade secrets and proprietary blends. So we don't know exactly what everything we have our suspicions. But a product that's on the market called Bio agri that product. Over the 13 months post tillage we were, we were only able to find about 65% of it after the 13 months. So you know, from that we extrapolate that 35% breakdown and in about a year. And then we had another experimental product that was made out of a class of compounds called polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHA’s. And those that went after 13 months, we weren't able to find. Now it also performed least well in the field because it broke down faster. Part of that had to do with the manufacturing process that when it came off the line, it was folded in half. And so that crease where it was folded, broke down really quickly. But it also was an experimental product. And so as an experimental product, it may have been manufactured such that it was gonna break down faster anyways, but it was still, you know, proof of concept we weren't able, and we were sifting down to a millimeter square. So we weren't able to find anything bigger than a millimeter square when we were doing our sifting. So..
In a land grant environment, which this is, producers could expect, or would anticipate being able to go out and reach into the extension communication system to get the information, for example, to go to this sort of make this sort of change. Does that exist in this part of the world, I would presume it would exist in the vegetable growing parts of the world. And those though, California central valleys, but…
Yeah, so I think that the relevance is probably fairly low. For the traditional Kansas crop mix, you know, where you're on a heavy grain rotation, you're not getting a whole lot of plastic out in the field anyways. So it may not have high relevance for the folks here, unless you're talking about some of the smaller farmers that then would be growing vegetables or fruits and use plastics as part of their as part of their general routine. You know, the advent of the Internet, and it doesn't matter where it was produced, you can now access information on all of that stuff. So, you know, the project that my doctoral work was funded on, and then another subsequent project that was related to that. Were all USDA SERI funded and, you know, between Washington State University and University of Tennessee and also worked a little bit with Texas A&M.
Did you in fact?
Yeah. And so we published several papers on it. We published several factsheets and we had established a website biodegradable mulches, or biodegradable mulch.org. I'm not sure if that still gets back to the system now that the grants gone up, I don't know if UT still maintaining it that I haven't looked lately. But there's a lot of papers that were compiled there. If anybody wanted to look for more information on biodegradable plastics.
So what do you think the prospects for these are and and both in terms of large scale production and then the small farmers?
That's a great question, because So I recently reviewed an economics factsheet on biodegradable mulches where they had done basically the, you know, the economic analysis for where the breakevens on plastic switching from regular polyethylene to biodegradable plastics. And so with traditional plastics, you have to remove the plastics from the field. I mean, some people will till them in and then they're just a mess forever. But in general, you've got to spend the labor to go and cut the mulch, pull the mulch, take the all the mulch to the dump and then pay for dump fees. Because while plastic mulch is potentially recyclable, the access to facilities is relatively low in the US and then having a lot of soil and plant debris on the mulch tends to increase weights and recyclers don't like to clean them. So unless you're going to clean them, which then is another massive labor expense, then recycling is not an option for most growers.
So what brought you to K State?
What brought me to K State, the job description. That's another story in and of itself, but so this job description was specifically geared towards sustainable quote unquote, sustainable agriculture focused on small scale farming regenerative agricultural practices. The word permaculture was used in there and and it was teaching and it was running the student farm and it was everything that I wanted when I went through grad school and was starting to look for jobs and wasn't available when I first graduated. So you know, Kansas was a big question. Mark for us. I've never even driven through Kansas, let alone for any period of time before my interview. So yeah. It's been an interesting transition because of that. So a lifelong west coast, resident and native and coming to the Midwest, there's been some real positive things and then some real negative things ie chiggers.
True, totally understandable what, what is permaculture?
Permaculture is so it's a system of design that's intended to mimic natural systems. So Permaculture is coined from combining permanent and agriculture. The idea stemmed from a Tasmanian scientist back in the 1970s, he was influenced by several writers from the early 20th century, late 19th century, with the idea being that if we mimic natural systems, the systems themselves would become more sustainable. So if we provide more of the ecosystem services that a natural ecosystem would provide, say, a forest ecosystem, then assuming we can capture the yields that are necessary if we're in a more natural state, or at least designed the system so that it performs more of the ecosystem functions of a natural system, that the system would be more resilient and not have some of the potential issues that large scale monocultures would inherently have.
Interesting. Do you work at all? Net? Well, from any perspective, do you work at all with the Land Institute in Salina? Have you had an overlap there?
I have had some interaction with the Land Institute, we've talked about trying to acquire some of their current is a product for a research project that we're doing. We were looking for brands specifically, and they don't have brand for from Kernza available. And one thing I found is that and I don't know if this is a me thing, or a Midwest thing or a Kansas thing, but I've had very hard time finding funding for the work that I'm doing. So where my specialty is vegetables and vegetables isn't a very prominent class of agricultural products in the Midwest, I've found that it's a little bit more difficult to get funding for research. And as a result, things have been a little bit slow on the taking off. I got a good startup package. And so I've been bootstrapping a lot of work that we've been doing, but that'll only go so far.
And that is the realist of research.
One of the reasons that we were looking at the Kernza brand was that I have an interest in integrating crop production. And so one thing that we're looking at, we have a project that's very permaculture related, where we're looking at integrating mushrooms into a vegetable system or fruit system, strawberries, I guess, were one of the crops we're looking at using. Well, that got us asking some other questions about mushrooms. And so if we were to look at different substrates as far as the protein source in the substrate, is there an impact on yields or quality of the mushrooms later on? So we were going to look at comparing different brands sources. So rice, wheat and oat bran are very commonly used in bag mushroom production. You know, if we looked at quinoa Bran or Kernza, Bran or buckwheat Bran do these things have, is there a difference in the protein profiles that would come through in the subsequent mushroom crop? And so we went looked for these different brand sources. And the closest thing we could find for quinoa brand would have been out of the Netherlands and buckwheat brand. I think we were looking at Korea or something like that. And, you know, Kernza brand doesn't exist unless you make it and I don't know, in talking to the land instituted in sound like the quantity of Kernza could have been available to us in any kind of a short order given that we needed 50 pounds of brand.
No, no, yeah, yeah, you would have needed 400 pounds of Kernza.
Yeah, so we're gonna start off with just doing the rice out and wheat and look at the protein profile of the subsequent mushroom crop and see if there's any big difference. So we'll look at the three different brand sources. We're getting the brand analyzed right now as far as nitrogen and micronutrients and then we'll we're also going to do different levels of protein or nitrogen as our analog for protein. Just to see how that affects the mushroom crop in the bags.
Do you see mushrooms is a solid cropping potential in this area for small producers?
Um, well, it's it. It definitely has potential insofar as mushrooms can produce be produced in a garage in closets in a high tunnel, right? The mushrooms. I mean, they feed on dead things, and you can put dead things anywhere. I mean, that's maybe a little overly bland or not bland, but Koi. But the reality is, is if you have a carbon source and you have a nitrogen source, then you can basically grow mushrooms. I mean, there's, there's more to it. But I've seen mushrooms grown on logs in woodlot. Now woodland is a little bit less prevalent in Kansas. But I've also seen it grown under shade cloth. So what we're doing out of the student farm, our project that I mentioned, that's permaculture related, we have a project that we've started that using Hugo culture as a system for we're looking at season extension using who culture and I guess I should step back Hugo culture is German for mound culture, Hill culture, and it's basically creating large wind road mounds that then could be used to grow crops on. Currently, there is nothing in the literature about Hugo culture, it's all popular press, anecdotal stuff. And so you know, as far as research goes, it's wide open, it's also impossible to get funding for because there's nothing to say, here's what somebody else did. And let's build on that. So what we're going to do is we're going to look at shady side versus sunny side, whether or not you know, the shady side will extend a cool season crop later into the summer for us. Whether the sunny side can help us get in earlier get out earlier with successional planting. But then we thought, you know, we've got these mounds, we're going to irrigate them for the vegetable crop or the fruit crop if we put strawberries on them. And because that moisture will be maintained in the soil, what if we laid down some mushroom logs at the base and at the top of this and to see if we could produce a mushroom crop at the same time with it, we were thinking with little extra effort. Now drilling mushroom logs is no small feat, especially when you're drilling about 1000 feet of them.
I'm aware of a local farmer that has mushroom logs. Talking mushrooms.
Yeah, so 1000 not a small differences took us about five or six months to get through it. I mean, not full time, obviously. Nope. It was no small feat. My grad student I think wants to kick me.
So won't when they start producing mushrooms. Right.
So that system I think might have some potential. We'll see the you know, we were approaching it from a more commercial aspect as far as what the potential benefits could be. One because I thought that would be more fundable if we're looking at season extension for commercial crops. You know, the flip side of that is if I was to bring an economist into it, the amount of labor involved in building these mounds has been surprisingly large. But you know, if you've got a lot of extra wood material that you're say trimming out of an orchard or trimming out of a riparian area or cleaning up a roadside, if you have access to a lot of woody material, Google culture might be a more environmentally sound method of disposing of the that wood and burning it. Right, having all that carbon dioxide float off into the atmosphere instead, you can bury it. Yeah, sequester it for a much longer period of time.
That's, that's fascinating. He really is really,
Can you say more about the student farm?
Sure. So the student farm currently comprises about eight acres of what is the Guyer Forestry Research Center that's part of K State. It's located at the Tuttle Creek State Park. It's not part of the park, but you have to access it from the park and the Guyer Research Center is about 60 acres and it has a lot of long term forestry research happening there. So in 2008, my predecessor Rhonda Yong ki was able to carve out about three acres of that and started the student farm where we have a student farm club here that's housed in the Horticulture Department and the students and other interested students and sometimes faculty through their courses will bring students out to work on the farm to teach on the farm and the farm had sat fallow, so to speak for about two years between the last time it was actively managed and once I was able to get it managed, again, maybe a year and a half. But we hired a full time farm manager last January and this last year, we produced 8000 pounds of produce for Derby and Kramer dining halls. Wow. He's sports grill at the Union. And then the little grill out on Dyer. Oh, sure. stuff. That's great because they couldn't get more local than us. No,
So we're literally right across the street from the little grill. So we're producing mostly vegetables right now. There had been an orchard that was planted a few years ago using money from the greenhouses. found here at K State, but because of lack of management, there was some deer, you got to be able to do that we had a lot of rubbing damage on trees, there's there's three trees that still have still put up green leaves, but it's just a matter of time before they go, they've been completely girdled by deer robbing. So at some point what my intent is to plant another orchard. In fact, with the permaculture theme, there's this idea of food forests, which is a multi level, or multi tiered polyculture system that focuses on food producing plants, but planted in a massive polyculture. And comparing the potential productivity of that system compared to a more traditional orchard system. And so we have the space now we were able to expand the farm from the three acres that it was originally, I guess I should say it's more seven acres. There's another about acre of the shop and the shared storage and dependencies. But that shared with the Guyer, folks, so yeah, we have plans. And this last summer, we piloted a small farm practicum out at the farm, we had eight students sign up and they took on a project for the summer and one students project was an aquaculture project, he started nine, we were able to get some IBC totes food grade IBC totes that he's installed and created a you know, we've got goldfish out there that that have survived the winter so far. And in fact, I just met with a professor of biology that's interested in doing some work on the emotions of those fish and stress and how that works. So I don't know if anything will come up that I you know, I think it would be fantastic to collaborate on something like that. And the system, that particular system was built so that it could be expanded we can we currently have one bed one fish tank, we could probably fit for more fish tanks and about nine or 10 more beds. So it's expandable, we have two high tunnels. So the Aqua cultures and one of the high tunnels we have another high tunnel that specifically for vegetable production. Interestingly, our soil test last year said that we had something like 400 pounds of nitrogen per acre in the soil there. So either somebody spilled something, yeah, I don't know what happened. But we've been gladly soaking that up with our vegetable crops. So we had some amazing eggplant and peppers in there last season, as well as tomatoes. And
Is there any potential of doing work with the cat's cupboard here? I know that they're just down the hall from wherever we're recording this?
Yep. I don't. I don't know if we've already started. But I know that we've had conversations with cats cupboard about providing some fresh produce there. My farm manager so Regan Hale is our new farm manager here. And she's been doing a great job of reaching out to folks. And I know she's had conversations with cats cupboards. I don't know the status.
I know there's some limitations with what they can handle in there. I think it's all just dry and shelf stable at this point in time, which is not what you're doing. No, no, no. But the the idea of being able to help the the hungry students on campus, which is it's an issue, I mean, availability of food to students here is an issue with thinking that there's a good potential link there. But it's interesting to know that you're already supplying those vegetables to student housing and the food services there. That's great.
So what do you say to the students who are working on the farm there? And then I'm curious in what, their interest in path is and is related to another thing that I want to vote for you to talk about a little bit more and the role of small farms right, in general, right. So there's, there's lots of different small farm things, some of them, you know, as a business as a livelihood, some of its just the backyard thing, you know, and some of its like, small is relative to right. So there are some very large small farms, right. So could you just say something about, like, what, what your interests are and what, what kinds of things you want to sort of see happen?
So the first part of your question was, what are the students? Yes, and I should probably pull them at some point. And I do and I teach class, you know, what are your interests and I'd say that the vast majority are there because it's a major requirement for horticulture production majors that they take either fruit or vegetable production. I would say that there's a small proportion of our horticulture students that actually want to get into fruits or vegetables, some sort of food producing horticultural crop or cropping system. And so for those students, they tend to be our regulars out at the farm. I guess my vision for the student farm has been since I got here and what I interviewed on was the idea of creating the premier small to mid scale diversified food training center like farming training center in the Midwest, and, you know, that's kind of a very narrow definition. But at the same time, it's something that doesn't really exist. You know, there are some farms that do training, mostly private, and mostly in the city environment. So over in Kansas City and St. Louis, I've seen some operations that are doing farm training like that. And our extension offices do quite a bit of it as well, especially in the urban counties in Kansas. So for me, I'd love to be able to get people out there for workshops. And, you know, we've been talking about trying to establish a harvest festival, some sort of conference slash just celebration out at the at the farm at the end of the seasons. Great idea. That's a great idea. Yeah. But with, we could definitely use more help as far as people goes, and getting that done, the students seem really excited about it. But at the same time, they tend to be busier than what would be required of having the students help us organize that and Reagan's focused a lot on creating a plan and executing that plan for growing produce out there and marketing that produce and whatnot. But it is, it's on our agenda. In fact, we've been, as we've been developing the idea, what we've come to is, is that we have to grow pumpkin so that we can have a pumpkin chucking at this event, and we need to grow enough tomatoes that we can have a dunk of Professor like a dunk tank, but with tomatoes in the tank instead of water.
Dunk a dean would be even better actually.
Right. That would be fantastic. That was the sucker. They've all said it's got to be me. So I mean, that's been the limitation is just manpower right now for getting that off the ground and some funding. But, you know, we have big plans for the farm. We've already the Save farm or the Save organization service members. They've had their bees out there for years, they've been out there helping the students with, you know, field prep and doing some of the work as far as you know, tractor work when there wasn't somebody who knew how to use the tractor, they'd have somebody out there that would happily go till for us. They've done a beekeeping last summer. Last summer when we had our small farm practicum. They did a beekeeping workshop for the students. And so it's been a somewhat fruitful relationship there. And I hope that that continues, and we've been working with the Kansas permaculture Institute. And this summer we're planning to offer a permaculture design certification course. We've still been going back and forth as to whether or not we want to offer it for credit, because the timing would be such that it would have to go through Go Global Campus, and there's a lot of costs involved in putting on that and saddling students with a higher costs of Global Campus fees plus the cost of putting on the course plus the cost of tuition. It's just been something that we've been struggling with as to whether or not that's feasible for students without, you know, saddling them with more debt. In doing that, so, but we are putting on the course. So the last two weeks, last week and a half before the fall semester this year, out of the student farm we'll be putting on that course. And that information can be found at the KPIs website, which is Kansaspermaculture.org.
Are these sorts of approaches amenable to cooperative sorts of undertakings? Could you have a group of owners of land that yeah, the southern Kansas had an egg Co Op at one time. There have been other sorts of coops I just wondered if this particular type of farming had any. So I think they just are disadvantaged.
Cooperative efforts in the food system are highly I think they they're, they're underutilized and would be favorable to one approaching that sustain that leg of sustainability and social responsibility, right. I was previously the director of extension for Spokane County in Washington. And in Spokane County, we had started a food hub called link foods and link foods had started with 30 farmers or farms. And it started basically as a marketing cooperative for those farmers. So the big boon for farmers there was that Spokane, two major economic drivers currently is education and healthcare. So there's three universities in the Spokane area. There's also two major hospitals and several other medical centers in that area, and as institutional buyers, small farmers have a really hard time accessing those markets because of insurance requirements. So where some of these folks are requiring $5 million in liability insurance in order to purchase food. Most small farmers don't have carried So the Co Op, the big benefit for farmers aside from the marketing was that for $100 a year, they had a joint liability policy that would allow those farmers to access those institutional markets. And so for the first several years, Gonzaga University was the biggest buyer from the cooperative. And so we have the small farmers that would have never been able to sell to the big institutional buyers now able to sell into Gonzaga and Gonzaga was doing a great job. They had a local food initiative they were their goal was to provide 20% of their dining menu from the local area. And so they were highlighting farms in their menus at the restaurants on campus and in the dining halls on campus. They were buying a lot of local food. And that was great. It really got the co op off to a good start. The coops also selling into the school district, they're doing a food of the month or a vegetable of the month type of thing. They're selling into the hospitals now they started a CSA. So for all the farmers that you know, had all this produce, they posted on the website that were buyers would go and basically pick and choose what they wanted. But not everything would sell. And so for those things that wouldn't sell then everything was brought into the CSA and then the the co op was just offloading people's extras into the CSA, which, you know, at first, we had some farmers that were like, What do you mean, you're gonna do a CSA, you're gonna compete with my CSA, but the reality was, was that it was a great outlet for the majority of farmers to offload those things that they weren't selling. So it was a huge benefit to the farmers, it was a great benefit to the community. As far as just recognizing that we actually had agriculture really close to Spokane. Spokane is very at the very north edge of the Palouse region, which is massive grain growing region, probably the most productive grain growing region in the country, if not the world, as far as per acre yields go. But you know, the vast majority of that, that we all get shipped out to Japan. So you know, even though it's a massive agricultural region, nobody's eating local grains there, because it's all getting exported. There's a couple of producers now that have started to focus on that local grains. And in fact, part of the cooperative they started a malt house. And they're doing local malt, which of course, all of the micro breweries and home brewers they're just dying for. They just think it's the greatest thing ever. But they're using Palouse grown grains, in their malts and in their beers.
So you see small flickers of this things you're describing in this area? And I suspect it's probably population. If nothing else, what do you see the potential for those kinds of activities? Certainly, locally, but even in other areas around the state?
Yeah, so I definitely think population has something to do with it, as well as just ingrained culture. So Kansas is a is the wheat state, you know, and even if corn and soy are maybe passing, or maybe the reality is, it's a grain state, and that's, you know, staple crop, but not necessarily where people are looking at getting the variety and nutrition from their diet. And so I guess I shouldn't ignore beef, but
At your peril.
But then, where's the beef going? I mean, even the beef is going to be exported out of the state. And for the most part, so I think population is probably the key driver, you have to have enough population so that that subset of the population who really wants to have local foods is there. But again, the culture here in Kansas may not be quite as focused on local because we have such as, you know, global mindset when it comes to our agriculture, that who's thinking local, I think it's going to be a smaller proportion than states like Washington or California or coastal states on either coast. And so, you know, if you get closer to Kansas City in Wichita, you're starting to have that population.
It's just gonna ask if you're seeing that in, in the larger cities.
In fact, this weekend, I was just giving a couple of talks at the Wichita had a farmers market, entrepreneurship workshop and food producer entrepreneurship workshop. And I think a lot of that is evidence that we have that maybe not critical mass, but we have enough mass that we're approaching critical mass for creating those kinds of environments in those cities. I think Kansas City is probably farther along in which ties in to fashion have been surprised by that. Yeah, bigger cities and having more people both growing and eating and but I think there has to be that critical mass of people who want local food and then you have to have the growers who are willing to stick their necks out to either create a co op and a food hub or to just buck the system and flip for that institutional policy or wishing it to push the envelope.
I've seen certainly in Manhattan in This area there's there is a small population that supports that. And, it's a pretty strong group, but it is not large. Yeah, right. It's just
well, and I mean, to be economically viable, you need enough buyers, right? You're right, your production worthwhile. So there are farmers who farm out of what's the word? It's almost charity. You know how many of our small farmers are just doing it as a hobby, and they have off farm income to support it. And, you know, I, when I was, I was farming while I was in Spokane, and it was great on my taxes, because I'd get a little bit of a write off every year. But at the same time, we were eating really well. So.
So can you talk about more about the social aspects? I mean, so the, the prospects, you're just saying that the prospects for some of these initiatives and for small farming, and maybe some of the permaculture stuff depends on a population, people who are interested? How do you shift that? Should we shift this? Should we should you just be working for the people who are already interested? Would you like to see, you know, more of a shift in the population? How do you make these things happen?
It's a really tough question. You know, you could approach it from several different angles, you know, we as a society are so focused on convenience when it comes to food that we tend to ignore nutrition. And we see that in our health bills, or medical bills and things like that. Obesity rates, cancer rates, people are not feeding themselves well, because they don't take the time to feed themselves. Well, and how do you overcome that? I don't know. It's something that you either have to start in the home in young with young kids in school. But then, you know, is that where the money is? As far as education goes, is in nutrition education? Or is it in STEM? Should these things be the same? Maybe they should.
It's part of the same programs.
And then, you know, there's also the mindset and production side, especially in large scale production, you know, we have this, this call to save or feed the world. And when I think of that statement, and through the lens of sustainability, or social responsibility, and sustainability, you know, if your farm is going out of business, that person cannot feed their family. And if our goal is to feed the world, we I think we need to have the perspective that starts from home, you know, if we have farmers going out of business and having to go move to the city, because they're bankrupt, because they can't they, you know, their yield this year, fell off below that critical threshold of keeping them in business. You know, maybe we should give pause to the dominant mindset of, you know, get bigger get out, because that's not socially sustainable. That's why our rural communities are crumbling. Because we have farms that are getting so big, they're bigger than big cities. Yes. And is that sustainable? You know, I could play into some of the fears of certain classes of people and you know, you get to where the farms so big. What's the end result of that consolidation? The end result is one farm one farmer. And when that happens, who's that farmer? We talked to some conservatives out there, and they might be concerned about having the government run all the food production. But that's, that's the ultimate end of that policy of get bigger get out is that, you know, you have consolidation to the point that it's one farm, one farmer, and who is that? So that could be positive, that could be negative? I think most people would probably think of that as a fairly negative thing. And when you have, you know, farm sizes in the 10s of 1000s of acres. It's not. It's not conducive to community and social responsibility.
Right. Yeah. And so that's how I was just gonna say, so small farming, at least for you is partly about the community and support for the community and sort of having, yeah, and population centers where they're right, you know, more than one farmer around sort of.
Sure. Yeah. Well, on the flip side of that is, is, you know, there was a time where everybody was a farmer, and everybody helped their neighbor out. And that sounds quaint and delightful to somebody. I mean, I think it'd be great if there was some more of that, but at the same time, now, you're talking about economic viability and the ability of our society to advance technologically economically. And there's this conflict between, you know, communities that stay intact and neighbors who like each other and will help each other and being able to advance economically. And where do you, you know, where's the sweet spot between those and I don't have the answer to that. And I doubt anybody does, because it's so subjective and will vary from person to person. But what I can say is, is that You know, in the regime of consolidation that we were in, it's definitely not good for communities. And it's not good for the social sustainability of the system generally.
Yeah, that's it you, you take people out to towns that had had better days. And you hear them saying, Well, where did they all go? You know? Where are they now? And the answer is just almost every place, right? Everywhere but here.
But here, that's about a month ago, we did a podcast with a historian here on campus that did has done a lot of a lot of work on farming in the Southern Great Plains. And we got into a discussion about small towns in the state of Kansas, and just the 1000s of them that are just not there anymore, that have just disappeared. And they're continuing to disappear. Because as you said, you'd get these farms that are 10,000 acres plus, and where do your neighbors live? You don't have neighbors, and you are always your hospital.
Some people complain that their kids don't want to stay on the farm anymore. And so they have to sell because they don't have anybody to pass it on to or, you know, with that general thing, but you have to look at what's the cause of that if there's no community for the children to have friends and activities and things like that. So I mean, it becomes a chicken and egg question, do you preserve the community to keep the community or do you preserve the farm to keep the farm and those two things don't seem to go together anymore, you can't preserve the farm and the community at least in the dominant global paradigm of agriculture?
Well, at the very start, we talked a bit about some of the other research that was being done here on campus, and what positive impact that can have or just direct relationship it can have with the smaller farming operations. There's a lot of work being done also in Feed the Future Labs, which I'm sure you're aware of, and small farming globally, not just within the state of Kansas. And if I think I'm correct in that small farming basically is a growing enterprise worldwide.
Well, small farming has always been by the numbers the most numerous. As far as the numbers go, there have always been more small farms than big farms. That's just a function of their small farms. And they're easier to start. They're cheaper to start, right. And they're less capital intensive and all that. I do think that in the US, there's a growing interest in small farms, but at the same time, there's also a it's really hard to sell a local potato in any market that's grown on a small farm when you're competing against large farms and export, you know, imports from the northwest or wherever. And so I think there's this tension between the desire for producing and consuming local foods and the ability to afford local foods. You know, where you've got, a lot of these commodity crops are subsidized through crop insurance and things like that. It's not necessarily something that's accessible to small farms. And as a result, they're having to charge the full price of What food should cost, because they're actually paying for all of their that production puts and the production costs, versus the larger scale farms that are focused on one crop where there is an insurance policy to help them overcome yield deficiencies and things like that. And so it makes it really hard for small farms to compete, even for those people who might be more inclined to buy local. If they can't afford it, they can't afford it.
Well, when looking again, kind of stepping back to the, to the science to some of the research that's happening there. I think I remember one of the gentlemen working in the Feed the Future labs talking about. And I don't, I don't remember specifically what the measurement was, but introducing some of these higher technologies to small farmers, where you've got a small farmer in Africa capable of using his phone with an app. And, you know, a camera of some sort to actually do measurements. Do you see that kind of connection between some of these research activities and small farming practices? Or is there is there still a pretty big gap between newer technologies, and what's actually happening on the small farms?
Well, I, from what I have seen, I haven't seen much use of that kind of high technology. In fact, I wasn't even aware that there's an app on your phone that you can take pictures.
I may have totally misunderstood what he was saying.
I can totally see the applicability of that we're talking about there's drones that are used for that kind of a shooting and I've seen in Washington State I had a colleague in extension that had got a drone that he installed some of these cameras to be able to go out and do assessments of smaller fields. I think vegetable systems tend to be smaller in general than some of the than the grain systems. And so as a result, you know, 100 acre farm is a large vegetable farm, at least in some places, some places 100. Still small, but but that's accessible for using a drone, you can fly a drone over 100 acres in a couple of hours, and then have some data back really quickly. And there are farmers that I know they're doing that as far as the handheld device, I think if I was an urban farmer, and I had access to that, I'd love to be able to use that kind of technology, in order to save myself some money on fertility or, you know, maybe early detection for a disease or past that would be great. I think that that would be embraced. But at the same time, you know, I subscribed to a grower magazine called Growing for market. And I don't see that kind of technology being advertised in that kind of an outlet, which would be something that small scale farmers would read. And that's where they would find that. Yeah, that's one place. I mean, in Kansas, we do have some vegetable specialists in our extension, but not too many. And I don't know what they're putting out. But that would be the kind of thing that if it was there, I'd love to see them putting that kind of information in the hands of growers. But I'd be fascinated by it. I think it would be great if it was applicable at that scale.
Yeah, I forget how much that was aspirational or experimental still, or I don't think I think that particular project was Yeah, I don't think that one was yet describing something production.
But in the aspirational side of it, I mean, in my mind, I can see some of that kind of thing happening. I can perceive that that's possible.
To be able to go out and yeah, use your smartphone, snap a picture and know how much nitrogen you need to put on. Right. Yeah, that week. Yeah. That'd be amazing. You know, contour plot.
Spend great conversation Absolutely.
This has been spectacular.
Hopefully I got my foot in my mouth anyway. No, that's great. Yeah, my coming to vegetables might have been a little long.
No, not at all.
Do you have any follow up questions for us?
Oh, I hadn't even thought about that. I guess it'd be great to come up with collaborations with folks. I mean, we have the student farm and we have the ability to test some things on a smaller scale that may be applicable to small farms, but if it has applicability outside of that scale, as well, I mean, we're we just acquired some Emmer wheat some Ethiopian blue changed Emmer wheat with the idea of trying to do some intercropping work with it. Nice. I don't know if you're familiar with Masanobu Fukuoka is One Straw Revolution. It was one of those that inspired some of the back to the land and some of those kinds of movements in the 70s 60s. But he was a plant pathologist with the Japanese Government and left to go back to his family farm and over 40 years had developed a system of intercropping where rice dryland Rice was his primary crop. And he was intercropping, a winter grain as a cover for the winter. And he had root crops like radish and things like that. And then vegetable crops. And he had them all intercrop together. And he said it took him about 20 years to finally master it. But at that point, all he was doing was a little bit of sowing and a lot of reaping. And the system basically ran itself and he claims in the book that at that point 20 years into it that he was achieving greater per acre yields on his rice than the paddy systems were in conventional agriculture. So I was thinking to myself, you know, if we could come up with a system that worked in the Great Plains with, you know, rice probably isn't the best one to go with here. But you know, so I mean, we were going to look at the Emmer. I picked the Emer because Costco stopped carrying their Pharaoh wheat and we were really big fans of it, and I'd buy some of that wheat from the farm if we were able to get it.
So there are students who are interested in being out in the farm or you have room for a lot more.
So actually, we just got our small farm practicum approved for the catalog. It's now Hort 591 I do have a prerequisite in there that you've taken either fruit or vegetable production, but for non majors, we've been making exceptions to get them out there and try to utilize what skills they've been developing in their own programs to help the farm grow. So we had a marketing student out there last summer that helped us market our field day that we put on. So it'd be great if people were interested in wanting to work out on the farm. There's the Hort 591 that will be offered this summer. Next fall are our student farm club. They meet generally on Thursdays and they also get out to the farm most Saturdays to have more workdays this last Saturday. The previous week, I had tapped some maple trees. So they went out on Saturday and collected some water from the maple trees. And we're boiling that down. And we're all super amused to see how you can go from as one person put it, water that tasted like I was licking a tree to sweet, sweet sugary goodness. That's amazing. So we have work days out there on a regular basis on Saturdays.
And you have students that work on local farms as well. I'm aware. And yeah, in turn on some of the local farms and so that's Yeah, I think there. There's potential available around the area of tours that are interested.
And for other people are interested in permaculture small farming techniques in general, the kinds of things that you're working on and what where do they turn.
So extension is always a good place to turn, especially in the counties that have horde agents. The Kansas permaculture Institute's a great place to look for information on permaculture, especially education in permaculture. At some point, I'd like to put on the catalog, a permaculture course there's currently an intro to permaculture course on the catalog, but it's an ag ideas course that's delivered through North Carolina State. I think we've had four students taken the last five years so it hasn't been big. But I think if we were to get that established here on campus, I know University of Kansas has a permaculture design course they offer every semester and they've been getting 20 to 30 students per semester to take that so I think it would be a benefit to have. Great.
Well, thanks so much for being here. Yes, thanks a bunch.
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