Kansas Farmers Union

United to grow family agriculture
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Dana Merk-Wynne

Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union (KFU), says there’s a common theme that unites the 6,000-member-strong organization based in McPherson, Kansas. “We have a wide variety of members from small vegetable producers to some that are the largest farmers in their counties, but the thing that all active members have is a sense of social justice and responsibility,” says Teske. “They know that in order to make a difference in our industry we have to work together to make things happen.”

In Kansas, where recently more legislation has passed to support the rise of large-scale, corporate farms, KFU has working in the best interest of independent producers. As the state’s oldest active general farming organization, a state branch of the National Farmers Union (NFU), KFU has been influencing positive change since 1907 by bringing rural producers together in common goals.

The organization works to protect and enhance the economic interest and quality of life for family farmers and ranchers in Kansas communities. Teske has seen KFU’s strategy in action after 15 years with the organization. “I am responsible for representing our members’ policy in legislative, advocacy and educational issues, and the administration of the organization,” explains Teske.

When there’s a hot-button issue, Teske is first in line to address it. “We draft a testimony from our state office and either I go and speak on our behalf to the legislature or I have a member that’s been directly affected by an issue come testify,” he says.

The Kansas Experiment — implications on small farmers

Kansas is a state known for unorthodox legislation and under Governor Sam Brownback, the state is in the midst of a self-described economic ‘experiment,’ a project that is an attempt to wean the state’s government off the revenues of income taxes and transition to a government that is financed by consumption taxes — sales tax and property tax.

What does this mean to small farmers in Kansas? Teske says its cause for great concern. “With the legislature currently in session, we need to come up with a more than $200 million shortfall,” says Teske. He says rural communities are paying the price. “There’s proposed statewide school consolidation that could seriously affect rural communities and some health care facilities have closed. As a farm organization supporting rural life, having hospitals and schools close by is a significant issue.”

KFU is also focused on protecting and preserving what little anti-corporate farming laws are left in the state. “We’re working to preserve county options, which give us the right in each county to ban corporate hogs — that’s about all the protection that remains in our state; it’s all been watered down over the years.”

Teske says KFU prides itself on cutting through red tape, especially in the case of farming regulations that are over-the-top and unnecessary. “In the case of noxious weed laws, which we certainly need, we’re trying to eliminate the ones that just generate money for the large chemical companies and take control out of the county,” he explains.

Delegates from KFU participate in the annual D.C. Fly In, a migration to Washington, D.C., with other NFU state members to make a case for smarter farm polices. On Capitol Hill, KFU urged federal lawmakers to develop a farm bill that advances the country's food security, conservation, renewable energy and rural development priorities.

Another top priority on the KFU agenda is addressing the newly formed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact and how it makes farmers pay the cost of so-called free trade and more breaks for corporate agriculture. KFU’s argument is these policies favoring cheap commodities and cheaper food ingredients for corporate processors limit the rural farmer’s access to a global marketplace and make way for the importation of disease, contaminated food and greater market power for corporations.

From the battlefield to the farm

Aside from lobbying for fair farming legislation that takes smaller producers into consideration, Teske says the vast majority of KFU’s work is in educational initiatives. “We have recently applied for a couple of grants to help support our Beginning Farmers program and veterans interested in farm careers through the Farmer Veterans Coalition (FVC),” says Teske.

Teske now serves on the FVC executive board. “The mission is to cultivate a new generation of farmers and food leaders transitioning out of the military,” he explains. “We want to help veterans make a living first and foremost, but also for many, life on the farm is therapy for PTSD.”

Teske has also volunteered to serves as the treasurer of the SAVE Project, a newly formed nonprofit in Kansas that hopes to host 100 solider-students on a full-scale farm in conjunction with Kansas State University. Teske’s friend and colleague, Gary LaGrange is the face behind SAVE. “We’re working to get this program off the ground, which will include establishing curriculum at KSU and a 180-acre working farm, as well as classrooms, dormitories and more for vets looking to transition back into society and find a career on the farm.” The goal is to use SAVE as a model for other land-grant universities around the country to follow in the program’s footsteps.

To further its message, KFU has its own quarterly publication — The Kontact. The most recent issue touches on the TPP, the 2015 KFU Convention, the importance of investing in healthy soils and other organization and industry news and happenings.

Despite the range in producer-members under the KFU umbrella, they all yearn for the same things. “Our members really have the same desires and visions for agriculture,” says Teske. “We all want a strong, viable future for our local economies.” The Kansas Farmers Union has worked diligently for more than 109 years to make this possible and its mission continues today