By Nick Levendofsky, KFU Executive Director
“Creating Community” is the focus of the 2022 Kansas Farmers Union’s 115th anniversary state convention at the Hilton Garden Inn in Salina November 29-December 1, 2022. Convention sessions will focus on the challenges of the dwindling High Plains Aquifer, the importance of addressing rural mental health, growing membership in Kansas Farmers Union, USDA Rural Development and Farm Service Agency updates, young people returning to and getting involved in rural Kansas, Farmers Union’s community-building history, issues for the upcoming state legislative session and the new Congress, plus addressing food insecurity in urban and rural Kansas. The 115th anniversary convention kicks off the afternoon of Tuesday, November 29 with tours of Great Plains Manufacturing and The Land Institute. Please contact Mary Howell at email@example.com or 785-562-8726 to reserve a spot on one or both tours. Wednesday morning’s first session will be devoted to The High Plains Aquifer, America’s largest underground reservoir. This finite resource has been in decline for decades — since soon after farmers started pumping the underground water to cultivate crops following World War II. Some parts of the aquifer have half the water they had before irrigation on the aquifer began. In some areas, there is only about 10 years of water left, and loss of the aquifer would fundamentally alter life in western Kansas and destroy farmers’ livelihoods. This session intends to do an in-depth analysis of the issue: its history; its impact on western Kansas farms and communities; the changes needed to address the issue, and how such changes could be brought about. This session is comprised of unquestionably respected experts in their fields – Jim Butler, a Senior Scientist and Chief of the Geohydrology Section of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas, and Burke Griggs, Washburn Law professor who specializes in natural resources and water law. Surviving and thriving in the agriculture world can be an intense and demanding job. Farmers are under pressure to meet the demands of running their operation and working to balance other areas of their lives. During this presentation, participants will be given information on where stress comes from and how it can affect mood, thinking and decision-making, along with some easy-to-apply tips that have been proven to help manage the stress of farmers and ranchers for the last 16 years. Sarah A. Gideon, MBA, Executive Director of the Health Innovations Network of Kansas, Inc. (HINK) will moderate a panel of mental health experts that includes Shane Hudson, President & CEO at CKF Addiction Treatment; Keisha McClish Couts, Mental Health Specialist and Mental Health First Aid Responder for Common Ground Producers and Growers, LLC; and Will Stutterheim, LCP, Fort Hays State University Instructor with over 20 years of experience in mental health therapy and education. Christy Cauble Davis was appointed State Director for Rural Development in Kansas on June 27, 2022. Davis, a fifth-generation Kansan, has dedicated her career to serving and strengthening Kansas communities. Davis will give an update on the work she is undertaking as Rural Development Director and how KFU members can advocate for more investment in rural development across the state. Membership organizations like Farmers Union are going through an era of change. How we respond and adapt to new realities and expectations will shape the longevity and success of our organization for years to come. In this session, Abby Perdue, National Farmers Union membership director and Claudine Arndt. Minnesota Farmers Union membership director will bring fresh perspectives and ideas for dealing with changing realities to build a sustainable and thriving membership. They will explore the challenges facing membership organizations, where to find prospective members, and strategies to grow and strengthen our membership community. Tom Giessel farmed in Pawnee County near Larned, Kansas where he raised wheat, corn, milo, and alfalfa on his farm, and recently retired to give an opportunity to other young farmers starting their operations in his farming community. Giessel currently serves as Honorary Historian for the National Farmers Union and will give a historical perspective of Farmers Union’s community-building efforts over the last century. Rural Kansans once worried about a “brain drain” where young people would leave the state after pursuing higher education and never return. Following the COVID-19 pandemic and greater infrastructure and rural development investments, that is no longer the case in many rural communities across the state. This afternoon panel will discuss all the ways young people in their areas are coming back and giving back to the communities that contributed so much to their upbringing. KFU executive director Nick Levendofsky will moderate a panel of rural Kansans that includes Julie Roller Weeks, director of the Abilene Convention & Visitors Bureau; Luke Mahin, co-owner of Irrigation Ales in Courtland and former Republic County Economic Development director; Andres Mata, executive director of Kansas Civic Network; and Abby Amick, current Wabaunsee County Clerk and former Wabaunsee County Economic Development director. KFU contract lobbyist Sean Gatewood will wrap up the afternoon session with an outlook on the upcoming Kansas legislative session which begins in early January. Prior to serving as KFU’s lobbyist, Gatewood served as the Advocacy Director and Interim Executive Director of the Kansas Health Consumer Coalition and served two terms in the Kansas House of Representatives. Wednesday evening’s banquet will feature annual awards given to honor a Farmers Union insurance agent of the year; an emerging leader in KFU; and to an individual who has devoted their life’s work to family farm advocacy, Kansas agriculture, and rural communities. Banquet attendees will enjoy music from Salina musician Ann Zimmerman and a keynote presentation on community-owned carnivals by Humanities Kansas presenter Erika Nelson of Lucas. A gift basket raffle will cap off the evening’s festivities with funds going to the Kansas Farmers Union Foundation. Grassroots policy updates and development takes center stage Thursday morning. We will begin with the annual Washington Breakfast where Layla Soberanis, senior government relations representative for National Farmers Union (NFU), will update members and attendees on NFU’s latest federal legislative efforts plus what to look forward to when a new Congress takes office in early January 2023. Kansas Farmers Union has a rich history of working to protect and promote the interests of family farmers and ranchers by taking a leadership role in advocating for farming, ranching, and agricultural interests across the state. Each year, members review past policy, propose, and debate new issues, and adopt policy for the coming year. KFU members will also elect board members from the north and south districts and vote for state president. Dennis McKinney was appointed by the Biden Administration to serve as the State Executive Director of the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) in Kansas in February 2022. McKinney is a Kansas farmer and cattle producer in southern Kiowa and northern Comanche counties. He served as a Kiowa County Commissioner from 1989 to 1992 before being appointed to the Kansas House of Representatives, where he served until 2009. McKinney will share pertinent updates from USDA FSA during his presentation. Donna Pearson McClish is founder and CEO of Common Ground Mobile Market and Mobile Food Hub in Wichita. She is a multi-generational urban farmer and is involved in many community activities. McClish will share updates on Common Ground’s work, especially on the services they are expanding to Saline County, Kansas. The final session on Thursday will be an update on the Kansas Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom (KFAC) from executive director Nancy Zenger-Beneda Ed.S. Zenger-Beneda has been involved in education for over 25 years in both instructional and administrative roles. Nancy has agriculture industry experience as a rancher in North Central Kansas, where she and her husband operate a cow/calf operation. Online registration, sponsorship opportunities, and a full convention agenda are available at https://www.kansasfarmersunion.com/event/kfu-state-convention/ For registration or sponsorship inquiries, please call Kami at 620.241.6630 or Mary at 785.562.8726. The Hilton Garden Inn has limited hotel rooms available for convention attendees. Please call 785-309-0440 or book online at www.hilton.com with group code “KFU” to receive the group rate by November 12.