TOPEKA, Kan. – One positive thing that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, is it spiked an interest in buying local, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam told the Kansas House Appropriations committee in his state of agriculture address in Topeka Feb. 3.
“That gave entrepreneurs in the ag sector an opportunity to start looking at how to market directly,” he said Beam.
The nearly 90 Kansas state inspection meat processing plants and meat lockers saw a significant increase in demand. Smaller local meat processors increased their output by at least 23%, beginning last April, Beam noted.
In response to demand for local food, the state gave out 257 grants in 80 counties. That included $11.5 million dollars for meat processing facilities, some direct-to-consumer farmers, dairy and meat processing, grocery stores, smaller stores, 54 food pantry and soup kitchens and registered farmers markets, Beam said.
The funds made a difference, he said. Meat processing and lockers were able to add cold storage to extend storage time and expand their capacity. A Kansas City church developed a community kitchen, specialty crop farmers used funds for a water system, and others orchestrated a system for online food orders.
Kansas also dealt with challenges on the animal health side in 2020, with several incidences of a foreign animal disease called vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) this past spring and summer. It was found mainly in 26 southeastern Kansas counties. Staff and veterinarians from the U.S. Department of Agriculture did outreach with local fairs and horse shows and did 270 investigations.
“What is the Department of Ag doing about the increase in suicides in regard to the farming industry?” asked Rep. Troy Waymaster, chairman of the Kansas House Appropriations Committee.
That concern was the drive to create the website KansasAgStress.org and 24/7 support at 1-800-447-1985, Bean said. The website had 2,500 visits in 2020 with the average visitor spending 18 minutes there.
Numbers show so far in 2021 that traffic has dropped off.
“I hope that’s an indication that stress levels have dropped off,” Beam said. “Even if commodity prices increase, expenses haven’t decreased so it could continue to be a squeeze for some.”
The last federal bill has money for states to focus on agriculture stress, and there may be an opportunity to enhance this program with that funding, he added.
“So, 2020 was challenging for everybody including those in ag, but I would say we get to witness the strength and perseverance of our ag and rural communities,” Beam said.
He’s hopeful that exports remain strong, that domestic consumer demand increases, and that western Kansas sees some relief from drought conditions.