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Where would we be without food pioneers?

June 26th, 2009 · 7 Comments · Food in the news, local food

pioneerAmid the recurring bad food news (such as the latest recalls at USDA), it was wonderful to take a step back this week and honor people whose pioneering efforts are changing the food environment. The crowd (I’m guessing 400) at the Pioneers of Local & Organic Foods event on Wednesday is a clear sign to me, anyway, that interest is going mainstream here in Lawrence, Kansas.

Among other signs was the abundance of local foods served to the crowd, from chips and dip to an array of fresh vegetables, from vegan, gluten-free veggie burgers to lamb sausage. What’s more, to the best of my knowledge most of the plants were raised organically (or using organic methods but not certified) and the meats were from animals raised and fattened on grass. The festivities were timely, too, coming the day before a study by Deutsche Bank suggests that more fertilizer and irrigation won’t be enough to feed a growing world population (NY Times).

Here’s a slideshow of images from the evening. (If you’re reading this via email or RSS, I think you’ll need to click through to the web site to get the pix.) Point to the “Notes” at the bottom-right of images to get caption information. AND… keep scrolling past the photos to read about the honorees!

A hint of the program

Some in the crowd, of course, were probably less informed than others about the sorry state of agriculture today. For them, sustainable farming economist/geek Ken Meter gave a primer rife with statistics on the Kaw Valley’s agriculture and its agricultural potential. (He covered some of the same ground during his talk last year, as I wrote at

The very short and general summary: Farmers have been losing money for years, and they could start making money and aid the local economy if they grew more food for local area residents to eat. He cited the truly remarkable programs in Woodbury County, Iowa. Maybe we need to plan a field trip for our local officials!

Meter also compared the Kaw Valley with an area in Japan he visited (partly as a nod to Japanese visitors, who I hope to talk more about in another post). Here in Kansas, the farmers primarily produce commodities that leave the area; there, farmers produce food that is distributed and eaten locally to the benefit of taste, diet and the local economy.

On to the honorees

It’s disappointing that the local news media so far haven’t reported on the honorees, but I’m happy to do so now. It’s thrilling to see these people honored, and I thank them for their efforts.  I present them in the order they were presented on Wednesday:

3662824889_c7a5a8c209_mMargaret Clark, Natalya Lowther and Mary Jo Mensie. These women were honored for the work they did to bring local meats to the Lawrence Farmers Market. (You can read a little about the Clark Family Farm and Lowther’s Pinwheel Farm on the Lawrence Farmers Market vendors page.)

Jim Cooley. In 1978, Cooley founded Central Soy Foods (annoying Flash web site), producer of handmade artisan tofu made from organic, non-GMO soybeans. He also was involved in the antecedents to the Community Mercantile.

Paul Johnson. I know Paul, a farmer near Perry since 1980, primarily in his role as a founding (and still) member of the Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance, which I’ve subscribed to since its inaugural year, 1994. Paul is a board member of the Kansas Rural Center (where he’s been involved since its founding in 1979) and has been active politically, lobbying at various times against the worst practices of corporate agriculture, monitoring the federal Farm Bill and lobbying on behalf of family farm issues for the Kansas Catholic Conference.

Bob and Joy Lominska. The Lominskas helped introduce the Green Revolution to Nicaragua during their Peace Corps stint in 1970-1973, and that experience led them to growing food without chemical inputs. They’ve been growing produce for their own use and for sale since they returned to Kansas shortly thereafter. Their Hoyland farm, which is certified organic, was an early vendor at the Lawrence Farmers Market. They also are founding members of the Rolling Prairie Farmers’ Alliance and have sold produce to The Merc about as long as they’ve been growing. The Lominskas are also noteworthy for getting their son Avery on board with organic growing, and he’s a regular at the market these days.

Chuck Magerl. Chuck may be best known these days as the man behind The Free State Brewing Co., which opened 20 years ago and today buys some $250,000 in local foods, but we old-timers know he’s been involved in local and organic food from the start. He also was a founding member of the Merc and co-founder with Thom Leonard of WheatFields Bakery, which makes fabulous artisan breads from organic Kansas wheat. My favorite line of the evening: “Although he was once mighty tempted to accept an offer to manage a California organic produce co-op, Chuck’s proud to be a Kansan. As a disciple of Wes Jackson, the sage of Salina, Chuck still finds humor in Wes’ quip, ‘Any fool can appreciate California; it takes real character to appreciate Kansas.'”

3663628336_de387142bc_mLynn Byczynski and Dan Nagengast. My sentimental favorites of the evening, friends Lynn & Dan have farmed together since 1988 and have owned three certified organic farms. They started Kansas’ first CSA, serving Topeka in 1989, and were instrumental in starting an organic certification chapter in eastern Kansas. They also helped found Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance. In 1992, Lynn started Growing for Market, a nationally recognized monthly magazine for local food producers that she still publishes. She is author of two books about market gardening and has helped countless beginning growers over the years. Dan is director of the Kansas Rural Center and has led numerous project there, including the one bringing the aforementioned Japanese visitors here as part of an exchange program.

Nancy O’Connor. Nancy has been involved with the Community Mercantile for 23 years, the last 17 as director of education and outreach, and since 1999 she’s also been the executive director of Community Mercantile Education Foundation (CMEF), committed to bringing fresh, wholesome, local and organic foods to underserved populations. Nancy also helped put on and bring food to the shindig on Wednesday and wrote a great cookbook, the Rolling Prairie Cookbook, after developing recipes for the CSA for several years.

John and Karen Pendleton. The Pendletons seem omnipresent, and their ongoing promotion of local agriculture is famous in these parts. They own Pendleton’s Country Market, a diversified farming operation that practices integrated pest management, beneficial insects, minimum till, buffer strips, wetlands and composting.  Although not certified organic, the Pendletons have used only biological insect controls in the greenhouses for over 20 years. They sell their produce at the Lawrence Farmers Market and on the farm and have provided a location for numerous community activities. Karen produced the Lawrence Area Horticulture Farm Guide for over 20 years, now online, thanks to a grant she secured, at  She was also the “farmer coordinator” for a four-year project through the Kansas Rural Center to guide farmers interested in running a small value-added business. John has spoken for rural interests on the ECO2 Commission and is president of the Douglas County 4-H Foundation.

And in closing…

As emcee Scott Allegrucci noted, the work isn’t over. Fortunately, though, these people put the kettle on the stove. Now the rest of us need to turn up the heat. Hats off to these leaders, and bravo to the people who put on the evening. The food was provided by Local Burger (including some of Lowther’s breakthrough lamb sausage), the Community Mercantile and, if I’m not mistaken, the Casbah Market and Cafe. Local Burger, the Merc, Global Partners for Local Organic Foods, The Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, Elizabeth Schultz Environmental Fund of Douglas County and The Kansas Rural Center.

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