Donn Teske, farmer and President of the Kansas Farmers’ Union, is optimistic. He believes that small and mid-sized farms are making successful inroads to improve their market power and these efforts have great potential. Donn himself operates a fifth generation, 2,000 acre organic farm and ranch in northeastern Kansas, and, in spite of increasing difficulties, he has not been deterred from continuing to improve the marketing opportunities for mid-sized farmers.
One of these opportunities has come from the Kansas Organic Producers (KOP), a group of nearly sixty farmers that provides crucial marketing services for its members. Established in 1974 as an education association to help promote the production and marketing of organic products, the group restructured in 1992 to focus on marketing organic grain. One-third of Donn’s farm is dedicated to alfalfa hay, red clover, milo (grain sorghum), corn, soybeans and wheat. With nearly his entire crop production servicing the livestock industry, KOP is his primary marketing channel. His harvest alone would be far more difficult to market effectively, but the services of KOP give growers a shared clout.
Aside from sitting on the board of this member-owned producers group, Donn also played a role in the creation of the High Plains Food Cooperative, which represents dozens of farmers from northwest Kansas, east Colorado, and southwest Nebraska who want to sell directly to consumers. Following a two-day marketing workshop in 2005 led by the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, the Ogallala Food Cooperative and Donn himself, the idea for a direct marketing outlet really took shape. “Food cooperatives are not a new concept, but are increasingly becoming a vital marketing arena for small scale producers,” Donn related. “Direct consumer relationships can be hard to initiate, yet they offer a more stable and sustainable marketplace for small and mid-sized producers. As fluctuations in the conventional market continue, a personal relationship with the consumer can bypass these fluctuations and offer tremendous stability for farmers.” Since the ’05 workshop, the Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union has gotten the project off the ground and currently the co-op is thriving with almost 80 producers selling products directly to consumers through internet orders.
Basically what it comes down to is a more even playing field. “Small farms have done most of their marketing with less money and support than the rest of agriculture. They’ve gotten help from Sustainable Agriculture Resource and Education (SARE) and extension programs, but for the most part have done things on their own,” Donn said. Developing these niche markets and not thinking of them as second-class is something Donn believes will make a difference. This is why he is impressed by the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative at USDA. “It speaks to me on a personal level because I am exactly the type of farmer that needs this attention,” he said. “Once these small-scale operations gain better access to more stable markets, more opportunities and niche products will follow.”