KFB Fireside Chat answers questions with governor, secretary of ag

Kansas Farm Bureau recently invited Gov. Laura Kelly and Kansas Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Beam to a “fireside chat” where they updated those on the call about various issues facing the state.

KFB President Rich Felts moderated the virtual event held Jan. 23.

During this time of year, Beam typically visits with a lot of different groups and tries to emphasize the significance of Kansas agriculture.

“I think sometimes we’re so close to it we don’t realize how important it is for this state and nation,” he said. “Our economist has worked through the years, analyzing 71 sectors of ag. The state has over 530 sectors and 71 of them are considered ag food and food processing.”

Those 71 sectors contribute more than $50 billion to the economy, with an indirect contribution of considerably more. Those 71 sectors also account for 13% of the workforce in the state of Kansas.

“So it is significant, but what inspires me and what I love about agriculture is that it is still predominantly family owned businesses,” he said.

In the last census of ag, Beam said there are more than 84% of farms and ranches in the state still owned by families.

“So that’s a very, somewhat unique and fun part of the role that I play,” he said.

Kansas is pretty significant nationwide, ranking fifth in the value of total ag production, according to the 2017 ag census.

“We’re right behind California, Texas, Iowa, Nebraska,” he said. “I am humbled to be able to serve as the secretary of ag in a state where ag is such a big, big player."

There’s no question 2020 was challenging, and looking back Beam saw a lot of discouragement in some people.

“We didn’t see a buoyancy in our prices because of expectations of some trade agreements,” he said. “And then of course the pandemic really hammered the market prices, and especially the livestock sectors and the grain to some extent because ethanol and demand was down considerably—that had the ripple effect for many producers.”

Beam applauded Gov. Kelly on her actions during the pandemic when there was market uncertainty for livestock producers and the aid rendered to reduce the impact.

“Gov. Kelly’s administration, putting priority on how to administer the CARES funding and $12 million was devoted to securing local food grants, and that was quite rewarding and our staff helped manage those cases you have over 250 recipients, in 80 counties,” Beam said.

Those grants were significant to small meat processors, food processors, food banks and local direct-to-consumer producers, and would not have been possible without federal funds that were appropriated.

“It is going to really up the capacity for our smaller meat processing plants as adding cold storage has helped churches in their food pantries,” he said. “It’s provided resources for existing and new specialty crop direct-to-consumer farmers to give them the tools to expand and fulfill that need."

He also expressed his appreciation for the employees in the Division of Animal Health, saying they were probably as busy as ever during the pandemic. They were preparing plans to depopulate swineherds if necessary for backups at slaughter plants, while others were dealing with vesicular stomatitis in equine herds.

“Our animal health crew was out, I think, with over 270 visits and monitoring over 100 quarantines,” Beam said. “So it took a big chunk of time and attention.”

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He closed his remarks by mentioning how significant ag is to the state.

“That’s because of folks like you. Each of you, and the previous generations that have taken the risk and put in the sweat equity and had the diligence to keep moving forward,” he said.

He appreciates the knowledge and experience in these rural communities—largely farmers and ranchers— who serve in leadership roles at the local level.

“I can’t think of any more time than now that we need that leadership to continue to step up and I want to congratulate Kansas Farm Bureau members, because I know that you’re all very active and supportive at that local level,” he said.

Gov. Kelly was questioned on a number of topics during the event, starting with what it’s like to be a Democratic governor in the Midwest. Felts asked her what her role is representing the state of Kansas with the new administration.

“I think I’m the only Democrat governor in a Midwestern state,” she said. “I think it will amplify my voice with the new administration. And I have every intention of using that. I think you’ve seen in my work with the last administration that I think it is my job to carry forth the issues and concerns that impact the state of Kansas.”

As for agriculture, Kelly expects to listen, hear and carry forth the messages that are in the best interest of Kansans and push for passage of those or implementation of those at the federal level. She’s planning on taking advantage of the working relationship with former secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack who’s expected to lead USDA, as well as the nation’s new secretary of commerce.

“So trust that I will use those relationships and only use them to promote the best interests of all Kansans and including, maybe most especially, ag,” Kelly said. “I also recognize that I also have partners in Congress that I can work with.”

Felts later asked how Kelly sees emerging technologies impacting the state and how it could be involved in creating more jobs, and how it might affect rural communities. She recognizes the need and reality of tech in all sectors, but sees the need for changes in the job market.

“I think it’s important that we recognize this change is coming, and that we invest significantly in workforce training and retraining,” she said. “I’ll be working with our various agencies who are involved with that and our local partners who are involved with that or tech schools."

Kelly hopes by having nimble retraining and retooling, those who have been displaced from current jobs by technology again have employment.

“On the flip side, we’re also working very hard with it through the Department of Commerce, to attract and grow industry here and bioscience industry, which a lot of technology is included in that,” she said. “We’re looking to recruit, not only businesses but also that level of workforce. That makes Kansas an attractive place for young smart and technologically savvy folks to come.”

Beam agreed emphasizing the central location of Kansas and the rich natural resources available.

“We’re going to be always poised if there’s any kind of processing or value-added industry,” Beam said. “And because we’re very diverse in our grain producing ability, we’ve got our robust livestock sector, we continue to rank in the top 15 states in about any commodity.”

Felts then asked about the accessibility of vaccinations from COVID-19 to Kansans. Kelly said in terms of access, it’s been an issue all across the country and world.

“There just has not been enough robust production of the vaccines to meet the demands, particularly as Kansas and other states move into phase two,” she said. “Which encompasses a huge group of people. Remember anybody aged 65 and older, regardless of health conditions is now eligible for vaccine, along with our critical workers and our teachers and all sorts of other folks who fall into that category.”

The struggle for lack of available vaccine has been the same across the nation, and now there’s far more people eligible for it than there is vaccine.

“I was heartened to hear the president talk about implementing the defense production act to ratchet up the production of vaccinations and other virus related equipment and testing and all those kinds of things we need to have done,” she said. “That’s what should have been happening from the very beginning, it would have been very helpful.”

When vaccines were first being distributed to long-term care facilities, most were coming in through Walgreens or CVS as most of the nursing homes have partnered with the national chains in a direct relationship. On the other hand, local county health departments were getting vaccines as well—vaccinating health care workers first. Eventually medical providers in those areas will start receiving their dosages for patients.

“So, we will get them out just as fast as we receive them from Washington,” she said. “That’s the hang up right now is really the distribution from DC we have in place—a pretty robust provider network which we’re building onto every day.”

Kelly said there’s a vaccination dashboard at www.kansasvaccine.gov where people will be able to go on and figure out where the closest provider is to them and get scheduled.

“We’re up and running and we’re doing what we can,” Kelly said. “Our biggest hang up right now is just getting the doses in.”

For more information about the Kansas Farm Bureau visit www.kfb.org.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].