Local growers convene at Hen House event

OLATHE, Kan. - Growers gathered March 6 for Hen House Market's annual celebration of its partnership with local growers.

At the 2017 Meet the Growers Luncheon, attendees visited with each other and with representatives of Kansas City, Kan.-based Balls Food Stores, which owns Hen House. The growers range in size, with farms from four or five acres to more than 600 acres.

Some growers brought samples or discussed new products, while others talked about growing methods for certain crops and intricacies of the H-2A program for agricultural workers.

Growers also heard a presentation by John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, on the status and future of local food.

Ikerd made the case that the U.S. is moving from a large industrialized food system, returning to a network of local food systems. He suggested the current system isn't working because there are still people in the U.S. who aren't getting enough to eat and slipping through the cracks of various social programs.

Ikerd advocated for communities to treat food as a utility, with planning and distribution handled locally rather than at a federal level.

Tannie Daniels and Kelly Jackson, retail manager and office manager, respectively, at Daniels Produce in Columbus, Neb., gave a positive review of the address.

"I thought it was excellent," Daniels said.

Jackson said she especially liked the concept of food being offered as a utility.

"That idea is great," Jackson said. "I never thought about that before."

Jackson said the demand for local produce has been good in recent years. Sweet corn accounts for about half the company's 600 acres of vegetables, and Daniels also grows other items, including cabbage and peppers. Much of the growth has been prompted by requests from customers.

Jennifer Thomas, a representative for Fresh Farm HQ, was at the event to provide information on what commodities the recently formed cooperative offers. Described as a food hub for the Kansas City region, the group has about a dozen farms currently and will likely grow.

"We're really excited to be helping fill the need for local foods," Thomas said.

Thomas said the Hen House event was helpful for establishing connections, more effective than sending e-mails or making phone calls.

"It really makes all the difference," Thomas said, to actually meet potential business partners.

The event has been offered for more than a decade.

Mike Beal, chief operating officer of Balls Food Stores, recently testified before Congress about the company's Double Up Food Bucks program, which is designed to support local growers while providing incentives for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants to purchase more produce.

Along with organic, local produce has become more popular in recent years. Beal told growers that the company's activity in that area is gaining attention.

"You've seen the movement grow nationally," Beal said. "Our program has served as sort of a benchmark or model for other grocers around the country."