We wanted greasy eggs and bacon and toast soggy in butter. We wanted it bad after spending the night in the truck line of the Hoxie, Kansas Rest Area. Despite the deep diesel rumbling of engines idling and coming and going, the truck side of a rest area is like a safe womb, free of the tweakers and Busch-case boozers hanging at picnic tables at 5:30am only 40 yards away on the rest area’s vehicle side.
We had almost all of Kansas to cross and felt confident in finding a diner with locals reading papers and ready to talk to us about the giant fields of wheat spreading to every horizon. It didn’t happen like that. Just a highway-side trucker diner in Evans and nothing in Russell or Bunker Hill. The Google search said the towns had cafes, but nothing. The Bunker Hill Cafe was shuttered, said open Thursday-Sunday, but I’m not sure I believe that.
So we ate cereal and brewed Sumatra beans on the side of a trucker gas station in Bunker Hill. If feels more like a ghost state than just a few random ghost towns. This is the quiet country, and I understand that. But something feels newly changed. People live here; I see houses with trucks with lights on. But not much seems to move other than big tractors and bigger semis.
We make it to Lawrence, the hip college town with hills and a river and cafes and youngsters in tight jeans. Local Burger has a cool logo so we stop in. Hilary Brown opened the all-local restaurant that specializes in burgers – elk, bison, beef – and even a buffalo hot dog. She discovered the fundamental importance of nutrition and healthy eating when she realized she was gluten intolerant. So she took some courses and opened Local Burger.
We all eat elk burgers cooked perfectly rare. While waiting, a man with sweat in his gray hair and a red bandana around his leathery-tan neck comes in carrying boxes of green leafy things. He’s Bob Lominska, and he owns Rolling Prairie Farm, with a plot in the city and a larger one outside the limits. He brings his CSA shares to Local Burger for Thursday pick-up. He suggests I speak with his partner, Paul Johnson.
Johnson arrives a few minutes later in a floral short-sleeve shirt and carrying more produce. He works a lot with policy and lobbying for a smarter farm practices. I ask Paul about all that blankness to the west, in the rest of Kansas that isn’t Lawrence or Kansas City or Topeka.
“Well, as a state, we import 97% of our fruits and veggies,” he says. “We have 7,700 acres growing fruit and produce. In 1910 we had 140,000 acres.”
And it’s not as if people in Kansas have all become allergic to fruits and veggies. “We as Kansans spend $525 million a year on produce, and we only grow $15-20 million worth of it. Our farms are getting bigger and bigger. We’re moving toward and agricultural aristocracy in this state. Our state’s farm policy directs 69% of all subsidies to 10% of the farmers (ewg.org).
Slow down. This guy’s got more digits than Sammy Malone.
“It’s all Rhonda Janke’s book, Farming in the Dark,” Johnson says.
I looked at ewg.org and he was mostly right. I also found the top subsidy programs in the state between 195 and 2009 were wheat, corn, and sorghum. (ewg.org)
As we roll into Kansas City, we’re curious to see if the slow twist toward a different agriculture must be wrenched from within the city before reaching the prairie. The Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture and a few rogue vacant-lot farmers believe they can grow healthy produce on small farms AND make a profit. The capitalized market approach to the small diversified production farm might be the best tactic for this sustainable agriculture movement to be taken seriously and establish itself as an industry.
Anything to get the greasy spoons up and running in small rural towns. Without ’em, we’ve lost the great American road trip, as well.