By Meagan Cramer on February 1, 2023
Shop Kansas Farms Partners with Kansas Farm Bureau
Memories of 2020 are bound to include empty grocery store shelves and stay-at-home orders for many of us. While the world struggled to understand, mitigate and prevent COVID-19, the nation’s food supply was top of mind for farmers, ranchers and grocery buyers.
“One day in April 2020 my wife said she had been to the store and the meat counter was empty,” Rick McNary remembers. “I had my computer on my lap and I thought, ‘I wonder how I can connect my friends with people like Kregg and Katie Carothers of KCK Farms,’ because we had just enjoyed a delicious steak from their farm.”
That’s when McNary, a Butler County Farm Bureau member and advocate for farmers and ranchers, thought of the idea to create an online community known as Shop Kansas Farms (SKF).
Farmers on Facebook
The same month McNary’s wife saw the empty meat counter was when he started the Facebook group for Shop Kansas Farms. The intention behind the creation of SKF was to connect grocery buyers with farmers and ranchers who offered direct-to-consumer products at the height of COVID-19. He wasn’t a stranger to agriculture or farmers and ranchers in Kansas and saw an opportunity for action.
“I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know farmers and ranchers through my work with Kansas Farm Bureau and writing for Kansas Living,” he says. “I’ve sat with them at their kitchen tables, ridden with them through their pastures and tried to share their stories with others. Their work is vitally important to all of us and most of us don’t understand what they do.”
With the click of a “create group” button on Facebook, SKF was born. Over time, the group has grown to a population larger than Kansas City, Kan. With 159,000 members, the group has morphed into a supporting Facebook page and a website that features a searchable map where you can find eggs, honey, meat, u-pick stops and more.
While the Facebook group grew, McNary learned the ins and outs of Facebook quirks — especially how fickle the platform can be.
“Facebook can be hard to work with because they’ll send a note saying our group has violated a community standard without telling us what post or what standard we violated,” McNary says. “Early on, we started to figure out that posts with photos of animals were a trigger for the platform. This was a worry because we knew at any time Facebook could take the group down and we’d be left with nothing.”
With this in mind, McNary developed a website, www.shopkansasfarms.com, to house the infrastructure of SKF. Today there are more than 1,500 Kansas farms and ranches that have added themselves to the searchable map.
McNary received administrative support from volunteers, including Kansas Farm Bureau (KFB) staff, to help manage the Facebook group during its early growth. But once the group hit a manageable pace, he became a one-man show while also keeping up with his full-time job as vice president of private and public partnerships for The Outreach Program, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide safe water, food, medical care and education to those in need at home and abroad.
Eventually McNary realized he had a lot of ideas and goals for SKF but couldn’t do it alone. After careful consideration and prayer, he approached Terry Holdren, KFB CEO and general counsel, and asked if they could have a conversation about the future of the group.
“When Rick reached out, we were surprised and very interested in learning more,” Holdren says. “After we sat down and talked through what it might look like, we all realized this would be a great partnership for our members and would help us reach consumers in another way. We also knew it couldn’t happen without Rick still being heavily involved.”
Through thoughtful conversations, brainstorming and strategic planning, KFB decided to purchase SKF in 2022 — but with one condition: McNary had to stay on as a consultant due to his mindfulness, his deep connection to the users of SKF, and his values and vision of the path for SKF.
McNary agreed to stay connected for at least five years.
“I believed from the beginning that SKF was a gift from God,” McNary says. “I’ve worked diligently to steward it wisely, but it had reached a critical mass for my ability to serve it well, so we decided to offer it to our friends at KFB. I secretly hoped they would want me to stay involved but didn’t go in with that expectation, so I was ecstatic when they asked me to stay at least five years. Although I’ve loved my work with Outreach for the past decade, I chose to retire and commit myself to the opportunities to connect consumers to the wonderful farm and ranch families of Kansas.”
Followers of SKF haven’t noticed many changes in the group, and that’s on purpose.
“We’re moving slowly and methodically because we want to get it right,” Holdren says. “Our focus will be on keeping the SKF brand a trusted option for everyone.”
The priority is to build out www.shopkansasfarms.com so consumers can easily find the food items they’re looking for. It will still feature a map — something SKF users asked for from the beginning and have come to rely on — but will provide more robust options for digging into categories and using filters. It will also include further measures to ensure sellers are appropriately licensed and following required best practices for food safety. Farmers and ranchers listing on the site will also have options for “premium listings” that will provide added visibility for their product. McNary compares the website to a mall.
“We don’t sell products on the website, but we provide an opportunity for farmers and ranchers to grab a spot on a trusted brand’s website and connect with consumers who are looking for Kansas-grown products, like how a mall offers rented spaces to stores to sell their products,” McNary says. “We’ll make Shop Kansas Farms a nationwide household name for people wanting to buy food from our Kansas farms and ranches.”
Local food system development
The partnership between McNary and KFB means McNary can now dive deeper into one of his other passions — developing local food systems and empowering communities to build something that can help them grow and thrive. Today he’s having conversations with communities across the state and giving them a structure to start building together.
“I have decades of work in international and domestic food security issues,” he says. “My focus is to create economic prosperity in rural communities by tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit of existing farmers, ranchers and growers and providing them with new revenue streams, and also to energize entrepreneurs who want to begin farming with a new, less-costly and smaller-scale point of entry.”
McNary breaks down food systems into three pieces he says every community needs:
Production: The ability to grow crops or proteins.
Processing: The ability to process the crops or proteins through meat lockers, cold storage, processing facilities and commercial kitchens for value-added products.
Distribution: The ability to sell the finished items through storefronts or online and transport them using refrigerated box trucks, mail carriers or other means.
“I love bringing communities together to start having this conversation,” McNary says. “I use the collective impact model from leadership experts John Kania and Mark Kramer and we’re able to make progress on something that’s important to the entire community — providing opportunities for growth and prosperity.”
McNary began working with volunteers in Rice County to build their own local food system. Community members have named it the Harvest Hub of Rice County. Currently they’ve assessed the three components of a food system, received a $143,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, toured a vertical farm and received funding to update their wastewater plant.
“They’re making huge gains in Rice County and that’s because a group of community-focused individuals came together and started working as a team,” McNary says. “Both the county Farm Bureau and local Farm Bureau Financial Services agents are involved in the project and are focused on creating opportunities for local producers.”
Market of farms
SKF has also hosted events as a one-stop shop for sellers and buyers. Known as the Market of Farms, the events are set up similarly to a farmers market where SKF farmers and ranchers can sell their products to consumers. The first event was held in Rice County’s Lyons in April 2022, and KFB hosted the second one in Manhattan in November 2022. The next Market of Farms is slated for April 29, back in Lyons. As staff members learn the ins and outs of hosting these events, KFB will continue to add others so communities across Kansas can gain the positive impacts.
“We know Kansas communities are interested in having a Market of Farms in their area,” McNary says. “We’re building out opportunities for people to purchase plans to host them. It’s a great way to highlight growers and bring consumers to their towns.”
With that one click of “create group” while many were concerned about food supplies because of the pandemic, McNary created a brand known throughout the state while simultaneously easing consumers’ worries about what to feed their families. While the height of the pandemic is (hopefully) behind us, the partnership between McNary and Kansas Farm Bureau will ensure the opportunities of SKF will continue to grow.
“Kansas Farm Bureau has been instrumental in the success of Shop Kansas Farms from the beginning,” McNary says. “We were partners from the start and this purchase solidifies KFB’s interest in finding ways to ensure rural communities and Kansans thrive.”
To learn more about Shop Kansas Farms, become part of the Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/ shopkansasfarms
Follow the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/shopkansasfarms
See the map of products available at shopkansasfarms.com