‘Leading with Generosity’ Leads to Expansion of Kansas City Food Hub

A more enhanced localized food system with increased food security is the public good to come out of this project. Our feasibility study and local food systems assessments have pointed to over $188 million of unmet demand for locally produced food in wholesale markets. The food hub is working to satisfy that demand by delivering what buyers are seeking.

marlin bates“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know … but who you know is up to you.”

This pithy addition to a well-known aphorism is from Marlin Bates, Douglas County Extension Director with K-State Research and Extension. Bates is a co-founder of the Kansas City Food Hub Working Group and a key organizer of an agricultural producer cooperative now in its second year of operation in the KC Metro area.

Bates’ concerted efforts at relationship-building, due in part to insights gained during his i-Three Issue Corps experience with eXtension, have resulted in the development of a regional food hub that gives fruit and vegetable producers a new way to market their fresh produce.

Bates says that 100 years ago, there were 176,000 farms in Kansas, and 75,000 of them produced fresh fruits and vegetables.  Today, there are 71,000 farms, and fewer than 1,000 of them commercially produce fruits and vegetables.  “We have the capacity, the land, and better mechanization and infrastructure than we did a century ago. We also have consumer interest in eating locally grown products.”  What’s missing?  Connections, to put it all together.

When Bates first joined K-State Research and Extension as a horticulture agent, two groups had conducted feasibility studies to determine ways to grow the local food economy – the Douglas County Food Policy Council and the Kansas City Food Hub Working Group.  When Bates found himself at the table of the policy council, he decided to employ an insight he had gained with the i-Three Issue Corps – “leading with generosity.”  (See John Stepper, “Working Out Loud.” http://workingoutloud.com/about/) Rather than being directive and coming in as the “expert,” he decided to simply be open to what might happen, to concentrate on getting to know those involved. Within six months, the chair of the council asked him to organize a group of people to move forward in getting a hub established.

Bates says “leading with generosity” means going into a conversation or situation “without preconceived notions,” not leading with direct expectations of what you can get out of that relationship.  “My relationship was not just at the table,” Bates says.  Outside conversations in getting to know the chair, building rapport, and becoming a trusted, reliable resource to producers, buyers and a “whole swath of players,” became crucial.  I was no martyr, but I was willing to dedicate the staff time necessary to make conversations work, to bring resources to the table, to develop a good team and to develop a farmer-owned operation.”

The “proof in the pudding” of his other-centered approach came when Bates put out the call for farmers to join the effort. He was met with resounding success.  Farmers from western Missouri, central Kansas, and points in between met with him and each other for nine to 10 months, every other week, to discuss and plan next steps.

Now the KC Food Hub allows smaller-scale fruit and vegetable producers to sell to the wholesale cooperative rather than, or in addition to, selling directly to consumers through farmers markets or similar venues. The hub has grown from five producer members to 17 since 2016.

The recognition and encouragement I received from my upper administration was not just a validation of the work that I am doing, but also something that can help accelerate the conversation about local food system development work.

Tom Buller, an area fruit and vegetable grower and president of the Board of Directors of the Food Hub, says “The Food Hub gives me the opportunity to specialize … to emphasize doing the things I’m good at doing and less of what I’m not good at doing. Rather than having to grow “everything from asparagus to zucchini” to meet the demands of rapid turnover for perishable products, he can specialize in one or several things.  Additionally, “I’m not a marketing person at all.  Brand imaging is not my area of strength or interest, so the hub takes some of that responsibility from me so I can focus on growing things.”

Buller credits Bates with building bridges to make the hub a reality. “I think, more than a lot of people I’ve observed, Marlin really goes out of his way to put himself in situations to meet a broad variety of interesting people and to learn something about them.  Then somewhere down the line, that someone knows something that’s related to a topic or program he’s interested in, and connections are made,” Buller says.

Those connections for the Food Hub include like-minded entities such as KCHealthy Kids; After the Harvest, a group that gleans crops and donates food to shelters and food pantries; and industry partners involved in transportation and logistics. Bates also stays in touch with colleagues and session leaders that he met in San Antonio at the issue corps sessions.  Now when he attends meetings such as the National Urban Extension Conference or the National Association of County Agricultural Agents, he has new colleagues with whom he interacts and shares ideas.

Stepper’s presentation at the i-3 Issue Corps also emphasized to Bates the “duty to be more visible and provide communication about the work that we are doing.” Bates worked with others at the university and in the community to develop a more comprehensive outreach and communications plan, which has included giving presentations to state legislators and bankers, visiting with the director of the regional economic development council, and keeping county commissioners informed.

Bates’ achievements have made him more visible within his own organization as well.  He was recognized by his dean in front of 250 of his peers at the K-State Research and Extension annual conference as the Outstanding County or District Extension Professional.  “It validated the work I’m doing,” he said.

“In extension, we think of ourselves as conveners or connectors, but you can’t be connected if you’re not out there,” Bates says.  “We only have so much time, but building relationships, regardless of what public you’re working with, has to be a major piece.  And I’ve found that ‘leading with generosity’ leads to more satisfying, more productive relationships for all involved.”

For more information, contact Marlin Bates at 785-843-7058 or batesm@ksu.edu

Learn more about the Northeast Kansas Food Hub Feasibility Study