It almost was like a California gold rush, Scott Williams said. He gestured across the landscape in December of what appears to be rolling knolls of grass. In this region of southeast Kansas, hundreds of underground shafts and strip mines were dug more than a century ago. Around these mines, camps and towns popped up, including Coalvale, Yale and Midway.
In fact, Crawford County's population back then was nearly double what it is today. But the once economic boon has left the land scarred and contaminated. Williams, head conservationist for Cherokee, Labette and Crawford counties, led my group of 30 on a less-traveled path to a 240-acre economic disaster where a coal slurry of sorts stretches more than 60 feet deep. We stood on this ground where a plant once processed coal before shipping it out of the county, where Williams and others, including the EPA, have found no feasible way to clean up the site. For me, it was an eye opener. For the past two years as part of the Kansas Agricultural and Rural Leadership program, I have experienced the state of Kansas - the good and the bad - with a 29 other agriculture and rural Kansas leaders. From packing plants to prisons, as well as grassroots rural entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 companies like Agco and Cargill and democracy in process in Topeka, we have covered a wide spectrum of topics and issues facing our state. That included this little parcel in Crawford County where ground has been turned upside down. The experience has been great, one I'm honored The News has allowed me to do. Now the program is about over. It brings me to a question posed to our class as the journey ends. "What is your purpose?" Mine is to educate - to tell agriculture and rural Kansas' story. It's a message that needs to be heard beyond the farm and ranch, beyond a class of 30. Agriculture, after all, is the state's largest industry - the backbone of our economy. In 2011, Kansas exported more than $5.3 billion in ag products, ranking seventh in the nation, according to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service. Cash receipts from farm marketings, such as wheat and cattle, totaled $15.86 billion that year. Kansas typically ranks first in the nation for wheat production, flour milling and grain sorghum production. The state also ranks high for beef production. In fact, agriculture employs 250,000 Kansans, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. It contributes $21 billion directly to the state economy. Another 178,000 jobs are supported by agriculture activity and an additional $13 billion in economic activity occurs. These people work in grain elevators, feedlots, hardware stores and implement dealerships. Some work directly on farm and ranches. They do business with the local restaurant, doctor's office, bank and grocery. They help populate the school. Without agriculture, Kansas wouldn't exist as it does today. My class isn't over, yet. Today, I'm leaving on a trip as a Kansas emissary, as Gov. Sam Brownback named us. Our group will tour Peru to learn more about one of the countries in which we export product. The U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, allows Kansas producers the opportunity to increase the state's market share in Peru. It officially took effect in 2009. Thus, during wheat harvest 2011, Peruvian wheat buyers toured the United States to see how our country could meet their demands. They made a stop at a few grain elevators in Kansas. While the country produces wheat, very little reaches flour mills, according to the U.S. Wheat Associates. The country imports about 55.6 million bushels annually, with the U.S. share roughly 37 million bushels. Moreover, Kansas exported nearly $45 million worth of cereal grains to Peru in 2011, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. So, just like standing on the coal slurry, this will be another eye opener I'll share in coming weeks. We'll tour a mill and a chocolate plant. We'll see an avacdo farm and view research plots. We'll even dine on guinea pig - one of the "livestock" raised here. Or so I'll try.
Follow Amy's adventures at http://hutchnews.com/talesfromthecrib/