Joshua Svaty is running for Governor of Kansas and, if elected, would become the only sitting United States governor who is also an active farmer.
First elected to the Kansas State House of Representatives at 22 years old, Svaty resigned during his fourth term to take up an appointment as the Kansas Secretary of Agriculture. He then went on to work for the federal government with Region 7 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Following this work in government, he became Vice President of The Land Institute, a nonprofit research, education, and policy organization based in Salina, Kansas, that is dedicated to promoting sustainable agriculture.
In 2010, Svaty and his wife, Kimberly, formed Free State Farms, a diversified farming operation that produces wheat, sorghum, soybeans, and sunflowers, and includes a cow/calf operation.
Svaty is running as a Democrat in the first gubernatorial primary that Kansas Democrats have held since 1998.
Food Tank had a chance to speak with Svaty about his background in food and agriculture, the challenges confronting the sector, and what his policy priorities would be if he is elected to the governor’s desk.
Food Tank (FT): If elected, you will be the only sitting governor of a U.S. state who is also an active farmer. Why do you think that’s important?
Joshua Svaty (JS): Many political candidates in the Midwest claim some nexus with agriculture, but few are really engaged in the endeavor. I was raised on a diverse farm operation that included wheat, sorghum, soybeans, sunflowers, a commercial cattle herd, and, when I was younger, a ‘farrow to finish’ hog operation. In 2010, my wife and I formed our own farm, Free State Farms. We are still in the early stage of farming where we carry large amounts of debt. It is impossible to understand modern agriculture—especially among young people—without understanding the tremendous costs associated with farming and how those costs in the early stages affect farming and family decisions. My childhood on the farm gave me my entire worldview, but it was not until I purchased my own farm that I began to see areas of policy that needed change.
FT: What do you see as the low-hanging fruit in food and agricultural policy that you hope to address from behind the governor’s desk?
JS: Farmers intimately interact with natural resources, and as Wendell Berry has said, ‘eating is an agricultural act.’ What many would consider food policy is difficult at the state level, but states are well equipped to address our air, soil, and especially our water policy—both its quality and its quantity. Unsustainable natural resource consumption is a quiet threat that few governments have the political will to address. I also believe that Kansas, as a productive agricultural state, should lead the nation in efforts to make sure all children are receiving the most nutritious calories possible as they develop. Early childhood nutrition makes for healthier adults and offers some children the extra boost they need to succeed.
FT: What are the most challenging food and agricultural policy issues you have confronted during your policy and political careers?
JS: Much of Kansas is a semi-arid state, and our high plains agriculture is heavily dependent on water from the Ogallala Aquifer. I devoted much of my tenure in the Kansas House and then as Agriculture Secretary toward actively opening up avenues for farmers to conserve their water right rather than pumping it every year. Kansas farmers are improving their efficiency with irrigation, but the long-term trajectory of the aquifer is still a decline. Some regions of the state have acknowledged the decline in the aquifer and are taking steps to address it, but there are still areas that carry a deep resistance to change. I think one of the major issues on the horizon will be the overall efficacy of chemicals on weed control in no-till acres. We are requiring ever-faster adjustments based on more aggressive weeds, which suggests the system isn’t working well.
FT: How did your stints at the Kansas Department of Agriculture and the EPA affect your understanding of the role of environmental regulation in maintaining healthy rural economies?
JS: Environmental regulation is a hard discussion around the farm, but with better science I think we have all begun to see how much our actions can affect other geographic areas. Gulf hypoxia is a good example—farmers are by nature good neighbors, but in the early 1970s a farmer in the upper Mississippi watershed might not have ever considered the impact of an oxygen-depleted dead zone on the shrimp industry in Louisiana. Sound science coupled with responsive state and federal agencies can help facilitate that understanding and hopefully create positive change. I vividly remember working on the smoke management plan for the Flint Hills. The Flint Hills in eastern Kansas are the last intact tracts of native tallgrass prairie in the world, and the local ranchers have used fire to maintain unwanted trees and encourage grass growth for generations. Occasionally, if too many acres are burned during specific conditions, those fires can trigger unsafe ozone levels in large metropolitan areas like Kansas City, Wichita, or even as far north as Omaha, Nebraska, like happened this last spring. While at the EPA, I worked closely with the ranchers to develop a mostly voluntary system where they can check a website showing smoke trajectory before they burn their acreage, thereby spreading the burn season out appropriately and hopefully avoiding ozone exceedances. The system isn’t perfect, but it has been largely adopted by Flint Hills ranchers who were willing to come to the table and work with state and federal agencies because they knew how important fire was to the ecosystem of the Flint Hills.
FT: An estimated 70 percent of U.S. farmland will change hands in the next 20 years. How do you see this transition impacting rural communities like yours and what should be done to manage it at the state level?
JS: Farm ground turnover itself does not scare me. For someone trying to build a farm, turnover means opportunity. There is far less opportunity when a generation long-removed from the land continues to hold on to the ground only as a profit-creating asset or a tax avoidance mechanism. Often those landowners are out of state and take the profit with them. There are still opportunities for young people to get started in farming. Many farmers and ranchers are looking for young hands to help them transition to retirement and may create preferential lease opportunities. And there will always be sub-marginal land for sale at a lower price just waiting for someone that is willing to put in an enormous amount of sweat equity. Ideally, the state and federal government will help create structures that place greater value in environmental externalities, thereby helping the next generation of farmers build farms with goals of conservation and production.
FT: To what extent do you hope to stay involved in agriculture if elected Governor?
JS: I am centered by being on the farm. I am also fortunate to farm in a particularly rugged part of the Smoky Hills in central Kansas where we still have abundant native pasture that has never been plowed and hosts diverse wildlife. The quiet wilderness of my small slice of Ellsworth County is my favorite place to be. Maintaining a connection to the farm will help me be a better Governor. I am a dryland farmer, so my grain production constantly reminds me that failure can happen even when you try to do everything right. Animal husbandry, when done well, makes humans happier and more peaceful. I think everyone in this nation could stand to feed some livestock in the morning right now. Ironically, the Governor’s mansion in Kansas is one of the smallest in the country but sits on more than two hundred acres. Perhaps we would have enough space to bring a few animals with us—to promote awareness and understanding about agriculture among all the Cedar Crest visitors.