Agri-Urban, a link of farm and town, comes to an end

Jun 12, 2017 by and

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Branding isn’t as hot a topic as it used to be for Western District Conference. Decades of burning a stylized “AU” on young cattle in the spring came to a close last year when the last batch of Agri-Urban livestock was fattened up and sold, with profits going to WDC and other ministries.

The Agri-Urban board decided in March to close the program, which connected city and rural communities by collecting donations from urban individuals to buy livestock, which farmers would feed for later sale.

Agri-Urban board president Alan Entz with Agri-Urban branded cattle on his Newton, Kan., farm in 2012. — Vada Snider/MC USA

Agri-Urban board president Alan Entz with Agri-Urban branded cattle on his Newton, Kan., farm in 2012. — Vada Snider/MC USA

Elbert Koontz, then conference minister, proposed the idea in the early 1970s. From 1972 to 2016, more than $1.6 million was distributed to Agri-Urban beneficiaries WDC, Bethel College, the General Conference Mennonite Church and its successor, Mennonite Church USA.

Board president Alan Entz, who farms near Newton, Kan., said the program had dwindled from 25 to 30 participating farmers in Kansas and Nebraska feeding more than 100 head of cattle to four or five people feeding 20 to 25 head the last couple of years.

Last year the board tried buying 65 head of cattle and paid the feedlot bills, but markets took a downturn and Agri-Urban barely broke even. The market fluctuated in the opposite direction another year, resulting in an $80,000 windfall.

“We were getting less people, and it’s not returning that much,” Entz said.

Besides a changing market, the margins for beef cattle have shrunk as commercial feedlots grow bigger and bigger.

“When it started in the 1970s, a 400-pound calf was $100 to $200, and now that can be $800 to $1,000,” Entz said. “And when we sold them, they could weigh 800 to 900 pounds, and we could get $1,200 to $1,500.

“Now there’s $200 or $400, without feed dollars, between buying and selling.”

Treasurer Delbert Peters of rural Goessel is not a farmer but got involved as a way to use his training as an accountant to connect with and support the program’s beneficiaries.

“People were, I’d say, honored: ‘Yeah, I’ll take four head. I’ll take six head,’ ” he recalled. “They were willing to add a few head to what they had, but that model has changed, and there are just fewer farms like that.”

While the main focus was beef cattle, Agri-Urban has at times also included hogs, grain, dairy calves and even milk production.

Entz said Beatrice, Neb., used to have several dairy producers with interest in the program.

“For a long time they had eight or 10 cows that each dairy farmer designated for Agri-Urban,” he said. “When they sold milk, that milk check just went to AU. There aren’t near as many [individual dairy farms any more], and the last one just finally quit here three or four years ago, so that kind of went out.”

Opportunity to give

Dwight Flaming of Goessel, Kan., and his late father, Randolf, were longtime Agri-Urban participants.

“My father was on the board for many years,” he said. “I think if he wasn’t in on the start at the very beginning, he was in shortly thereafter.”

The Flamings operated a dairy farm but made an exception for Agri-Urban beef with a pasture set aside for a dozen head of cattle.

“It was an opportunity to generously give,” he said. “It fit into our farming operation, and it was something that we enjoyed doing.”

Many producers point to the annual Day on the Farm event as the face of the program and an opportunity to build relationships.

Maynard Knepp and Carol Duerksen hosted the gathering on a Saturday near Goessel, offering kids’ activities and animal interaction for hundreds of guests. Randolf Flaming was instrumental in starting the celebration, which mingled people from town and country.

“They would often use the brand to burn pieces of wood for children’s souvenirs,” Dwight Flaming said. “So there’s a lot of AU brands out there on pieces of wood, but probably no more cattle locally that have that brand on it.”

Changing landscape

Though the Flaming farm passed from one generation to the next, Entz said that wasn’t the case for others. The niche of fattening up a handful of animals for the church also seemed to diminish as the scale of farming increased.

“A lot of those older guys who always supported it, they died off,” Entz said. “Maybe their sons didn’t take over or they didn’t have sons or for whatever reasons it slowly dwindled.”

What happens on the farm doesn’t stay on the farm, with a chain reaction in congregations and even conferences.

“I’m acutely aware of a hole in the budget because of a lack of very stable ongoing support from the Western District Agri-Urban community,” said Flaming, who is chair of the conference stewardship commission.

He is tasked with finding creative new sources of funding for WDC ministries. Unless giving increases, it may mean having several irons in the fire.

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