How I Lead: Caryl Hale on Listening and Speaking Up in Rural Kansas

CarylHaleCaryl Hale is a mother of three living with her husband, Aaron, in northwest Kansas. Born and raised in Kansas, she has worked to cultivate relationships within the state to help advocate for rural communities and agriculture. She has attended both KSU and KU, graduating from neither, and ended up choosing to stay at home to raise her children. Staying at home afforded her the time to learn how to grow a garden, along with other homesteading skills. She has learned through her organizational involvement that coming to the table ready to listen is one of the greatest assets one can have.

  1. What triggered your interest in healthy food and farming?

I have to chuckle at this question, because my mind considers the difference between a “triggered interest” vs. my first few encounters with farming. I grew up in a rural Kansas town and farming was certainly something in my family’s blood. I can remember sleeping in the hot cab of a combine with my grandpa as he cut crops, judging horticulture in 4-H, and picking green beans with my brother at 10 p.m. with a spotlight on the garden (it was punishment for something we did). All of these experiences were some of my first memories of agriculture, but I have to be honest, I really was not interested. Those beans that my brother and I picked, we each in our own way, tried to kill them off with other chores we had. I would dump dirty mop water with cleaner in it onto the beans (hoping to poison them), and my brother would “accidentally” mow the ends of the bean rows down. Since then, I would have to say I have done a 180. I met my husband in Lawrence, KS, and we bought a house to start our little family in. The house had a beautiful backyard with a fenced in garden. The summer after we bought the house, we thought, “Well, better not waste this garden, let’s stick some plants in the dirt and hope for the best.” The summer of 2007, the year our first daughter together was born, was the year that started me on my healthy food and farming journey.

As we gained experience with growing in our backyard, we started connecting to the various growing networks in the Lawrence community. We joined the Lawrence Food Garden Tour, the New Boston Food Coop, and the Lawrence Charcuterie Club. These groups opened up valuable resources and connections within the northeast Kansas area.

  1. How are you engaged in the healthy food and farming movement now?

We moved from Lawrence to my husband’s hometown of Norton, KS, in 2013 to be close to family and to help out with the family farm. Immediately after moving, I knew I had to start making connections and getting involved, and in the summer of 2014 I filled the coordinator position for the Norton Farmers market. I still hold that position and have also become a board member of the Norton County Farm Bureau, the Kansas Rural Center, and Live Well Norton. All of these groups have various focuses, but all work towards the same goal of promoting healthy food and farming.

  1. What are one or two of your top priority issues, and why?

Right now, my main priorities are focused on the joining of forces. Having been involved in many organizations related to growing, I have noticed that many are not working together. It seems similar to the current political environment: many organizations have ruled out working with others based on what they think of them, instead of actually coming to the table and listening. I was anxious about joining the Farm Bureau board because of what I thought it meant (Big Ag, right?). The organization does represent the top growers in our state, but what I feel we have missed out on is how this organization has evolved and continues to evolve with each generation. The organization has developed a platform and has a lot of pull politically within our state. Farm Bureau offers a way for farmers to raise an issue and have it discussed and possibly acted upon more quickly than any other ag-related organization. The Kansas Rural Center has immense resources related to newer growing methods and provides workshops all over the state, with topics ranging from high tunnels and beekeeping to food policy council development. I believe that these organizations are all working towards healthy food and maintaining the agricultural way of life within our state. They all approach this goal from different ideals and motivations, but that should not be what separates them. My hope is that by coming to the table and listening and sharing within these groups, we can find common goals and work together to make changes more efficiently and effectively.

  1. What are your plans for the future, as they relate to sustainable agriculture?

Plans for the future include continuing to advocate on behalf of the organizations I am involved in. I have started a website and content writing business while in Norton, and will continue to use these skills to promote ag businesses and organizations in our area. Now that we are in rural northwest Kansas, we face unique obstacles related to location and population, and having a voice is a big need for our area.

As far as farming goes, I am not sure what the future holds. We continue to expand our garden area and the produce we sell at the market, and will continue to help with the family farm.

  1. Who is your primary mentor and why?

I don’t know that I have a primary mentor, and truthfully, I could benefit from having that kind of accountability. I would say the many networks that I have provide me with many leaders to learn from. I try to glean from all of them, as they have such diverse skill sets.

  1. What advice do you have for other women who want to become more effective leaders in healthy food and farming?

The best advice I can give is come to the table with an open mind and a willingness to listen.

  1. Any additional comments to share?

We are at a point in history where we are “sharing” more with our various forms of technology, but we are lacking in the real social connection of listening first, then sharing, and ultimately problem-solving. I hope that more growers in the industry will join forces with their local organizations to work together and shape a more unified voice when it comes to agriculture.