County to be ‘umbrella’ for new agri-tourism group

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
The Marion County Commission Monday authorized up to $2,000 for a new role as the “umbrella” government entity for a new group called the Agri-tourism and Marion Reservoir Watershed Coalition.

The start-up money would be used for a two-day agri-tourism conference Oct. 22-23 featuring Remelle Farrar of Canadian, Texas, who told officials here after an August workshop in Tampa that she favors Marion County as the point to begin with a 15-county development region she is willing to advise.

Farrar, director of the Texas Prairie Rivers Region Inc. and Canadian-Hemphill County Community Development, spurred development hopes here with the Texas success story in a rural area.

Peggy Blackman, who works in roles with Flint Hills Rural Cooperative and Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture watershed efforts, told commissioners Marion County residents were so taken with the newspaper coverage of Farrar’s visit that she is getting calls-plus one possible commitment to start a bed and breakfast adjacent to the wildlife area at Marion Reservoir.

Blackman also cited last week’s blue-green algae meeting at Marion Reservoir as an impetus to start the coalition group. She told commissioners the people at the meeting (see Page 1) wanted some short-term action, but had to realize that improving the watershed environment is a long-term effort that will take years.

She and County Sanitarian David Brazil joined in telling of the need for farm producers and city residents to join in a coalition to help each other achieve both a better environment and economic health.

The coalition, as first envisioned, would include committee membership of at least four farm producers or landowners, city representation from Hillsboro, Marion and Peabody, Marion County officials, the Marion County Conservation District, a buffer zone coordinator, and a WRAPS coordinator.

Brazil said a Durham representative also needs to be on the committee for water quality because “everything from overfertilizing lawns to wastewater impacts the reservoir-we’re all part of the solution.”

Other towns may want to be included with the agri-tourism effort, including Tampa, which hosted Farrar, Blackman said.

Blackman said the county money spent should be a one-time thing unless special circumstances arise where the commission wants to be involved financially.

The main purpose of the county umbrella, Brazil said, is to allow the coalition to receive grant money, and recruit cost-sharing to get grants, because it can’t spend grant money it receives to get more grant money.

Blackman said it might become possible to get more producers to begin good environmental practices, like turning marginal cropland into grassland for forage, if they could get closer to 100 percent funding.

She suggested that in a partnership coalition, cities may find they want to participate in the funding. Right now Blackman said the federal government funds 70 percent of such practices with farmers paying most of the other 30 percent.

Blackman is personally driving the watershed area for the reservoir, beginning in McPherson County, and proceeding into Marion County, to look at land practices that might be improved.

The coalition also is needed to coordinate with organizations that can act as advisors such as Kansas Wildlife and Parks or the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Blackman said.

Commission Chairman Leroy Wetta wondered at one point if the county would overstep watershed-district functions by sponsoring the coalition.

But Commissioner Howard Collett said the county actually is the best choice because more than half of the people use water from Marion Reservoir and aren’t farmers. The county can act as the best intermediary to see that grants get matched even from other entities such as cities.

Commissioner Bob Hein said he thought it was a great move.

Both Collett and Wetta said the coalition helped with the same function they had hoped to create with a county economic director.

Collett said bringing Farrar back, plus the coalition, “sounds like a very valuable thing to do.”

Blackman said she expects participation from neighbors in Dickinson and McPherson counties.

Hein asked whether the $1,500 Blackman started out requesting would really be enough for the two-day event.

Wetta suggested sponsorship of not more than $2,000, adding, “I want to move forward.”

A complete report of Monday’s county commission meeting will appear in this week issue of the Free Press Extra, on newsstands late Thursday afternoon.

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