Members of agriculture hall of fame might surprise you

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July 17, 2011 - 7:00pm

You might be thinking the notion of installing Willie Nelson as the newest member of the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame is mostly a publicity stunt. Or you might be thinking: Gee, I didn't even know there was a National Ag Hall of Fame.

Well, hold onto your overalls. Carl DiCapo has news for you.

"If you believe in America, this is where you come," he said.

DiCapo is perhaps Kansas City's most well-known modern-day fundraiser. He's credited with raising $40 million toward the reconstruction of the Liberty Memorial and the installation of a new World War I Museum. He's also raised money for the Salvation Army and other nonprofits.

But the 83-year-old former restaurateur has a new mission.


Harvest Public Media

Carl DiCapo, national president of the board of trustees of the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kan.

Harvest Public Media

Display of blacksmith tools at the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kan.

"We got Harry Truman's plow. From before he was anything," Di Capo said. "We've got one plow back there that's worth $100,000, the only one in existence. We've got things that no one else in the world has. It's here."

"Here" is the National Ag Hall of Fame, which was chartered by Congress and has been in Bonner Springs, Kan., just outside Kansas City, for 50 years. It's a museum, actually, and a shrine to the legends of agriculture. But truth be told, the place needs the love.

Just a couple of years ago, the board of directors decided to close the center and operate it as an online entity. The endowment was to be spent down; press releases even went out saying operations would end. There was talk that the county's unified government might take over.

Then came the second thoughts but only after most of the money was gone. Just $80,000 left in reserves. That's when the board of governors - which numbered about 30 or so at the time - took over.

They reached out to former executive director Cathi Hahner, who returned to that role in April 2010 and started to work on strategic plans with the board of directors.

With the help of a loan from county farm bureau agencies, the hall managed to open this year. I was there for opening day in April. Me and a couple of other folks.

"Everything has been donated," Hahner said. "Everything from the building you see here to the manpower to fund it. We have some very, very expensive pieces in our collection. But they've all been donated."

On a cold, dreary day, Hahner gave me a tour of what felt like a ghost town - albeit a beautiful, expansive one, filled with stuff. I learned about the deVal milker, marveled at old, old tractors and a display of barbed wire, explored a blacksmith's shop, and got a look at a replica of a 1915 farmhouse.

Part of the problem is that even the people who live around here don't really know what it is. Maybe they've seen the rusty yellow sign flying by as they breeze past it on I-70 heading to Lawrence or Topeka. But the center itself - on 165 rolling acres - is a few miles off the highway, and a little tricky to find.

"I think most people have no idea what we are," Hahner said. "The name throws people off. A lot of people don't realize we're a museum. They think we're a research facility or something as well. Most people when they come out are surprised by how much is here and what we do."

Money does come in from corporate events, weddings and there's a big lineman's competition held here each October.

But for the center itself, the big focus is education - bringing classes of kids here to learn about food production. They come in busloads, mostly during the school year.

Karen Meredith, who's on the board of directors, has been a volunteer educator at the center for about 10 years.

"We particularly like to get children who have no agricultural background," she said. "Because a lot of the time they don't even think about where their milk comes from, where their food comes from, where their clothing even comes from."

And Meredith is hopeful.

"We just don't want to let this go," she said. "We had someone come in a while back and look at it and he said, You just don't realize what you have here.' And a lot of other people don't, so we're trying to get more advertising out, get more information out."

And that's where Carl DiCapo comes in.

"Watch what we do," he said. "They're going to have to build a special road to come in here when we finish."

DiCapo was named national president of the board of trustees a couple months ago.

How did he get involved? Well, the board of directors asked him.

"And I fell in love with the place," he said. "It's the same thing. It's the Liberty Memorial all over again is what you have here.

"Am I getting paid here? I don't get a dime here," he continued. "But they need help."

And he's got big plans.

"There are other buildings we need," he said. "We need a church here. We need a general store here. There are other things we desperately need to put in here. We need to make this Miss USA of America."

And that board of trustees? He's creating it.

"I want the University of Missouri, Texas Tech. I've already talked to Georgia Tech. And they say they'd love to be a member," he said. "This is just the beginning. With the 100 trustees, I'm going to pick 25 from the Kansas city area here and then 75 from all over the United States."

He pulled out that piece of paper where he has the names of everyone he is going to contact. He mentioned eventually bringing in state and federal money. And the need to add people to the hall.

Today, July 18, DiCapo will lay out the plan at a meeting of the center's board of governors. Kansas Gov. Brownback will be there as well. It's a critical discussion as the center continues to operate in "crisis funding," even looking at selling some of its land. But the initial community outreach is starting up - the hall of fame is a marquee partner for the upcoming Village West Wine Fest in Wyandotte County, and DiCapo is going to be grand marshal for the American Royal Parade in Kansas City.

And then?

"First step is they haven't had a person inducted in the hall since 2006," DiCapo said. "We want to put some people in there this year."

Which brings us back to Willie Nelson, who will be the 39th person inducted into the ag hall of fame in a group next March that will also include McDonald's founder Ray Croc. Publicity seeking? Of course, but Nelson's got ag cred as president of Farm Aid, a nonprofit whose mission is to keep family farmers on their land. And it just so happens that the 26th annual Farm Aid concert is being held in Kansas City, Kan. later this summer.

As for the others mentioned earlier: Senator Dole, the only other living member of the ag hall, played a key part in developing the Food Stamp Program, the School Lunch Program and every major farm bill from the 1960s through 1985.

President Lincoln signed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) into existence in 1862.

And John Deere? Well, if I need to tell you that one, you really need a lesson in agriculture.



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