Like some hard-luck farmers, the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame struggles to make it from one season to the next, minus the government safety net that helps keep farmers afloat.
Raising money from private sources has always been a challenge for the 50-year-old tourist attraction in Bonner Springs. Except for weddings and other events, the ag center museum shut its doors for all of 2014 while it sorted out its finances.
But thanks to a financial windfall, the commitment of volunteers and the positive energy of a new executive director, the center reopens this weekend for its 50th anniversary with an eye to the future.
“We’re starting a new era,” board president Clausie Smith said. “We’re moving forward.”
Smith said 2015 will be pivotal for the center, which opened to visitors in 1965, five years after getting its national charter by an act of Congress.
The ag center’s board plans on mapping out a new strategic plan for the next 50 years, Smith said. That plan will be the basis for a campaign later this year to raise money for new exhibits and increased programming.
“We need to keep open to plan for the future,” said Smith, who joined the board last August after a decade as mayor of Bonner Springs and, before that, owner and editor of the local newspaper.
At the forefront of this new push is Dawn Gabel, an experienced fundraiser at a variety of nonprofit agencies who was hired in January as executive director.
Smith praises her enthusiasm and track record raising funds in public TV and the health care field.
Asked about her strong points, Gabel said, “I build things, I guess, is how you’d say it.”
In the three-plus months she has been on the job, Gabel has rallied volunteers and organized programming for Saturday’s kickoff to the 2015 season.
In addition to a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 9 a.m. marking the 50th anniversary, the center at 630 N. 126th St. will again host what was until last year its annual Barnyard Babies exhibit from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Kids can pet sheep, goats and other farm animals. Bayer CropScience, a corporate supporter, will unveil the interactive sculpture it donated. Titled “Leave a Better World,” it promotes recycling and other environmental stewardship, such as fostering good health for bees by planting flowers.
To that end, wildflower packets will be handed out to visitors. Admission for the day is $5 for adults and $4 for kids ages 3 to 16. However, this weekend one child gets in free for each paid adult. Children 2 and under always get in free.
Gabel hopes the event will expose visitors to the ag center’s large permanent collection of farm equipment and other exhibits spread through 10 buildings that, she admits, could use better display.
“We have an amazing collection,” she said, everything from antique tractors to ceramic chickens and feed sacks in the adjoining National Poultry Museum. “We have a better collection than the Smithsonian of historic implements,” Gabel said.
Over the years, the struggle has been finding a sufficiently large audience for it.
While once this was an agrarian society where everyone felt some connection to the land, farm and ranch families now make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Yet we all eat, and the ag center’s mission from the beginning has been to stress the importance of agriculture through education.
Again this year, Gabel said, the center will host schoolchildren from all over the metro area.
“I have yet to see a kid who is not excited about seeing an old tractor and getting their hands in the dirt,” Gabel said.
But field trips alone won’t sustain the center, which lost nearly $800,000 between 2009 and 2013, according to the federal income tax forms that nonprofits file.
Indeed, about the only time the center hasn’t lost money was when it has sold off a few acres of the section of land it occupies near State Avenue and Kansas 7.
The sale of 5 acres last year allowed the organization to pay off some of its debts and provide cash sufficient to reopen this year with Gabel and two other part-time employees.
Neither Gabel nor Smith would say how much the land sale brought in, but it helped reduce the secured debt load from nearly $300,000 a couple of years ago to $100,000 today.
The center still owns 160 acres, the same number that pioneers were granted on their way west in the 1800s through the Homestead Act.
“It’s a magical number in agriculture,” Gabel said.
Now for some innovative thinking. Already, she is trying to boost attendance by scheduling events aimed at home gardeners. A truck and tractor show July 11 and other special events are listed on the website, which is also about to get an upgrade.
And for the first time in a while, plans are to induct new members this year to the Agricultural Hall of Fame, whose members include names like John Deere (the person, not the tractor), Farm Aid co-founder Willie Nelson and Squanto of first Thanksgiving legend.
Smith hopes folks won’t wait until that ceremony or new exhibits to come for their first visit.
“It’s a nice place to spend an afternoon,” he said.