Tag Archives: agriculture

Local Farm-to-Table

August 3, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nick Strawhecker reaches down and opens the oven. There are two whole, cooked chickens resting on the platter within the large industrial appliance. One chicken looks well proportioned, intact, and almost seems to sit rigid as though something was placed inside it to offer structural integrity. It looks delicious, succulent. The other chicken is striking also, but in a very different way. It is of a similar size, but the breast is massive, unnaturally so. The legs are tiny by comparison. Its skin looks like a popped water balloon. This chicken sits in a thick deposit of cloudy, watery juices. It is splayed on the platter, floppy—its spine is broken. This chicken’s liver, compared to the other, looks as though it spent its short life drinking hard liquor in lieu of water. The heavenly, intact chicken was among the living just days ago. It was raised on a cage-free farm near Pawnee City, Nebraska. Where was the other chicken from? Unknown.

Though the difference in quality is obvious on many levels (for example one is pumped with antibiotics and water to add weight and size, while the other is simply a natural chicken) even industry professionals from the free-range, farm-to-table side will admit both types of chicken have their place in the overall food economy. Dean Dvorak, who operates a family poultry business in southeast Nebraska called Plum Creek Farms, says he has never complained about the existence of large companies when it comes to chicken production. 

“The big companies are certainly necessary,” Dvorak says. “People in our country eat a lot of chicken and small producers can’t produce nearly enough to keep up with the demand.”

The price point of some menus just do not fit what small producers can supply, Dvorak says. This adds to the “niche” culture surrounding local, farm-to-table food production. It takes a specific client base willing to invest in high-quality foods.  

“Our efficiency is much poorer than a larger company’s,” Dvorak says of his higher prices. “We lose more chickens to predators, and our pound of feed per pound of gain [the measure of how much chicken a farmer produces per pound of feed] is much poorer because our birds get a lot of exercise by not being kept in a small space.” 

Serving a lower price point is a major faculty of the industrialized farming sector. The USDA reports organic food made up just 4 percent of U.S. food sales in 2012. This means there is a point for consumers where cost simply overrides the level of quality in a more expensive product. Many are not willing to ante up for the good stuff. Additionally, organic food is not yet available on the same scale as the alternative.

Local restaurateur Nick Strawhecker is an advocate of the farm-to-table supply chain. He owns and operates Dante (in West Omaha) and Dante Pizzeria Napoletana (in Blackstone District).

“The way most of the world works is cooking what is around you,” Strawhecker says. “After big agriculture in the United States in the ’50s, all of the sudden strawberries came available in December, or tomatoes came available in January…I think that kind of food is not at all the same, and it does not taste good.”

Strawhecker prefers to cook with food from within 100 miles of his locations and builds his menus on what he calls “hyper-seasonality.” This means an item like asparagus isn’t offered from his kitchen until it is in season, and he compromises this only on things that are absolutely essential as year-round ingredients.

Locally sourced food is healthy for consumers and for the local economy, says Ben Gotschall of Lone Tree Foods (a local food distribution company). He says when you support local food you are essentially supporting local businesses. 

“It puts money back into the local economy,” Gotschall says. “A locally owned business whose suppliers are also local keeps the money from leaving the area.”

Gotschall raises cattle and sells milk to people like Katie Justman, a cheese producer (at Branched Oak Dairy) who works solely with Gotschall’s grass-fed cows for her product. Gotschall also sells milk, cream, butter, and cheese wholesale through Lone Tree and on the site of Branched Oak Farm (located just north of Lincoln) through his company, Davey Road Ranch.

Justman cares very much about the environmental benefits of working with local, farm-raised product, but she says the environmental benefits are not her leading point when talking about why she focuses on farm-to-table food—instead, much like Gotschall, she talks more about the economic benefits.

“A lot of us go with the economics route when describing our philosophy because it is a lot more relatable to talk to people about it in that way,” Justman says. “It is technically less controversial, even though the sustainability aspects are very important to us and we [Branched Oak Farms] are 100 percent grass-fed and organic certified.”

Not everyone using farm-to-table ingredients does it as part of a movement. Jeanne Ohira is the co-owner of Ted and Wally’s Ice Cream. Ohira says when she and her brother, Joe, bought the company in 2000, using local ingredients was just the natural (no pun intended) thing to do.

“That’s just how we were raised,” Ohira says. “My dad was from a farming family. My mom was part of a co-op and we grew up driving way out to pick up different food. As a business, we didn’t really think about it [in terms of participating in a movement] because at the time it wasn’t much of a trend yet.”

The trend has found a welcome reception among Omaha’s high-end culinary scene, with farm-to-table fare on the menus of Kitchen Table, Au Courant, Baela Rose, Le Bouillon, Block 16, Stirnella, Mark’s Bistro, The Boiler Room, The Grey Plume, Society 1854, J. Coco, and Over Easy (among others).

Strawhecker’s Dante and Dante Pizzeria Napoletana demonstrate the local supply chain in practical application. Gotschall raises cows and sells their milk; Justman purchases the milk for her creamery and produces cheeses—including mozzarella—which Strawhecker uses in his gourmet pizzas. Strawhecker is one of Justman’s biggest customers of cheese. He’s also a major buyer of chickens from Plum Creek Farms and a buyer of other local farmers’ products.

But Dante is only one example of this bullish moo-moo-movement. Omaha’s urban place in the heart of Midwestern farm country has helped raise the city’s profile as one of America’s top destinations for farm-to-table cuisine.


This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Whispering Roots Takes Root

July 10, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Highlander Village on North 30th Street between Lake and Cuming is a dramatic new development meant to revitalize the depressed neighborhood surrounding it. The center of this community (planned by 75 North Revitalization Corp.) is the Accelerator. The 65,000 square foot, Z-shaped building serves as a Creighton University and Metropolitan Community College-led health-education hub. An event venue and a ground floor coffee shop will be joined by established eateries and entrepreneurial startups. 

But what most grabs the eye is the Accelerator’s futuristic-looking urban agriculture facility for nonprofit tenant Whispering Roots. A see-through greenhouse sits majestically atop floors dedicated to education and production—all centered on aquaculture, aquaponics, and hydroponic growing. As Whispering Roots founder and executive director Greg Fripp explains, nearly everything at the $4.2 million, 18,000-square-foot green site is designed for the next generation. Like the rest of Highlander, he says the custom design and construction, plus elevated location, are meant to raise people’s expectations in a high-poverty environment.

Slated to open by late summer, the facility is built on years of seeds sown by Fripp and company in inner-city public schools and neighborhoods. Whispering Roots teaches students how to build and maintain aquaculture systems that grow fish—tilapia or steelhead trout—for consumption. Fish waste is used to fertilize crops grown in the same system. The closed system’s water is naturally cleaned and recirculated. Floating raft crop, drip irrigation, and raised bed techniques are taught. 

The new digs will allow Whispering Roots to expand learning opportunities for youth and adults around organic agriculture, healthy cooking, and nutrition. It will refer participants in need of human and social services to on-site partners.

“We focus on growing, feeding, and educating,” Fripp says. “We’re touching different aspects of the community to address where the gaps are. By working with different folks and actually being out in the community and listening to the feedback—what’s working, what’s not working—it allowed us to design a facility that meets the needs of the community.”

Fripp says residents of the community have said they need more locally produced food, hands-on experiential learning, and STEM education, “and that’s what we do.”

To help address the community’s lack of access to fresh, local healthy food, Whispering Roots will sell the fish and vegetable crops it harvests on-site at farmers markets and select stores and to neighboring Accelerator food purveyors. 

Fripp sees this as just the start.

“The model is what matters—the techniques and how we build them and improve them in underserved communities—and then taking that model and replicating it at whatever scale makes sense for a community,” he says. “Where a lot of people make mistakes is they try to force a model and scale in a community that’s not ready to deal with it. The community’s overwhelmed.”

Fripp’s interest in urban ag and aquaculture goes back 20-plus years, to high school. After a U.S. Navy logistics career, he worked in the corporate world. He left an executive human resources position at TD Ameritrade in Omaha to follow his real passion full time.

He founded Whispering Roots in his home garage and basement lab with his own savings, and in less than a decade it’s now supported by major philanthropic players such as the Sherwood, Weitz Family, and Suzanne and Walter Scott foundations.

Funders bought into his vision, allowing it to ramp-up from micro to mega level. In learning to build and operate aquaculture systems, grow, harvest, package, market, and sell food, students will acquire portable skills.

Whispering Roots already has a presence as far away as Haiti and Madagascar and as near as Iowa and Missouri. It’s currently building a facility in Macy, Nebraska.

On the planning table is a full-scale commercial production facility that would supply food in quantity and create jobs.

“We not only want to replicate what we’re doing here but also to do economic development by developing this pipeline of kids and adults from the community who can then work in or run those facilities,” Fripp says.

Fripp and his team are much in demand as consultants.

“We’ve become subject matter experts for other communities that would like to do the same around the country. We have people calling from Kansas City, Minneapolis, wondering how we’re pulling this off in Omaha,” he says, adding that the model is what’s interesting to them. It challenges the way people view urban agriculture, hands-on experiential learning, and STEM in underserved and impoverished communities.

“We’ve been able to navigate government and policies and work on the community side, in schools, and to figure out how all these pieces work together,” he says.

From concept to completion, he says, “One of the biggest challenges is helping people understand the vision because it’s so new. When I started my organization in 2011 and said we’re going to put fish and plants in classrooms to teach kids about science, people thought that was crazy. They said, ‘It’s never going to work, kids aren’t going to be interested.’ Now our problem is we don’t have enough bandwidth to handle all the requests we get from the schools. But when I started, no one believed this was even possible.” 

Even after capturing the attention of kids—who started winning science fairs—and making converts of educators, he says, “In talking about where we were going to build our new facility, we had people questioning why we wanted to go into the inner city and offering us free land to build in rural areas. But the goal was to do it in an underserved community to prove it’s possible to go into the toughest areas, build this thing, and show it can work. That’s not easy because you run into a lot of roadblocks. There’s a lot of preconceived notions about what education looks like in an underserved community, what people will tolerate, what will work. What we’re trying to do is change that view.”

On a recent tour of the new Omaha facility, a woman who resides nearby told Fripp, “I’m glad that you are here. This is close to my heart. It needed to be here. This is such a beautiful and good thing that the community will protect you.”

“That feedback,” he says, “tells me we’re on the right path. The key is that you are a part of the community so that people feel like they have ownership—this is their resource. That’s what we want. We want that community base. If it’s just a community place and there’s no connect, people don’t care. They’re like, ‘That’s not ours anyway.’ But if it’s community-based, then, ‘It’s ours.’”

Part of that buy-in, he says, is “trying to build our own pathway and network of students who then become the experts who teach and train.” The goal is creating self-sufficiency so that communities can feed themselves. 

Having an African-American at the head of it all is a powerful symbol.

“When intersecting with the African-American community, students need to see people who look like them doing this work,” Fripp says. “Then they can internalize it by saying, ‘Me, too.’ They need to know this is a goal that is achievable.”


Visit whisperingroots.org for more information

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Greg Fripp teaches aquaculture, aquaponics, and hydroponic skills to the next generation.

Eric Falk’s Mean Green Pulling Machine

June 17, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Horsepower, innovation, and family-friendly fun are at the heart of truck and tractor pulling.

The popular motorsport evolved from the agrarian tradition of horse pulling, in which farmers urged their teams to pull sleds along a dirt track while friends and neighbors piled on rocks until the horses could pull no more. The team pulling the farthest won.

Today, it is the innovation of truck and tractor owners on display, and while the bragging rights are the same, everything from the horsepower to the weighted sleds is mechanized. Modified tractors and trucks pull a sled designed to increase its resistance up to 50,000 pounds, says local promoter Kurt Schanou. Vehicles accelerate from zero to 40 mph and back within 325 feet, often less. Horsepower levels of top trucks can be well north of 1,000, and revolutions per minute can approach 10,000.

“It’s like a tug-o-war of machinery and engineering. The reward is more pride than financial,” according to Schanou, who says that competitors work hard to support the sport and build machines capable of pulling a Greyhound bus. “For most, it’s largely still a hobby that they have grown to love.”

Erik Falk is the 39-year-old co-owner of Rainbow Glass and Supply Inc. in Papillion and a member of Nebraska Bush Pullers. The Springfield resident has been a fan of power pulling since he was a kid.

“My passion with truck pulling and motorsports in general started early,” Erik says. “My dad had the same passion and took my brother Bret and I to every motorsport event around the area.”

The Falk brothers started drag racing in high school and continued until Erik and his wife, Megan, decided to have children.

“We took a few years off until Bret decided he wanted to build a diesel truck puller,” he says. “We had been pulling in the local county fairs for quite some time, but just with our stock trucks. We wanted to step it up and built a dedicated, professional puller.”

And so, Nantucket Slayride was born—a diesel-powered homage to New England’s whaling industry.

“My dad came up with the name way back when we were drag racing,” Erik says. “Whalers on small boats would harpoon a whale and just hang on for a ‘Nantucket sleigh ride.’ I thought it was a unique name, changed the spelling, and put it on the truck.”

Nantucket Slayride began as a stock 1973 Chevy with a 3/4-ton frame and a 1984 cab. Erik amusingly remembers his first pull in 2012 with The Nebraska Power Pullers at an event in Wahoo.

“My first time out, I was probably overconfident and thought I was going to show these guys how it should be done. I remember revving the engine and letting the clutch out and then not really going anywhere too quick. The tires were spinning and not hooked to the dirt. I think we got last place that time.”

Erik learned pretty quickly to modify his truck and driving style for better results. Before long, he was justifying three-hour road trips for a minute on the track with sweet victory.

“After we figured out what parts to run and what not to, we started having a lot of success,” he says. “I was running two classes with the power pullers. [Various pull classes range from lightweight tractors to various classifications that include trucks, semis, and even super-modified tractors packed with airplane engines]. We were 2014 points runner-up in both classes, 2015 points champion in both, 2016 Bush Pullers runner-up, 2017 Bush Pullers champion, and 2017 Bush Pullers Puller of the Year.”

Erik’s most notable win was at the 2017 Cornhusker Classic indoor pull. “We were out-gunned, but everything went our way, and we snuck in a victory,” he says.

Today, Nantucket Slayride bears little resemblance to the unmodified version.

“The truck chassis is designed to put as much weight forward as possible to help the front tires dig,” he says. “The weight of the sled takes care of the back tires. The motor is based off a big block Chevy, and out of a National Hot Rod Association pro stock car. It has been reworked to 485 cubic inches and limited to a single carburetor.”

Erik says power pulling is worth every minute and dollar spent on it: “We have a great time as a family and have met lifelong friends along the way. Who could ask for a better hobby?” 


Visit propulling.com and outlawpulling.com for updated schedules and events in the region.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Ted Genoways

June 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Award-winning poet, journalist, editor, and author Ted Genoways of Lincoln, Nebraska, has long been recognized for his social justice writing as a contributor to Mother Jones, onEarth, Harper’s and other prestigious publications. While editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, the magazine won numerous national awards. 

His recent nonfiction books—The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food, and This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Farm—expand on his enterprise reporting about the land, the people who work it, and the food we consume from it. The themes of sustainability, big ag versus little ag, over-processing of food, and environmental threats are among many concerns he explores.

He often collaborates on projects with his wife, photographer Mary Anne Andrei.

His penchant for reporting goes back to his boyhood, when he put down stories people told him, even illustrating them, in a stapled “magazine” he produced. His adult work took root in the form of secondhand stories of his paternal grandfather toiling on Nebraska farms and in Omaha meatpacking plants. 

His father noted this precociousness with words and made a pact that if young Ted read a book a week selected for him, he could escape chores. 

“I thought that was a great deal,” Genoways says. “Reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was the first time I remember being completely hooked. After that, I tore through everything Steinbeck wrote, and it made a huge impact on me. I thought, there’s real power in this—if you can figure out how to do it this well.”

Reading classics by Hemingway, Faulkner, and other great authors followed. The work of muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair made an impression. “But those Steinbeck books,” he says, “have always really stuck with me, and I go back to them and they really hold up.”

Exposing injustice—just as Steinbeck did with migrants and Sinclair did with immigrants—is what Genoways does. Nebraska Wesleyan professors Jim Schaffer and the late state poet of Nebraska William Kloefkorn influenced his journalism and poetry, respectively. Genoways doesn’t make hard and fast distinctions between the two forms. Regardless of genre, he practices a form of advocacy journalism but always in service of the truth.

“I’m always starting with the facts and trying to understand how they fit together,” he says. “There’s no question I’ve got a point of view. But I don’t show up with preconceived notions of what the story is.”

He’s drawn to “stories of people at the mercy of the system,” he says, admitting, “I’m interested in the little guy and in how people fight back against the powers that be.”

While working at the Minnesota State Historical Society Press, Genoways released a book of poems, Bullroarer: A Sequence, about his grandfather, and edited Cheri Register’s book Daughter of a Meatpacker. At the Virginia Quarterly, he looked into worker illnesses at a Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota, and the glut of Latinos at a Hormel plant in Fremont, Nebraska. He found a correlation between unsafe conditions due to ever-faster production lines—where only immigrants are willing to do the job—and the pressures brought to bear on company towns with influxes of Spanish-speaking workers and their families, some of them undocumented.

That led to examining the impact “a corporate level decision to run the line faster in order to increase production has up and down the supply chain” and on entire communities. 

“That’s become an ongoing fascination for me,” Genoways says. “I can’t seem to stop coming back to what’s happening in meatpacking towns, which really seem to be on the front line of a lot of change in this country.”

The heated controversy around TransCanada Corp.’s plans for the Keystone XL pipeline ended up as the backdrop for his book, This Blessed Earth. He found “the specter of a foreign corporation coming and taking land by eminent domain” from legacy farmers and ranchers “and telling them they had to take on this environmental risk with few or no guarantees” to be yet another challenge weighing on the backs of producers.

His focus became a fifth-generation Nebraska farm family, the Hammonds, who grow soybeans, and how their struggles mirror all family farmers in terms of “how big to get and how much risk to assume.”

“They were especially intriguing because they were building this solar and wind-powered barn right in the path KXL decided to cross their land, and that seemed like a pretty great metaphor for that kind of defiance,” he says. 

Pipeline or not, small farmers have plenty to worry about.

“Right now, everything in ag is geared toward getting bigger,” Genoways says. “The question facing the entire industry is: How big is big enough? What do we lose when we force farmers off the land or make them into businessmen more than stewards of the land? To my eye, you lose agri-CULTURE and are left with agri-BUSINESS.”

Farming as a way of life is endangered.

“Nebraska lost a thousand farms in 2017,” he says. “Those properties will be absorbed by larger operations. The ground will still be farmed. The connection between farmer and farm will be further stretched and strained. That’s the way everything has gone, and it’s how everything is likely to continue. Agribusiness interests argue these trends move us toward maximum yield with improved sustainability. But it also means decisions are made by fewer and fewer people. Mistakes and misjudgments are magnified. So we not only lose the culture of independence and responsibility that built rural communities, but grow more dependent on a version of America run by corporations.”

Chronicling the Hammonds left indelible takeaways—one being the varied skills farming requires. 

“We saw them harvest a field of soybeans while keeping an eye on the futures trading and calling around to elevators to check on prices; they were making market decisions as sophisticated as any commodities trader,” Genoways says. “This is one of the major pressures on family farms. To survive, you have to be able to repair your own center pivot or broken tractor, but also be a savvy business owner—adapting early to technological changes and diversifying to insulate your operation.”

The Hammonds weathered the storm.

“They are doing well. They got good news when the Public Service Commission only approved the alternate route for KXL,” he says.

Meanwhile, Genoways sees an American food system in need of reform.

“We would benefit mightily from a national food policy,” he says. “How can you explain subsidizing production of junk food and simultaneously spending on obesity education? How do we justify unsustainable volumes of meat while counseling people to eat less meat? If we really want people to improve their eating habits, we should provide economic incentives in that direction.”


Visit tedgenoways.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Starting Seeds

April 15, 2018 by

Growing produce is a great way to save money on groceries and promote healthy eating. Buying greenhouse-started plants is one option, but starting your own seedlings allows you to grow atypical plants at a fraction of the cost.

Springtime planting takes a little bit of foresight, so plan ahead. Seeds should be started six to eight weeks prior to planting in the ground. With Nebraska’s climate, seedlings will not survive in the winter cold and should be started indoors or with protection.

Dr. David Hibler, the owner of the Benson Plant Rescue, recommends starting your seeds in January or February. Hibler says that this will help you get your plants in the ground before the generally accepted frost-safe date of around May 4, noting that the date has been less consistent in recent years.

To start seedlings indoors, Hibler says you need three things: a light source, moisture, and a growing medium such as soil. He says kits are available, with the “72 slot” being a popular option. The 72 slot is a small greenhouse-like tray with subdivided slots for growing medium and seeds.

For the growing medium, expanding medium pellets are an easy option. Hibler recommends a lightweight organic seed-starting mix. Soil can be mixed with peat moss or vermiculite to lighten it. Hibler also recommends reusing seed trays and soils.

For lighting, Hibler recommends full-spectrum fluorescent lights. “Daylight” bulbs, he says, are often a fraction of the price of “grow lights” but contain the necessary spectrum. A brood light with a full-spectrum, compact fluorescent bulb also works well. He says LEDs are also available.

Hibler says that when the soil reaches around 64 degrees Fahrenheit and there is no risk of frost, seedlings can be planted. Perennials, he notes, can tolerate a little bit of frost.

John Porter, agriculture program coordinator with the University of Nebraska Agriculture School, lends a few supplementary suggestions. Porter says seeds need around 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit to germinate. Once they come up and have leaves on them, they need to be a bit cooler—60-65 degrees Fahrenheit—so they don’t get long and leggy. He notes that most seeds don’t need light to get started. He says they can be started on top of the refrigerator for warmth.

Porter also recommends sterile soil and sterilized containers. “There are some diseases that will kill the seedlings when they are very young,” he says. Porter also recommends using recycled containers for seedlings. They will need drain holes. He recommends cleaning them with a detergent and sterilizing with a 10 percent bleach solution.

Once the seeds germinate and have leaves, they should go into the potting soil. “Seeds have the nutrients to get [seedlings] into the first set of leaves; they don’t need nutrients until then,” Porter says.

As for lighting, Porter says commercial greenhouses use LEDs, but fluorescent bulbs also work. He notes that if full-spectrum bulbs are not available, a mix of warm and cool fluorescent bulbs contain enough of the light spectrum required for most seedlings. Porter recommends putting the lights as close to the seedlings as possible without causing damage to the plants.

Growing seedlings indoors is not an exact science to yield good results. If you need supplies, the Benson Plant Rescue has them for sale, or Hibler can steer you to the right place to find them. If you want to learn the science of starting seeds, Porter offers a course with the Douglas-Sarpy County Extension Office. Everything else about starting your own seeds and planting your garden is DIY. That is half the charm.

The Benson Plant Rescue is on Facebook at @bensonplantrescue and can be reached by e-mail at bensonplantrescue@cox.net. Details on plant propagation classes with the Douglas-Sarpy County Extension Office are available at extension.unl.edu/statewide/douglas-sarpy or by e-mail at john.porter@unl.edu.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of OmahaHome.

Planting Seeds of Community

October 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Although he grew up in Louisiana during the time of segregation, Edgar Hicks says he was more fortunate than most of his African-American peers. His parents were professionals—his mother was a teacher and his father a physician. This enabled them to better support their children financially, including helping out with college.

“I had a good father, good mother—they took care of me,” Hicks says, adding that in spite of racial segregation, he remembers a stronger sense of community than what he sees available for young people in Omaha. “It caused you to know your neighbor.”

He now works to encourage community bonds among Omaha youths by teaching agricultural skills to the next generation.

Hicks graduated from Pace University in New York City, where he studied finance. His first job out of college was as a floor clerk at the Chicago Board of Trade in 1971. He subsequently worked with various aspects of agricultural commodities. In 1985 he moved to the middle of Nebraska for a grain mer- chant job at a Merrick County cooperative (in Clarks, Nebraska), where he was eventually promoted to general manager. Risk management consulting work for a Fortune 500 company (INTL FCStone) brought him to Omaha in 1989.

The 69-year-old Hicks can’t seem to stop working. The part-time director at CFO Systems LLC says his mission now is to pass on his love for, and knowledge of, all things agriculture to those he believes it can benefit—especially young people.

Hicks says he believes that if the city’s young people better understood where their food comes from—and how everything is connected, from water to land—the world overall would be a better place. He says some of the horrible things that are happening in the world are happening because people don’t feel a part of it, and as a mentor, he hopes to help change that.

In order to help youth gain a connection to their food, he became a charter member of Carver Grange of Omaha in 2011. The organization’s focus is to expand hands-on education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; promoting leadership skills; and striving to cultivate an interest in food (and careers in agri- culture). And if this does not keep Hicks busy enough, he also serves on the board of directors for Friends of Extension & 4-H Douglas- Sarpy County Foundation and 100 Black Men of Omaha. He was a founding member of 100 Black Men of Omaha, and he is currently mentoring three high school students through them.

Hicks is also an avid stamp collector and active member of the Omaha Philatelic Society. Vernon Waldren, the executive director of Friends of Extension & 4-H, says he has known Hicks for more than 20 years. The two bonded over their love of agriculture and stamps. Even Hicks’ stamp collection focuses on agriculture.

“He has a passion for getting people to understand where their food comes from and how all of it ties together,” Waldren says. “You know, it’s kind of a joke, but it’s not a joke: Everybody eats, so everybody has an interest in agriculture.”

Through the federal USAID Farmer-to-Farmer program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hicks was asked to travel to Africa to help farmers start a co-op in Toubacouta, Senegal. That summer 2016 trip made him think about food, and America.

“The only thing they have in Senegal that we don’t—they eat well,” he says. “They eat fresh food. The eat much more than we do.” However, Hicks also discovered that much of the West African country lacks essential public services—running water, dependable electricity, post offices, and traffic lights.

“I never thought about traffic lights as a big deal, until you try to go to Africa and turn left,” he says, noting that the trip made him appreciate the services provided by the U.S. government.

In the future, he suspects Africa will be the answer to the world’s rising demand for food. “If there’s ever going to be a need 100 years from now for land, I’m sure we’ll be using Africa as a food base,” he says.

During his interview at Omaha Magazine’s West Omaha office space, he gestures out a window to the surrounding buildings and says, “As we put more concrete up and run out of [land], how are we gonna feed ourselves in the future?”

This question seems to be a part of what drives Hicks’s mission to educate youths about agriculture and animal husbandry. He adds there’s a lot he has wanted to work on but hasn’t gotten done.

“That’s why I gotta go back to work!” he says. Not that he ever stopped.

Visit 4h.unl.edu to learn more about 4-H in Nebraska. The Douglas-Sarpy County 4-H is a community partner for Omaha Magazine’s 2018 Best of Omaha Festival (which takes place at Baxter Arena on Nov. 5, 2017).

This article is printed in the November/December issue of Omaha Magazine.

Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce

April 26, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Mary Current and her son, Anderson Current, started making hot sauce three years ago. She never planned on being a commercial food producer despite working the front and back of the house at restaurants, studying culinary arts, and being married to a retired food and beverage director. “It just kind of happened,” she says of Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce’s origins. One day this foodie and home gardener decided to make hot sauce from her bumper pepper crop. She had made pico de gallo and salsa, but never liquid hot sauce. Friends and family loved that first spicy concoction and wanted more.

Her four main sauces became habanero, jalapeño, datil, and chipotle, each with notes of poblano, anaheim, vinegar, citrus, garlic, and onion. Specialty sauces have followed. She only arrives at a recipe after much research and experimentation. Finding the right complementary combinations, she says, “is what I really like doing,” adding, “That’s what I get a kick out of. It’s like a gift.”

The initial strong reception got mother and son thinking, especially after the savory micro batches proved popular with Anderson’s friends in Colorado, where he lived with his wife, Constance. The couple worked for Whole Foods. When they moved to Omaha, Anderson helped his mom turn her food hobby into a business. Constance designed the logo with a Medusa-like head sprouting chili peppers. The two shopped the sauces around to trendy eateries like Block 16, and found that chefs and patrons also enjoyed the homemade spicy condiments.

Crazy Gringa has come a long way since Mary cooked and bottled the sauces at home and sold them out of the trunk of her car. Her condiments are now made in a commercial kitchen and are staples at the Omaha Farmers Market, select Whole Foods, Natural Grocers, Hy-Vee stores, and some restaurants. She plans on keeping things small.

Working together allows the family more quality time, which is the main reason why Mary likes keeping it all in the family.

“When we make hot sauce, that’s our bonding time together,” Mary says of her and Anderson. Her husband, Doug, helps with receiving.

Mary also likes maintaining a small operation because it allows her to pour as much of her heart and soul into the operation as possible.

“It really is a labor of love. I’m never going to be rich, but I love to see the joy on people’s faces when we’re back at the Farmers Market and they say, ‘I can’t live without this hot sauce.’”

Just as Crazy Gringa showed up on store shelves, City Sprouts board president Albert Varas sought an area food manufacturer with whom he could partner. He realized these simple sauces with complex flavors have, as their base, items interns can grow and cultivate at the City Sprouts South garden at 20th and N streets. He contacted the Currents and found they shared a passion for building the local food culture.

The Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce maven partners with Omaha City Sprouts on a social entrepreneurship project that may spur more collaboration between for-profits like hers and the nonprofit urban agriculture organization.

City Sprouts South grows various peppers for Crazy Gringa’s signature hot sauces. The boutique company, in return, donates a percentage of sales over four summer weekends to support City Sprouts programs. Meanwhile, Crazy Gringa works with other local growers to supply the peppers City Sprouts can’t.

“We just hit if off,” Varas says. “They are all about community service, engagement, and sourcing hyper-local food with a mission behind it. It was always my dream we would partner on bringing a value-added product to market. It’s a great way to engage our interns.

“The relationship adds revenue and relevance to what we’re doing.”

Having the hand-grown peppers picked and processed in Omaha fits Crazy Gringa’s emphasis on fresh, local, and artisanal. Current also creates limited-run small batches for City Sprouts and other nonprofits to give away as gifts or prizes.

 

Anderson helped build the raised beds for the peppers at the site that community activists turned from a dumping ground to a garden.

Mary loves that her product helps a community-based ecosystem.

“So many kids don’t know where their produce comes from and City Sprouts helps educate them about how things grow,” she says. “Those interns learn how to garden, so they learn how to sustain themselves and their families. We’re happy to support good things in the community like this.”

Interns gain a sense of ownership in Crazy Gringa’s success.

Varas says, “The interns need something to do and something to believe in. One intern, Rafeal Quintanilla, is a mentee of mine and he really digs the idea that he has a stake in the finished product because he waters and cares for the peppers and harvests them. He has pride in being a part in creating this delicious hot sauce.”

The partnership with Crazy Gringa “has far exceeded my expectations,” Varas says, adding, “It’s not just transactional—it’s been an incredible reciprocal experience.”

Mary Current concurs, vowing the relationship will continue as long as she’s in business. “It’s an amazing concept. They’re wonderful people to work with. I can’t think of a better place to give back your money.”

More collaborations like this one may be in the offing.

”I think this is a model that could and should be replicated,” Varas says. “My hope is that we will be able to recreate this next growing season with Crazy Gringa and possibly other food businesses.”

Visit crazygringahotsauce.com

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

The Triumph of Agriculture Expo

March 9, 2014 by

It’s a diversified show, something for everybody that’s in farming and ranching of some form,” Bob Mancuso Jr., show director, says of the Triumph of Agriculture Expedition. The 48th annual show runs from March 12-13 at CenturyLink Center Omaha.

With more than 900 exhibits and covering the 200,000 square-foot arena, the Triumph of Ag Expo is a hands-on experience. Visitors can expect to see demonstrations from antique farm tractors and equipment, as well as displays from Camp Creek Threshers, Elkhorn Valley Antique Power Association, Keg Creek Antique Machinery Club, and more. Vendors on every level of CenturyLink Center will be showcasing their products, services, or farming and ranching equipment.

“The Nebraska Wheat Board will also be present at the show,” Mancuso says. “They’re going to have a mobile wheat unit that will highlight wheat, and they’ll be giving away cinnamon rolls, so that’s fun. People can try those and sample them.”

The Expo, which has vendors on a waiting list to participate, is one of the largest in the Midwest. Mancuso says organizers try to have really diversified options for both vendors and visitors.

“You know, Omaha—we’re right on the border,” Mancuso says, “so we definitely draw eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, even some South Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri. So it’s kind of a five-states-plus deal. You know there are people even from outside those five states that will come to the show.”

And it’s not just the farmers and ranchers that participate in the show. “You’d be surprised at how many people in the Omaha area are in agribusiness,” Mancuso says. “Like Midwest Laboratories is a longtime exhibitor, and they test soil samples, but they’re based right here in Omaha. They test soil all across the nation. They’re based right here, so they’ve got over 100 employees that are all involved in agribusiness.”

Besides the exhibits and vendors, the upper level of CenturyLink Center will host multiple seminars over the two-day span of the exposition, as well as an opening luncheon. Visitors can expect to hear speeches given by the presidents of the Omaha Agribusiness Club, the Chamber of Commerce Ag Council, and the National Agri-Marketing Association. The Agri Award, given for contributions in agribusiness, will also be presented during the luncheon.

“The Agri Award winner this year is Bill Northy, the Iowa Department of Agriculture head,” Mancuso says. “He will be speaking at the opening luncheon on the Wednesday. We’re excited to have him.”

The award presentation will kick off the biggest year in show history, with over 1,000 companies participating in the Expo. One thousand is actually a conservative estimate; a booth might house one, or there may be six or seven booths for each company or a local distributor. Two or three different companies could represent one booth. Whatever the arrangement, Mancuso says there’s always a high return rate for vendors.

“The Triumph of Ag Expo is always packed with lots of new improvements and helpful information,” says Brien McCready. He’s from John Deere’s A & M Green Power, as well as the show’s councilman.

Mancuso says they try to make it worthwhile for the farmers and ranchers out of respect for their busy schedules. Holding the event in March is meant to help farmers and ranchers in the off-season.

“In this area,” Mancuso says, “it’s known to be one of the last shows before the farmers and ranchers get out into the fields, and it’s great to come out and see what’s new in the world of farming and ranching. I mean, they’ll be in the fields from April on, so it’s one last time to come out and see products, services, and equipment.”

For those traveling from different states or even those who just want to spend a night Downtown, local hotels are offering packages for both exhibitors and visitors.

Mancuso states that hotel packages are available for attendees from outside the Omaha area who may have a variety of goals for their time in town. “If you want to stay overnight, or come in to see the show and stay, or come in one day and shop and see the different things in Omaha, we have sponsor hotels: the Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott which is right Downtown, the Sleep Inn and Suites kind of by CenturyLink Center, and the third one is the Horseshoe Casino Double Tree hotel in Council Bluffs.”

For the latest information on the Triumph of Ag Expo, visit showofficeonline.com/agexpo.

Tomato Tomäto

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Tomato Tomäto, a year-round, indoor farmers market whose name plays off the debate over how to pronounce the name of the versatile fruit (Yes, it’s a fruit, not a vegetable), is a must-stop-shop for many in the Omaha area who enjoy fresh produce, eggs, nuts, many organic goods, and more.

Tucked back from street view near 156th and Bob Booser Drive (just north of West Center Road) in West Omaha, the store carries products from dozens of vendors, all of them local. However you say it, it’s a win-win for the entire Omaha community.

Jody Fritz and her husband, Jeremy, were no strangers to the local farmers markets. As regular weekend representatives of Jody’s father-in-law’s O’Neill, Neb., farm, Garden Fresh Vegetables, the couple got to know the other vendors pretty well.20120904_bs_9299 copy

As the weather grew cooler and the outdoor markets closed up shop, the couple realized they and their fellow vendors still had plenty to offer would-be consumers. “There still is a lot out there when the markets end, so we kind of came up with this idea,” says Fritz. That idea was to utilize the front portion of the Garden Fresh Vegetables’ Omaha warehouse as a year-round farmers market. Vendors bring their products into the shop and set their own prices, and Tomato Tomäto receives a commission off of everything that sells.

“We didn’t really have any capital to start, so that’s where the consignment idea came from, and it’s worked out well,” explains Fritz. “Consumers pay a little less than they would at Whole Foods…and the producers make more money than they do selling wholesale, so it’s kind of a nice middle place for everybody.”

“We’ll have winter squashes and greens that grow in greenhouses—lettuces, cucumbers, tomatoes, some peppers, those kinds of things—all year round.” – Jody Fritz, co-owner

Since the store opened nearly five years ago, the number of vendors has grown from five to 100. “As more vendors come in, each kind of has their own following, so then all their customers come in and they become customers of a lot of the other vendors,” says Fritz.

Products range from-fresh produce, eggs, milk, and meats (farm fresh chicken, beef, fish, ostrich, and more) to local wines, salsas, soup starters, breads, and pastas, just to name few. “There are always a lot of things going on.” All inventory is fresh and local; organic, as well as gluten-free, options are available.20120904_bs_9295 copy

Regarding the year-round produce selection, Fritz says that, understandably, there is an ebb and flow throughout the year. “We’ll have winter squashes and greens that grow in greenhouses—lettuces, cucumbers, tomatoes, some peppers, those kinds of things—all year round.”

But Fritz concedes that because Tomato Tomäto specializes in locally produced foods, there are certain items that her store will never be able to offer her customers. “We won’t ever have bananas in Nebraska,” she says through a chuckle. “I get that there are limitations to the place, but I’m just going to embrace those rather than trying to be something we aren’t. I can’t compromise…there are so many foods you can eat in season.”

The colder months bring with them opportunities for customers to order free-range, organic turkeys for Thanksgiving, as well as buy homemade holiday pies and find locally produced spirits to ring in the New Year and celebrate Valentine’s Day. “There’s always a season for everything, it seems,” says Fritz.

Alyssa LeGrand has been a customer of Tomato Tomäto since the market opened and says the quality of the produce is fantastic. “I like to support local farmers and anybody with their own business,” she says. Appreciating the competitive prices, LeGrand says she often stops in on a weekly basis.20120904_bs_9291 copy

On the supplier side, Ryan Pekarek, owner of Pekarek Produce in Dwight, Neb., has been bringing his produce to Tomato Tomäto for three years and says he looks forward to continuing to work with Fritz in the future. “[Tomato Tomäto] is nice because you come back with an empty truck every time.”

In addition to the market side of the business, Tomato Tomäto also runs a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program in which customers can become members of the CSA by purchasing shares in the program and, every week, receive fresh produce and local products. “I just didn’t have enough room for everything people wanted to bring in, so we were trying to find a way for the farmers to bring their food here and to get it into the hands of people quickly.”

For some, this indoor farmers market may just be the best-kept secret in Omaha. For others, specifically the approximately 100 vendors that supply a wide variety of products to Tomato Tomäto’s devoted customers, it’s the answer to their prayers.

Tomato Tomäto
2634 S. 156th Cir.
402-933-0893
tomatotomato.org