Tag Archives: agriculture

Starting Seeds

February 23, 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