Tag Archives: farming

The Next Generation 
of Family Farming

June 21, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Surrounded by tomato seedlings, purple carrots, and strange-looking peppers—whatever’s freshest at Theilen Produce Gardens—Kristy Theilen is a blonde-dreadlocked ambassador for a farm that has been in her family since the 1800s.

The cheerful 36-year-old and her veggies can be found at summertime farmers markets in the Omaha area, including Saturday in the Old Market and Sundays at the Florence Mill.

From left: Kristy Theilen, Fernando Castrorena, Brennen Settles, Jacquie Theilen, Linda Theilen, and Eldon Theilen

Back in Schuyler, Nebraska, an old farmhouse anchors Theilen Produce Gardens’ home base. Kristy’s great-grandfather built the farmhouse in 1910, but it has been renovated and remodeled several times over the years.

Kristy and her mother both grew up in the home. After returning to Nebraska from Arizona in 2013, the two generations are back under one roof on the family’s 1,200-acre farm.

“When I was living in Phoenix, I came across a mask-maker who had mask-making traditions in their family for thousands of years,” Kristy says. “I thought about that—and how people in the city were surprised to hear I grew up on a farm—and got to thinking how important it is not to break that occupational chain. Farming has been on both sides of my family since forever.”

Her parents, Linda and Eldon, moved into the farmhouse in the late 1980s after they were married. “It used to be white wood panel siding,” says Linda, whose grandfather (John Bailey) built the home. Asbestos siding replaced the wood during her childhood; Eldon added the olive-green vinyl siding when they overhauled the structure.

Kristy’s older brother, his wife, and their children live on the other side of a creek, in a residence that previously housed their grandparents (near the original Bailey family homestead, which burned down and was rebuilt in the early 1900s).

The Theilen family’s ancestors by the (burned-down) farmhouse.

Her maternal ancestors in the Bailey family passed through Nebraska during a cross-country cattle drive to California in 1853. “We have a journal written by someone on the trip,” Linda says. “When they passed along the Platte River, they thought it was heaven, so they came back.”

After Linda’s father, Tom Bailey, assumed leadership of the family farm, he raised four kids in the old house. Linda was one of them. They farmed corn and alfalfa, and they sold eggs from Rhode Island red hens.

Eldon grew up on a farm north of Columbus. For the 33-some years since he and Linda took charge of the farm, they have continued the family’s agricultural tradition under their married name of Theilen.

At peak pork production, Eldon raised 3,000 hogs. Then, the market fell out just prior to the turn of the millennium. “There were so many hogs that packing houses couldn’t process them all,” Eldon says.

Today, they focus on corn and soybeans (but “mostly corn,” Eldon says). Kristy’s brother, Jeremy, helps manage the crops. Meanwhile, Kristy takes care of their smaller quantities of diversified livestock: chickens, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, and more. She is also in charge of the garden-fresh produce, starting seedlings in outdoor greenhouses (built by her father), and caring for the plant nursery. (The nursery was an addition to the home, also built by her father.)

After a 10-month stint with the Peace Corps in Macedonia, three semesters studying abroad in Austria, and several years working as a community organizer in Phoenix and Tucson—including gardening in a vacant lot next to a Phoenix artist commune—Kristy returned to the family farm with the goal of implementing the latest sustainable agriculture trends.

Kristy and her fiancé, Fernando Castorena, have helped Theilen Produce Gardens expand into community-supported agriculture. Their CSA sells shares that entitle customers to receive weekly supplies of fresh produce and eggs, which are delivered in the Schuyler area and to farmers market pick-up points in Omaha.

“We were planning to be the world’s youngest snowbirds, but I didn’t want to leave my chores to my brother,” Kristy says, adding that 2017 was (almost) her first full year back in Nebraska, minus two months when they traveled to Arizona.

 

“These new things are all Kristy’s doing. I think they’re great,” Linda says. “I think we need to be diversified in future years with grain prices the way they are.”

Other new initiatives that Kristy has developed include programs for kids and eco-tourism: Easter egg hunts, a Halloween pumpkin patch, hosting campers from the website Hipcamp, and welcoming boarders with the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (volunteers who work in exchange for room and board, also known as “WOOFers”).

During the Halloween pumpkin patch, Linda tells real-life horror stories of the criminals hanged at the old Colfax County courthouse. Her father (Tom Bailey) bought the old jail cell at an auction to protect irrigation pumps. Now, the jail cell is a historical relic tucked away in the back of their property.

Brennen Settles

On the edge of bountiful cornfields, a tall signpost points to the farm’s various attractions: Shell Creek Path, corn maze, pumpkin patch, horses, animal barn, Bunnyville, and Coffee Quonset.

In Linda’s childhood, the “Coffee Quonset” was a storage barn for corn and machinery. She remembers playing on the piles of corn. Later, her husband built a new barn for the modern combine and larger machinery. The old barn was going under-utilized when Kristy suggested making a little shop for coffee and tea.

“These new things are all Kristy’s doing. I think they’re great,” Linda says. “I think we need to be diversified in future years with grain prices the way they are.”

Linda and Eldon tell the story of their land and farmhouse from a dining table, with a spread of fresh vegetables and hard-boiled eggs.

When they moved in, Eldon personally replaced all of the walls, installed new electrical wiring, added central air conditioning, and made subsequent upgrades to the home over the years.

Eldon has always encouraged his daughter to think outside of the box, because that’s how he looks at the world. He designed and constructed a “chicken tractor” that allows him to move chickens over cropland while replenishing nitrogen in the soil with their manure. Last year, he also hand-built their chicken “gypsy wagon,” a mobile hen house trailer.

Inside the house, he rearranged the floor plan of the traditional farmhouse. It’s now a four-bedroom home, with three bathrooms. The old master bedroom on the main floor became an office with the latest computer tech.

“In the ’80s, I had the first computer in Colfax County,” Eldon says. “I always try to stay on top of technological developments.”

Kristy’s fiancé has meanwhile brought crucial Latin cultural perspective and Spanish language skills to the family farm business.

Fernando grows vegetables common in traditional Mexican dishes—huitlacoche (a corn fungus that was a delicacy in Aztec cuisine), squash blossoms, and tomatillos—and he helps sell goats and other animals to local Spanish-speaking residents.

Before moving to the area, he didn’t know what to expect. But he was surprised by the large Hispanic population working in local agricultural industries and living in Schuyler and Fremont. He quickly found himself perfectly at ease in the rural Nebraskan setting, he says: “About 40 percent of our customers [who come to the farm] are Guatemalan or Mexican.”

Fernando’s dream is to launch a farm-to-table restaurant and/or food truck that could service the Schuyler area. His family works in the food industry in Phoenix, so he is confident that he could make it work.

The future is ripe with potential on the Theilen family farm. Who knows? Nebraska’s first farm-to-table Mexican restaurant might just sprout 75-minutes northwest of Omaha.

Kristy also has several other ideas for the future of the farm: expanding into wine production, hosting weddings, and growing their goat herd. “Wine, weddings, and goats, that’s my dream,” Kristy says with a laugh.

Visit theilenproduce.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Dan Susman

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Behind the glass doors and up the stairs at 2626 Harney St., Dan Susman sits tucked away from the world with just his computer equipment, morning coffee, and a big smile slapped on his face. The ambitious 25-year-old is at work on a dream project that emerged from a fascination with urban farming, and he’s hoping his work will inform and drive others to the trend.

Susman graduated from Central High School in 2006, then headed off to the prestigious Dartmouth College in New Hampshire where he earned a bachelor’s degree with dual majors: biology and environmental studies.

After spending some time working on an urban farm in Portland, Ore., Susman’s passion for the farming practice and sustainable agriculture grew. Upon returning to Omaha in 2010, Susman got together with childhood friend Andrew Monbouquette and decided to make a documentary about the trend. Growing Cities has been over two years in the making. It’s taken the crew from Boston to Seattle and 19 other cities in between.

“I got the idea that I wanted to visit urban farms across the country, and Andrew was really more of the film guy at the time,” Susman explains. “He had made some short films, and I just kind of proposed it to him.”

That was it. With Monbouquette onboard, Susman felt confident moving forward with the idea. The partners raised $39,000 for documentary research and production expenses using Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects, and got to work.

“We took a giant road trip for about two months,” he continues. “On our trip, we visited everything from rooftop farmers to people with goats, bees, and chickens in their backyards. We have a scene in the film where a guy is walking across the street with his goat in Berkeley [Calif.],” he says with a laugh.

“We wanted to see how other cities were growing food, and we were really looking for positive examples across the country.”

Susman is not alone in his interest in the ecology trend. Urban farming—the practice of growing, processing, and distributing food all within a city—has exploded in popularity in recent years due to a downsized economy, a local food movement, and a greater push toward healthier eating.

According to the USDA, urban farming is taking off with around 15 percent of the world’s food now being grown in urban areas.

The reasons for the documentary film are several, Susman says. When he came home to Omaha, he noticed several giant billboards that said Omaha was one of the fattest cities in the country. He felt it was his obligation to do something about it.

“We wanted to see how other cities were growing food, and we were really looking for positive examples across the country,” he says. “We wanted to take those models and potentially apply them here. We wanted to show what you could do with very little space, such as your backyard or a window.”

Susman’s side project, Truck Farm Omaha, sprouted from the road trip the crew took while filming Growing Cities. Throughout his travels, he routinely discovered truck farms, which are little gardens planted in the flatbed of a truck. Once he was back in Omaha, he acquired a 1975 Chevy pickup truck, then planted a truckbed garden, and was soon visiting local schools. The purpose—to educate young people about where food comes from and the benefits of eating locally.

“If you don’t have space or time or tools or know-how to grow food, we want to say, ‘Here are some easy steps you can take.’ You don’t have to have a huge garden in your backyard,” he explains. “You could have a little pot and just have some basil or a tomato in there.

“We’re trying to educate people on the steps they can take to grow their own. That will make the biggest difference.”

Susman plans to finish post-production on Growing Cities in the near future and will be submitting the project to film festivals later this year. For more details on the film and its release, visit GrowingCitiesMovie.com.