Tag Archives: farming

Local Farm-to-Table

June 14, 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. 

Ted Genoways

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. 

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.