Tag Archives: Patrick McGee

Elderberry Bounty

August 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Foraging berries is one of many underappreciated outdoor activities that Nebraska offers. Putting one’s kids to work on a ripe berry bush with a couple of pails will give them an opportunity to appreciate the natural world. 

Finding berries to pick is not difficult. Berry farms are plentiful in the state, and even roadside ditches offer opportunities to pick berries for those who know what to look for. Elderberries—for example—are plentiful, often seen, and often overlooked.

Paul Read, a professor of horticulture and viticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who grows elderberries, says they are a native small fruit in the genus Sambucus. The common American elder shrub, Sambucus canadensis, has a semi-woody stem from which foliage and a “cyme” (a type of flower cluster or “inflorescence”) grows. The semi-woody stem contains a soft, white pith at its center. “When I was a kid, we used to remove it [the pith] and make whistles,” Read says. The stem can support a shrub 12 or more feet in height. 

The small, sweet-smelling white flowers are “umbrella-shaped.” The cyme contains many small flowers that develop into deep-red to black individual fruits, which are no bigger than a quarter inch in diameter. In midsummer, the odds are that anyone driving around the countryside could find elderberries in bloom on roadsides and in ditch banks. In the fall, the clusters of dark fruit weighing down the plants give them away. 

Elderberries make fine jellies, jams, pies, and wines. The flowers can also be made into wine. Aside from tasting good, elderberries are healthy. Read says that elderberries have many of the beneficial characteristics generally expected of fruits and vegetables. In addition, he adds, elderberries are one of the fruits highest in antioxidant content. Elderberry products, such as concentrated juices, have found their way into the health food market. 

Read does not forage elderberries because he has a cultivated “Adams” elderberry growing in his garden. He says there are other “cultivars” (varieties) available including “York” and “Nova.” However, foraged elderberries will be pretty similar to cultivars. 

“Birds love them both,” he says. Foragers should expect to compete with birds for perfectly ripe berries. When cultivating, throwing a net over the plants will help keep the birds out.

Elderberries are easy to incorporate into the home garden. Read recommends spacing elderberry plants out in a field and cutting them back each year so the height is uniform. 

Whether homegrown or foraged, harvest elderberries when they are very dark in order to benefit from the increased antioxidant content and enhanced flavors. He adds that they are not difficult to grow or harvest, and most commercial elderberries are harvested by hand.

Consuming the fruits of your forage will connect you to the source. You will know the environment. You will know your environment. In the cold sterile aisle of the grocery store, it is easy to forget: Nourishment comes from the earth.


This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Cooped Up in the City

June 13, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Raising chickens in the city has become more common in recent years due to the popularity of urban farming. 

Brett Kreifels, educator for the Nebraska Extension in Cass County (formerly of the Douglas-Sarpy County Extension), has been around poultry his whole life. He runs 4-H youth development for the county and has extensive education in livestock. His grandfather owned a hatchery in Springfield when he was a child. 

Kreifels says there is a trend in favor of urban farming and raising poultry in cities like Omaha because it’s fun and it teaches sustainability. Eggs are an added benefit. For some, it is comforting to know where their meat comes from.

To get started, he says it is important to know local regulations, noting that Omaha and Lincoln have different rules, and Omaha residents must follow both city and Douglas County rules. Much of Sarpy County does not allow chickens, with the exception of those raised by youth in 4-H programs.

Beka Doolittle raises chickens in a part of Elkhorn that is not annexed by the city but falls within Douglas County. She has a permit from the county, but also advises urban farmers to be aware of homeowners association covenants. She raises egg-laying chickens exclusively. Doolittle selected types that lay a variety of colored eggs—they look beautiful in cartons. If one of her birds were to stop laying, she would keep it as a pet. She says raising chickens teaches good life skills, and she enjoys passing them on to her 8-year-old daughter. She says caring for chickens is therapeutic, noting that their strange behavior always makes her laugh. 

Janine Brooks keeps chickens within Omaha city limits. She has many Seramas (a small breed of bantam chickens originally from Malaysia), and enjoys their eggs. It takes five of their eggs to equal one average chicken egg. Brooks says she got into chickens with her 31-year-old daughter, who is autistic. She says her daughter loves the chickens and also raises turkeys. Rearing poultry and watching them grow has been therapeutic for the family and keeps her daughter occupied. Brooks says chickens and turkeys are incredible pets, inexpensive to feed and maintain, and they are clean animals.   

Kreifels says there are no health concerns with raising poultry so long as you keep a clean coop. Otherwise there are risks of salmonella and E. coli. He recommends washing your eggs and your hands after handling chickens. He has been sick from his own birds on one occasion. He attributes it to lax hand-washing practices. “Don’t kiss your chickens,” he says, partly joking.

To get started in Omaha, Kreifels recommends first contacting the Douglas County Health Department. Let them know you are interested in raising chickens. They will want to know your lot size, whether or not you have a fenced-in yard, and what the coops look like. They will send someone out to inspect the facility. If they approve, they will tell you how many chickens you can have and issue you a permit.

It’s that simple. Raise chickens. Eat fresh eggs. Know where your meat comes from. Learn to nurture yourself by nurturing and respecting your food source.


Visit extension.unl.edu to learn more about the Nebraska Extension’s work with local agriculture and livestock.

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

Outdoor Entrepreneurship

May 23, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There have been a few viral online videos for Ultimate Fishing Gear’s Skinzit electric fish skinner. The handheld device can also been seen on the rack at Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops, or on Amazon.com. Chris Kielian, an Omaha-area native and one of four owners of Ultimate Fishing Gear, says he crunched the numbers, and then sat back, amazed—the owners did not expect their product to generate $1.4 million in sales in the first year.

The prototype of the Skinzit was made from an electric tool.

The Skinzit is a machine that removes rib bones and skin from a scaled-fish fillet, leaving the meat intact. Kielan says the device produces 30 percent more meat than a typical fillet because the device allows one to spare the belly meat rather than simply discarding it. Simply cut the fillets from the sides of the fish, and Kielian says, “the device does the rest.” With a bucket of 10 panfish, 30 percent more meat per fish adds up fast. Kielian’s business partners are his brother, Brian, and brothers Eric and Perry Parks. They all share a love of fishing. Chris says they each contribute their unique skill sets to make their business successful. Chris is the main sales and marketing person. The partners agree that leaving their money in the business will help it grow. “We as owners don’t take much out—we keep it in there. Everything is paid for,” says Chris. “We reinvest.” Chris is able to reinvest because Skinzit is not his main source of income. By day, the Parks brothers run Computer Cable Connections, where the Kielians are also employed. Chris says the idea for Skinzit comes from the Townsend Fish Skinner, which is an out-of-production device that skins fish using the same mechanism, albeit hand-powered and narrower.

It took Chris and his co-owners roughly four years to create the product. Milestones in Skinzit’s actualization include selecting an engineering firm, testing and tweaking prototypes for a number of months, having parts manufactured on the assembly line in the Philippines, and having packages show up on the doorstep ready to sell.

Finished Skinzit product

“It took 4 years to get the first 5,000 (Skinzits),” says Chris. The capital cost was “heavy,” more than $500,000. Ultimate Fishing Gear owns seven patents on their product, which took roughly three years to acquire. A special electronic certification was necessary and recertification is required quarterly. But their greatest asset is their ability to use the internet.

Videos of their invention have racked up more than 30 million views across social media. The product hit the market in 2014, and in 2015 one video created by a customer generated almost 9 million hits. Another video of a customer using the product in late 2016 generated several more million views. Each video causes a large spike in sales.

“[Once you have a viral video], it wipes out your inventory,” says Chris, who suggests that Ultimate Fishing Gear has other ideas for novel products, but he cannot disclose them due to patent reasons. “I wish I could,” he says, sounding hopeful. His advice to other entrepreneurs and inventors is simple: “You need the time to make it work, the cash, and the capital. You want to have a product that no one else has—that was the key to the success of our product.”


Visit fishskinner.com for more information.

From left, Brian Kielian, Chris Kielian, Eric Parks, and Perry Parks

This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

The Ash Borer War

March 2, 2017 by
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

Tree lovers beware! An emerald ash borer infestation is coming to the Omaha metro. Jonathan Larson urges homeowners (specially those with ash trees on their property) to be on the lookout for little green bugs. Larson, an entomologist for the University of Nebraska, says the tiny, boat-shaped, metallic-green beetles are smaller than “the size of a penny.”

Although native to East Asia, invasive emerald ash borers were first discovered within North America in Michigan during the summer of 2002. Douglas County suffered its first confirmed infestation last summer, when a sick ash tree at Pulaski Park in South Omaha revealed the bad news.

Ash trees have no natural defenses against the ash borer. So, Larson expects the epidemic to be substantial. He compares the potential damage to the epidemic of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s and 1980s. Larson expects increasing confirmation of ash borer infestation over the next two to three years.

“If we don’t take the proper precautions, we will lose a lot of trees,” he says.

Precautions include yearly pesticide soil drenches for ash trees under 20 inches in diameter or biannual injections for trees over 20 inches in diameter. Larson says treatments range in price from $20 to $290; however, the cost of tree removal is also pricey. Larson believes that removal will be inevitable for untreated ash trees. He says ash borers are really good at finding trees, and they don’t usually miss one.

Larson advises landowners to remove ash trees from their property if they don’t plan on applying treatments. “Spend it all at once on removal or over a period of time on treatment,” he says. He recommends annual inspection of healthy ash trees by an arborist to help decide whether to treat or cut.

Hal Freeman is one such certified arborist and the owner of Omaha Tree Care. He offers treatments to some clients but recommends cutting down most ash trees “rather than fighting it.”

He generally recommends removing the trees before infestation. He says that ash trees “could be seen as a liability” and “could affect the value of your home.” The dilemma bothers Freeman because, as an arborist, he prefers to save the trees.

Steve Torpy, another certified arborist and owner of Torpy Tree Service, recommends choosing good candidates and offering treatments. He says that a large-scale loss of ash trees “would be devastating to our urban forests.” He cites many benefits of having established ash trees, such as saving on electricity and gas, and slowing water run-off. “There’s a lot of benefits people don’t think about,” he says, arguing that “saving the trees can be cheaper than the cost of removal and replacement.” An arborist can help a tree owner make an educated decision, so long as a tree is not already infested.

Infestation begins when ash borer larvae chew serpentine tunnels into the ash tree, devouring the phloem and cambium layers underneath the bark, destroying the tree’s ability to circulate water and nutrients. Larson says that early in its infestation, the ash borer inhabits the very top of the ash tree. The top begins to wither first. Larson says that after four or five years, the beetle moves down into the lower portions of the tree. After six or seven years, the ash borer infests the trunk. Then, he says, “there is not much you can do.”

Larson says there are four key symptoms of infestation to look out for: dieback, brooking, exit holes, and woodpecker feeding. Larson says “dieback” occurs in the very top of trees when the borers eat the inside of branches and the tree can’t grow leaves on those branches. “Brooking” refers to new chutes growing out of the lower portions of the tree. Larson says it is a common sign of infestation. “Exit holes” are visible in the bark of infested ash trees when the adult beetle emerges from the tree. He also says that an increase in woodpecker activity in an ash tree can be a telltale sign of infestation.

According to Larson, ash borer infestations have already been identified in more than 25 states. Larson says the insect has limited flight capabilities and has spread primarily through transportation of firewood and mulch. “People load up a truck with firewood and cross county lines.” It is unclear exactly how the beetle was brought over from China, but Larson says the prevailing opinion is that it arrived in some sort of wood product.

Larson says Nebraskans should be optimistic about saving their ash trees because the professionals have been working for nearly nine years in preparation for the epidemic. He has personally seen the devastation of the beetle in his home state of Indiana, one of the first states hit, and he says that experience is on our side now. Public awareness will help tree owners prepare. He encourages people to report green bugs that may be ash borers.

“I would rather look at 100 [insects] and find one that is [ash borer] than have someone get one and not call us,” he says. “They are beautiful insects but so destructive to trees.” OmahaHome

Visit emeraldashborer.info for more information.

 

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Don’t Be Bored, Get Board

January 6, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Every Friday night, Mickey Williams hosts a weekly ritual—board game night.

The 32-year-old Williams is a board game enthusiast. He resides just south of Omaha’s Little Italy neighborhood. Downtown buildings and lights are visible from the front porch of his nearly 100-year-old house. During his Friday board game nights, Williams opens his home to friends and strangers alike.

The weekly gaming tradition has been ongoing for about five years. Some nights draw 15 or more players. “It is not uncommon that we get 10 at once,” he says while arranging one of the night’s more popular attractions, Ticket to Ride, a train-themed game.

To accommodate an irregular guest list with visitors arriving at unpredictable hours, Williams makes full use of his home’s ample gaming space. In his living room, there are three dining tables. In the basement, an open ping-pong table is available for more expansive games. Other spaces, such as a gossip bench, are set up for chess and other small games.

boardgamenight2The walls and ceiling are decorated by players with graffiti and artwork, which Williams welcomes in the yet-to-be remodeled portions of his home. The wall art includes full-color drawings of anime characters, unicorns, miscellaneous doodles, and a mural of a T-Rex on the dining room ceiling. Quotes are scribbled in unexpected places.

Amber Ostergaard, a two-year regular of the board game night, painted the dinosaur on the ceiling. She says many guests have left their marks; it’s all part of the atmosphere.

Living room cabinets and the old home’s built-in shelves store a treasure trove of 127 board games “including expansion sets,” says Williams, who also invites guests to bring their own games.

The event is low-key, but Williams enforces basic rules to ensure the satisfaction of his players and the continuity of the event. He offers these rules as a guide to others who are interested in hosting their own game night event: “Playing games is required,” Williams says. “Every attendee must play a minimum of one board game every time they attend or be forever banned from future attendance.” This is the most common rule broken and enforced at game night, though Williams also will eject visitors who are excessively drunk or making other
players uncomfortable.

Williams says that many board gamers are “not adept at dealing with difficult social situations,” and that “creating a comfortable environment gets these people out to play.” Williams does not tolerate any form of harassment at game night. He tries to apply the rules “as evenly and non-sexistly as possible,” and he says, “there have been females that have been ejected for their behavior as well [as male players].”

Ostergaard says the event is “inclusive to both genders,” and male and female players seem fairly evenly represented on Fridays. However, Williams does not allow children due to the presence of alcohol.

Another crucial and inflexible rule of Williams’ board game night is that it happens every Friday. No matter what. If the event were inconsistent, Ostergaard says people would lose track of it.

“You don’t have to worry about, ‘Did I miss it, or did I not miss it?’ You don’t have to search for it in your events on Facebook. It’s just every Friday,” Ostergaard says. Williams adds that having a closed Facebook group for the event does help with reminders. “We try to take a picture of each game,” he says, laughing. “We try to post the ‘who won’ and whatnot, but we’re really bad at that.”

Because Williams facilitates game night, he doesn’t have time to be a typical host. “I’m trying to make the games happen,” he says, between his efforts at teaching rules to newcomers and clarifying disputes between veteran board gamers.

For anyone interested in hosting their own game-night event, Williams recommends simple games such as Ticket to Ride.

“You can have five adults who have not played games since they were children sit down with the rule book and learn to play [Ticket to Ride] in 20 minutes,” Williams says, noting there is less than one page of rules. Settlers of Catan is another popular game with a variety of expansion sets, perfect as groups become more advanced and parties gain more participants. Meanwhile, the game Carcassonne is also a Friday night favorite.

More complicated games such as Risk, Axis and Allies, and Diplomacy have their places at game night for his regular crowd, Williams says. Conversely, simpler games—such as Sushi Go and The Resistance—are great due to their brevity and relative ease.

Williams says the key to keeping everything moving with so many guests is to “concentrate on having multiple games of multiple lengths and multiple difficulties going on simultaneously.”

If someone were to show up in the middle of an ongoing game, the house is set up to accommodate late arrivals. They could play a quick two-player game such as Blokus or Connect Four, he explains, “then we can figure out who is staying, who is leaving, and what game we’re all going to play next.”

Everyone gets in a game. Actually, they have to. Otherwise they are forever banished.