The good, the bad, the organic – Challenges and advantages to Nebraska’s local food movement
Tables in the lobby of the Great Plains Art Museum in Lincoln, Neb. were loaded with food. Fresh cheese, hard-boiled eggs, colorful carrots, apples dripping with homemade caramel sauce and other temptations were ready for sampling.
But before the time came to dive into the samples, the crowd of about 100 people learned how local food gets from farm to table.
A panel of Nebraska experts took part in a discussion of the local food movement, part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Paul A. Olson Seminars in Great Plains Studies. The panel included farmers, the owner of a farm-to-table restaurant and Billene Nemec, state coordinator of Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska, a program dedicated to supporting small family farms and the connections that bring local food to consumers.
Nemec said the local food movement has exploded in Nebraska. Consumers were able to shop at 97 farmers markets this year, in both urban areas like Lincoln and small towns statewide. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports the number of farmers markets has grown from 2,836 in 2000 to 8,144 last year. Also showing growth is the Consumer Supported Agriculture model, known as a CSA. A CSA involves small farming operations that invite consumers to buy “shares” of the farm’s vegetables and other products.
“Local food is about building relationships,” Nemec said. “You get to shake the hand of the person who’s growing your food and the grower meets the person who’s eating his food.”
Support for local food is an economic boost for many communities and families, according to Bob Bernt of Clear Creek Farm located near Spalding in the Nebraska Sandhills. Bernt produces cheese, ice cream, butter, beef, pork and vegetables on his certified organic farm and a meat processing plant is under construction. He and his wife have twelve children.
“Because of the growth and success in the operation, I was able to bring two of my sons back home to help with the production side of the business,” Bernt said. “Local food and the CSA system are progressive and ongoing.”
Ruth Chantry and her family have been able to create a livelihood with Common Good Farm, located 17 miles northwest of Lincoln. With 20 years in farming, Chantry has the oldest CSA in Nebraska. The farm offers vegetables, pork, chicken, eggs and plants.
“We’ve been able to create a personal autonomy that shapes our lives and allows us to contribute to the community,” she said.
New to the local food movement is Renee Cornett, who is in her third growing season. Cornett’s farm produces much of the food that is served at her restaurant, Prairie Plate, in Waverly, Neb. What she cannot produce herself, Cornett gets from other local farms.
“Fresh food just tastes better,” Cornett said. “You can’t buy a salad dressing in a jar that’s better than the one I make with the ingredients I grew.”
The final member of the panel was William Powers, a farmer and executive director of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society. Powers and his family live on a small farm near Ceresco, Neb. and sell milk, eggs and chickens to family, friends and neighbors. They want to expand into a dairy operation with an ice cream parlor and creamery. The family has started a social media crowd-funding project on Barnraiser, a website that invites donations to support sustainable agriculture projects.
All the panelists agreed small farmers need to be creative when it comes to financing any operation. But finding the resources to grow is just one of the challenges facing the local food movement.
Confusion over terms like organic and sustainable often makes it hard for consumers to understand the products being offered. For example, some national big box stores use the term “local” to describe products, even though the food does not really come from the area. Bernt said the answer is consumer education. He has installed windows in his production facilities so that tour groups can visit and see what is happening on the farm. Cornett invites customers at her restaurant to ask questions about the menu, where the food comes from and how it is produced.
“The consumer has the power. You get to decide what you eat,” Cornett said.
Supporters of the local food movement are also hoping to establish food hubs, centralized locations where farmers can aggregate food and distribute it across the state. A food hub system would also help schools, hospitals and other buyers who are interested in buying food from local producers. State lawmakers are also working on legislation to support small farms and the USDA offers grants and loans to farmers under the age of 35.
The panelists agreed successful operations thrive with a combination of creativity, an entrepreneurial spirit and hard work. ❖
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