2014 NFC Banquet and Annual Meeting
Fifty-eight members and guests enjoyed a first-class evening celebrating NFC at Fontenelle Forest Nature Center Sunday, September 14. (See Banquet Picture Gallery.)
Tim Rinne, one of the founders of Lincoln’s Hawleys Hamlet, spoke eloquently about the connection between climate change and the food on our plates. Fabulous cuisine served by The Normandy was definitely bon appetit!
Volunteers, site coordinators, and board members were recognized for their eight years of dedication in bringing local food to the eastern third of the state.
Moving into the required annual membership meeting, the requisite quorum was easily met with plenty of voting members present and interested in sharing their ideas.
Exciting opportunities are on the horizon with NFC’s expansion west along the I-80 corridor with the opening of the new Ogallala site late September. As interest continues to build for local food (which supports the Nebraska economy), NFC will not only expand into new retail areas, but is starting to sell wholesale to institutions (schools, restaruants, stores, hospitals, among other businesses).
Many fortuitous connections await. If you have a connection that you’d like us to act upon, whether it be a new producer, new instituition, or new drop site, just send Caryl, our General Manager, an email with the particulars. Caryl may be reached at: (email@example.com)
The count is in for this year’s new board officers.
Incumbents Libby Broekemeier and Roy Guisinger were elected once again, along with back-to-the-board member Gary Fehr.
As one NFC member wrote on their ballot, “All are WONDERFUL and we are lucky to have them!”
Thank you, voting members, for casting your support for these tireless advocates.
You might have noticed the new ‘skins’ that the NFC delivery truck has been wearing as of late.
Courtesy of long-time member and new board member Gary Fehr, the truck’s refrigeration box now touts a fresh white skin. Thank you, Gary, for volunteering once again!!
In addition to the new paint, the NFC truck no longer travels the roads incognito. New Nebraska Food Cooperative signage was just added by Greger Graphics and boy, does it look fantastic!
So now, not only our members are spreading the ‘local’ word. NFC’s truck is doing so as well!
Sunflower Acres. Acres upon acres of sunflowers are what greeted NFC producer Dianne Thompson when she purchased her land all those years ago. Representing life, brightness, and cheer, sunflowers enticed Thompson to develop a natural skin care line that uses only natural ingredients.
Initially expanding her skin care line to include natural deodorants, moisturizers, body butters, cleaners, and detergents, Thompson is always on the look out for products that serve multiple purposes. For example, her insect repellant can be used to not only repel insects but to clean vinyl floors, countertops, as an air freshener, or even as a spicy body spray!
Exploring new ways to innovate natural products is a passion that Thompson lives and breathes. Thanks to her, NFC members have all sorts of products that bring life, brightness, and cheer into their homes.
NFC is pleased to share that two new sites will be opening soon. Watch for an announcement with their effective date.
Omaha Downtown (Site Coordinator: Paul Vonderfecht) has new hours effective immediately:
Thursday: 4:00-5:30 PM
Friday: 7:30-9:00 AM or by arrangement
Many, many thanks Deirdre, Melinda, and Paul!
The interdependence of man with nature is what allows NFC to bring bountiful harvests to its membership. So this year, NFC is bringing to its members ‘connections’: between local foodies, between local ingredients and our plate, between nature and producers, between Nebraska and the wider world, and between NFC successes and its volunteers.
Banquet Registration Form (Registration Deadline: August 31)
What better way to share stories and connect with fellow members than over a fine, locally sourced meal? And beforehand, if you take in an exploratory walk on the Fontenelle Forest trails (hiking fee waived), you’ll be sharing even more ‘finds’!
Local food, you say? Absolutely! Opening its doors on Valentine’s Day 2014, Lawrence (a French chef) and Renee (a Nebraska native) brought casual French cuisine to Lincoln. The Normandy uses only the freshest, local ingredients in their superb dishes – fresh from the farmers’ market and Nebraska producers. You are definitely in for a treat with this master chef’s creations!
Tim Rinne, our keynote speaker, will connect the dots between how our steadily warming climate, with its extreme weather and a higher incidence of disease and pests, is making it increasingly difficult for growers to bring in a harvest.
Since NFC opened its doors in 2006, volunteers have continued to serve as the backbone to the success of Nebraska’s year-round, on-line farmers’ market. One special volunteer will receive ‘The Golden Plate’ award. Granted, a very hard decision to choose just one recipient for NFC’s top award, all volunteers will be recognized for their valued (and tireless) contributions.
To wrap up the evening, NFC will hold its annual membership meeting. Any NFC member may attend the meeting, but only voting members may vote on resolutions. (Voting members may elect to only attend the meeting….see the Banquet Registration Form, please.)
Sunday, September 14
Fontenelle Forest Nature Center, Bellevue
4:30 Cash Bar (serving wine and local beer)
5:00 Dinner (catered by The Normandy)
6:00 Keynote Speech (featuring Tim Rinne)
6:45 ‘The Golden Plate Award’ & Appreciation for NFC Volunteers
7:00 Membership Meeting
Questions? Contact Caryl for assistance.
Walking the Fontenelle Forest (FF) trails is an experience unlike any other in the Omaha metro area. Fontenelle Forest owns and manages 2,000 acres of conservation land and 26 miles of marked trails within Fontenelle Forest Nature Center in Bellevue and Neale Woods in Omaha. These unique areas have been protected since 1913 and are home to many species of plants and animals. Trails of varying lengths and grades allow people of all ages and experience levels to enjoy the beauty of nature. Our one-mile Riverview Boardwalk and Gifford Memorial Boardwalk offer even paths for stroller and wheelchair access.
As you hike FF trails, you will encounter ecosystems such as deciduous forest, oak savanna, prairie, and wetlands. Although it is common to hike during the warmer months, the trails offer unique sightings during every season.
Excerpt from www.fontenelleforest.org
NFC Annual Banquet Keynote Speaker: Tim Rinne
The average bite of food on our plates travels 1500 miles to get there. Your typical grocery store stocks just three days worth of inventory. Our steadily warming climate, with its extreme weather and a higher incidence of disease and pests, is making it increasingly difficult for growers to bring in a harvest. Food shortages — even here in America — are projected to be commonplace by mid-century. And with a shortage of supply, food costs will soar. Not since the Depression and Dust Bowl of the ’30s will Americans have faced such a challenge to feed themselves.
The need to create a resilient, locally based food system has never been greater. Supporting our local farmers and market gardeners is paramount. But food security doesn’t just mean joining a CSA or giving the Nebraska Food Co-op our business. To develop a secure (and sufficient) food supply, city dwellers are going to need to start bringing more than just their appetites to the table. The urban environment (where most of the demand is) is going to need to start pulling its weight in our food production system.
And the sooner we, as a community, dig in to meet this challenge, the easier it’s going to be on everybody.
To hear Tim delve into this topic and connect the dots, see him at NFC’s Annual Banquet on September 14 at Fontenelle Forest.
Since 2006, the Nebraska Food Cooperative has been run mostly by a very active and dedicated board of directors. Some of them are still the original incorporators of our organization. Recent changes have now enabled NFC to actually pay our general manager (formerly a volunteer position) to handle many of the business activities that were previously performed by board members. This bodes very well for the future of NFC.
Meanwhile, it is time to schedule elections. This year, terms for three board members are expiring and need to be filled. Board directors serve three-year terms that start in September, are expected to attend monthly board meetings (in-person and conference call meetings), and participate in email board discussions.
If you are interested in running for a director position, please send your intention statement/biography (100-200 words) and picture (jpg) to our general manager (firstname.lastname@example.org) no later than July 31.
On the other hand, if you aren’t quite ready to participate as a director of NFC, we also have an advisory board where you can get your feet wet and participate in co-op decisions without any of the responsibilities. The advisory board makes an excellent starting position for members wanting to be more involved and/or exploring the possibility of a term as a director. Although it is encouraged, there is no requirement to be a member of the advisory board prior to being elected as a director.
Early next month, voting members will receive a biography of each candidate, voting instructions, and a ballot.
Please note that director positions are only available to voting members and only voting members are entitled to vote for board directors.
During the typically hottest month of the year in Nebraska, a community of concerned citizens are marching, through Nebraska, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.
The Great March for Climate Action comes at a critical moment in the climate crisis, contends the march’s founder. Beginning their march on March 1st and completing their journey on November 1st, the marcher’s route will cross the path of the proposed Keystone Pipeline on Saturday, July 19. Teaming up with BOLD Nebraska, the Climate Marchers will visit the renewable energy-powered barn that was built on farm land directly in the path of Keystone XL pipeline.
The marchers have met folks all across Nebraska, engaging in conversations along the way. They stopped for a bite at the Haigler Country Cafe; marched in the Culbertson 4th of July parade; hosted a potluck dinner and community conversation in Holdrege; demonstrated their solar cooking ovens to a TV news crew in Axtell; and collected petition signatures in Kearney.
Knowing that healthy eating is critical to the health of the walkers, the Nebraska Food Cooperative was twice the source of the walkers’ local purchases. Buying greens, grains, dairy, and meat, the marchers raved about the quality and variety of NFC’s offerings. Marie, the marcher’s food coordinator, shared that once they entered Nebraska, everyone they met were friendly and respectful, regardless of their position on climate change. And the local food has been outstanding!
Hearty ‘pies’ (quiche, meat, vegetable, fruit) were introduced to the marchers at the Colorado/Nebraska border by Anna Wishart, the Nebraska coordinator for the Climate Marchers. So popular were the pies, that additional donations may be made on July 19th or at a later date in Lincoln or Omaha (Nebraska route by date).
Follow their journey on FaceBook or to see how you can personally support the marchers on July 19, check out the BOLD Nebraska link that outlines the day’s march and activities, and how to offer donations.
The Nebraska Food Cooperative is holding their annual members’ meeting this year at the beautiful Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue.
With cooler temps gracing a late Sunday afternoon in mid September, it will be the perfect time to hike Fontenelle Forest trails before sitting down for a Nebraska-local banquet. Keynote speaker Tim Rinne will speak about local food security that has implications nationally and internationally.
Voting members will hold a short business meeting, but you don’t have to be a voting member to enjoy the evening. Whether you are a visiting member, non-voting member, or a friend of a member, you are welcome to attend and enjoy the comaraderie of fellow local ‘foodies’.
A registration form will be available in the August newsletter.
July 24th will be the LAST delivery cycle for the OMA1 (Dundee) site at its current site, as Yvonne and her family are moving out of state.
If you would like to volunteer, our general manager will be happy to get you started as a site coordinator. Just notify Caryl by email.
Dried mushrooms are my kind of luxury, convenient and affordable. While caviar or foie gras rarely fit my mood or budget, I can always have dried shiitakes, porcini, morels, and chanterelles on hand. And I reach for them often—both on harried weeknights when the clock is ticking and also when I’m looking for an extra boost of flavor to elevate a special dish. The flavor of dried mushrooms is concentrated and intense, and the texture is good and meaty. Like fresh mushrooms, they’re terrific in everything from soups to sauces to sautés.
Give ’em a soak. Before using dried mushrooms in a recipe, even if it’s a soup or a stew, it’s best to rehydrate them in hot water. This is necessary for two reasons: First, it plumps up the mushrooms, and, as a bonus, the soaking liquid creates a flavorful broth, which you can incorporate into a dish much as you would any other kind of broth. Second, soaking also helps remove grit from the mushrooms that would otherwise spoil your dish.
Once the mushrooms have steeped, it’s easy to add them to braises, stews, or sauces. What I do is brown the meat or fish (if there’s any in the dish) and then sauté the rehydrated mushrooms with the aromatics like shallots, garlic, or onion. Because they’re moist, the mushrooms don’t exactly brown, but this quick toss in hot oil really intensifies their flavor. Finally, I add the mushroom soaking liquid and finish cooking the dish.
The way I see it, there’s no set rule for which mushroom to pair with a specific dish. It makes sense to look to the mushroom’s native region, using Italian porcini in risotto, shiitakes in Asian dishes, and chanterelles in French sauces and bistro classics like omelettes. But I often mix shiitakes with other kinds of mushrooms, particularly when I’m using a pricey variety like morels. It’s a little trick of mine. Shiitakes’ flavor perfectly complements that of other mushrooms, and their affordability keeps the meal in the realm of simple, home cooking, just where it belongs.
Versatile, affordable dried shiitakes are my go-to mushroom. Their meaty texture and smoky flavor is great on its own or paired with other varieties. Shiitakes are an obvious choice for Asian dishes, filling out soy-based braises or stews or perking up quick stir-fries.
Look for shiitakes with thick brown caps ridged with white. The stems can be woody, so trim them off and discard after soaking.
Chewy, succulent, and intensely flavorful, dried porcini (or cèpes) have a deep, earthy essence that complements Italian seasonings and is delicious with pork and chicken.
Porcini (pronounced pour-CHEE-nee) have thick stems and broad caps and are generally sliced before they’re dried. After rehydrating them, you can use them just as you would fresh mushrooms.
The golden, apricot hue of chanterelles befits their bright, fruity flavor. Their size can vary from tiny blossom-like specimens to impressive 5-inch trumpets, and in the dried form, they can be quite pricey. When rehydrated, their texture is pleasantly chewy; the stems, however, can be woody, so after soaking, trim off tough stems and discard them. Pair chanterelles with eggs and cream sauces.
Nutty, buttery, and somewhat smoky, dried morels go beautifully with spring ingredients like asparagus and spring onions (or ramps, if you can find them). The hollow, honeycombed caps of wild morels can harbor sandy grit. With cultivated varieties this isn’t as much of a problem, but to be on the safe side, it’s a good idea to rinse morels with water before soaking them.
When you have dried mushrooms in the pantry, there are lots of quick and simple ways to use them in your everyday cooking. Once you rehydrate them, they can go just about anywhere fresh mushrooms can go.
• Stir them into pilafs and other rice dishes.
• Add them to tomato or cream-based pasta sauces.
• Spoon them onto polenta.
• Stir them into pan sauces for chops and cutlets.
• Add them to stir-fries.
• Sauté with green beans or snap peas.
• Add them to eggs: Sauté rehydrated dried mushrooms with shallots and butter and fold into omelets, frittatas, or scrambled eggs.
• Make flavored butter: Pulse rehydrated morels or chanterelles with softened butter and a fresh herb like thyme in a food processor. Use right away or shape into a log, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate. Pats of the butter are delicious on roasted or grilled meats and vegetables.
Put the mushrooms in a medium heatproof bowl. For Leek & Morel Strata, Wild Mushroom Ragoût, and Risotto with Peas & Porcini, pour in 2 cups boiling water and weight down the mushrooms with a small plate so the mushrooms are submerged. (If you’re using smaller or larger amounts of mushrooms, just use enough water to completely submerge them.)
Soak until they’re plumped and softened, about 20 minutes (some varieties might take longer). Use a slotted spoon to transfer the mushrooms to a cutting board, squeezing any excess liquid from the mushrooms back into the soaking liquid. Let cool. Remove and discard any tough stems. Coarsely chop the mushrooms. Strain the soaking liquid through a coffee filter or paper towel set in a sieve. Set aside the mushroom “broth” for use in your dish or freeze for another time.
Excerpt from: Fine Cooking by Tony Rosenfeld; Photos by Scott Phillips
The NFC board of directors last met on May 27, 2014. Among other business, there was some great discussion about pricing and deliveries.
Members are always welcome to attend board meetings (scheduled every other month) and are encouraged to become involved as advisory board members. If you are interested in directly supporting your coop in this capacity, contact Caryl Guisinger, the general manager at email@example.com.
Among other decisions from the May board meeting, orders over a $600 value will receive a 10% discount. We hope to roll out some additional savings in the future, but this is our way to start making your food bills more affordable.
Little-known fact: Although it has never been advertised, most large orders also receive personal home deliveries by Kevin, our route driver. This has been one of NFC’s best-kept secrets for several years, and now we’re letting the cat out of the bag. There could be some circumstances when a home delivery is not possible, but we haven’t discovered any yet.
The purpose of the Forum is to share relevant NFC news, discussions, and as a means for increasing exposure and participation. However, we also realize that many people like to minimize their e-mail volume.
Currently, all new members are automatically subscribed to the NFC Forum (ie, an Opt-Out forum: members may OPT-OUT of the list at any time).
So, we would like to hear from you for a short TWO QUESTION survey: 1) Do you prefer an: OPT-IN or OPT-OUT forum, and 2) what topics you would like to see on your forum. Help us improve the forum by sharing your opinion on this SURVEY MONKEY poll by the end of June.
Thank you for your time, interest, and support in improving your NFC experience.
It’s time to start planning the Nebraska Food Cooperative’s Annual Membership Meeting and Celebration Dinner.
Mark your calendar now to join us at the beautiful Fontenelle Forest Nature Center in Bellevue late in the afternoon on Sunday, September 14.
Tim Rinne, of the Lincoln’s Hawley Hamlet and Mother Earth News fame, is our keynote speaker who will connect the food security dots. A Silent Auction is being organized as well as a fabulous local food dinner featuring our very own producers.
Watch for more information in upcoming newsletters. If you’d like to join the Organizing Committee, please contact the General Manager at: firstname.lastname@example.org by the end of June.
The first thing I noticed when I walked in the doors of Prairie Plate Restaurant, Waverly’s new farm-to-table restaurant, was the way the light inhabited the room, drawing you to the lake view that lay just beyond the windows.
Renee Cornett, head chef and owner of Prairie Plate, greets me at the door and begins to dive into the history of the land. She and her husband, Jerry Cornett, run Lakehouse Farm, a certified organic farm situated roughly fifty yards from the front door of the restaurant. After they started their farm in 2011, they began renovations on the house down by the lake for the restaurant that would eventually open its doors on April 2, 2014.
While their setup and concept for the restaurant would lead you to believe they had lived a lifetime as farmers, their background tells a more unique story.
Renee grew up in Maryland, graduating from the US Naval Academy with a major in mathematics. She served eleven years in the US Navy, the majority as a naval aviator, before retiring in 2001 and attending culinary school at Metropolitan Community College.
Jerry hails from Omaha. He earned a degree in political science from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and then joined the US Navy. Also a naval aviator, his career spanned twenty-one years, including serving as the defense attaché at the US Embassy in Albania, retiring in 2011 with the rank of commander.
When I ask them how they wound up in the farming and restaurant business, they laugh. This is not the first time someone has asked them this question.
“In some ways it doesn’t matter what you do, everybody eats,” Renee says.
She has cooked all her life—for friends, roommates, and her family, including their two children. As Jerry’s retirement approached, they were looking for the next steps. Their life in the Navy had taken them all over the world, including time spent in northern Italy. It was there that the concept of a farm-to-table restaurant formulated.
“You see concepts like this in Europe, northern Italy, even Albania,” Jerry said, “People would travel out into the country to the farm to have a meal that focused on what they grew there.”
In Italy, this concept is called agriturismo.
For the last five to six years of Jerry’s career, they would gather inspiration from restaurants around the world.
Their seasonal menu changes from week to week, depending on what is growing at that moment. Lakehouse Farm grows sixty to seventy different varieties of vegetables and fruit. The items they don’t have on their farm—primarily meat, dairy, and grains—are purchased from local farmers and suppliers. For instance, on the current week’s menu, they featured beef from Range West Beef in Marquette, pork from Erstwhile Farm in Columbus, cheese from Branched Oak Dairy in Raymond, and grains from The Grain Place in Marquette.
As she talks about the logistics of starting up a local food restaurant, Renee’s background in mathematics begins to show.
“You start doing the math. If you’re going to buy local food to start with, local products, how can you make the math work to make it so you don’t have to charge more than people want to come for? And so you start working through some of that,” she says, “I don’t have to truck it in, I know it’s fresh.”
“We want to showcase the region’s ingredients,” Jerry says
The Cornetts are also committed to running both their farm and restaurant as sustainably as possible.
“If we have choices, as much as possible, we try to pick one that’s lighter on the environment, that fits with the rest of the philosophy of what we’re doing. If we can avoid using a light fixture and use a sky light,” Renee smiles and gestures to the other room, “we did that.”
On their farm they practice sustainable farming by using drip irrigation, covered crops, contour farming, crop rotation, and a transplant system where plants begin in their greenhouse before being transplanted to the ground. Additionally, they also compost the kitchen scraps from the restaurant to mix into their soil.
So what incentive does this restaurant have that draws people up from the city?
“From the farm, through the kitchen, to your table,” Renee recites their restaurant motto, “It’s the connection to the place—food from the place—it’s closer to where it started. It’s going to taste better because of that. All the other things—it’s healthier, the economic impact, and all that—everybody is going to have their own section of that discussion that’s important to them, but the ‘tastes better’ is always important to everybody.”
Jerry took me on a tour of the farm, showed me where the food is grown, walked me around the lake as he told me more about the history of how the farm came to be. The sun was about to set, and I left with plans to return the following evening to sample the menu.
It was an even more beautiful evening when I came back. I had snagged the best table in the house, situated in a small alcove of a bay window on the southeast side of the building. This place is a birder’s paradise. Hundreds of birds swoop down, gliding a feather’s width away from the calm, pristine surface of the lake.
The restaurant’s menu is divided into courses: first course, second course, and dessert. Each course provides several options to choose from. They also offer a variety of wines and beers, as well as French press coffee from Cultiva in Lincoln.
What is most important to note about the food is the fact that no flavor is overpowering in any of the dishes. The combinations of flavors work to each other’s favor, and everything is seasoned and salted to perfection.
The Lakehouse Farm Salad is made up of whatever variety of lettuce is best on any given day. From there, Renee adds vinaigrettes and garnishes that compliment the particular type of lettuce available that day. On this particular day, it was garnished with cheese and sunflower seeds and served with slice of bread.
The asparagus and quark soup is also a specialty first course item. Quark is a soft, spreadable cheese that is most common in Germany and other areas of Europe. Branched Oak Dairy Farm provides the quark, which compliments the asparagus for a very satisfying soup. It is garnished with a slice of bread and a halved asparagus tip.
The wilted spinach and feta salad was my favorite of the ones I tried. The spinach was done perfectly—still slightly crunchy but wilted just enough to add that warm spinach flavor combined with garlic and oil. The feta, also from Branched Oak Dairy Farm, was a perfect compliment.
I tried each of the main courses that were available that evening.
First up were the chard rolls. This was the vegetarian option for the evening and was a wonderful surprise. The chard rolls are filled with brown rice and sweet potato and are served over sorrel sauce with a side of asparagus.
The house hickory smoked brisket was served with a side of grilled polenta and roasted asparagus. The meat was very tender. The smoky flavor of the meat married well with the polenta.
The pork chop with rhubarb sauce was my favorite of the three main course dishes I tried. While I don’t traditionally think of a rhubarb sauce on pork, the semisweet sauce really brought out the best of the pork. The dish came with a side of barley and sweet potato pilaf garnished with chive flowerets that provided a beautiful splash of color and a strikingly wonderful flavor.
Two desserts were offered that evening: a rhubarb tart and a hubbard spice cake.
The rhubarb tart was beautiful in appearance; it looked like it belonged in the window of a pastry store in France rather than in Waverly, Nebraska. It was the perfect balance between tart and sweet—just like rhubarb dishes should be.
The hubbard spice cake was the dessert winner for me. The day before, Renee had shown me all about blue hubbard squash. As I helped her carry them from their storage to the kitchen, she explained how they were versatile, like a pumpkin. They are a pale blue-green on the outside and bright orange on the inside. When I saw this on the menu, I jumped at the chance to try it. It didn’t disappoint—still slightly warm from the oven, it was moist and spiced to perfection.
I left, content with having tried something new. And that’s what the farm-to-table experience is all about.
Jerry says it best.
“It’s an experience. It’s not just the food and it’s not just the place. It’s the food AND the place.”
He’s right about that. Prairie Plate is the place where you can come enjoy the beautiful Nebraska scenery and eat the finest dishes with ingredients grown and raised locally. It’s the taste of Nebraska distilled into the food on your plate.
From the farm, through the kitchen, to your table.
Prairie Plate is open Wednesday through Saturday 5–9 p.m., Sunday 12–5 p.m., from April through mid-November. The menu is constantly changing throughout the season, so check their website for weekly menus. A three-course meal plus coffee will run you around $35–43 but will be worth every penny.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Prairie Fire. Story by Sara Sawatski.
YORK — Dan Hromas reached down and ruffled the rust-colored tail feathers of a chicken.
The Rhode Island Red squatted briefly, then shook and strutted away with a cluck. Hromas smiled and laughed.
“They’re a great dual purpose breed. They’re excellent egg layers, and when they’re done, I can sell them as stewing hens,” the Iraq War veteran said.
After nearly two decades protecting U.S. freedom and interests as a soldier, the former Marine and current member of the Nebraska Army National Guard has found new purpose and resolve through his flock of 600 chickens.
He is among a small but growing group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans now feeding the nation they served as a member of the armed forces.
Hromas’ York-area farm, Prairie Pride Poultry, is the first in Nebraska and second in the United States to be certified by the new national program Homegrown by Heroes, a marketing initiative that recognizes farmer veterans.
For Hromas, the birds are both livelihood and therapy.
“Boredom is the most hazardous thing to my health,” said the chicken farmer who returned from a yearlong deployment to Iraq just in time for Christmas 2007 with persistent ringing in his ears and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Before that, Hromas was a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying microbiology on an Army ROTC scholarship. That came to an end when he was activated in advance of his National Guard unit on July 31, 2006, as part of President George W. Bush’s surge of American forces.
When he returned to Nebraska, Hromas got a commercial driver’s license but had difficulty sticking with a job. The one he kept for more than a year was driving a truck for the United Farmer’s Co-op in Utica.
“I can’t put up with a lot of s***,” he said.
All soldiers leave the military different than they went in, said Don Sandman, a Vietnam veteran and Veterans’ Service Officer in York County.
“That is just the way it is,” Sandman said. “The military itself is traumatic. You’re in there for one reason and one reason alone. And that is to be prepared to kill mankind.”
Many veterans struggle with hearing problems, depression and the effects of PTSD. The Veterans Administration says 22 of them kill themselves every day.
The military instills a sense of being part of a greater good, part of something bigger than any individual.
That sense of duty and fellowship doesn’t come with punching a clock, said Chet Bennetts of the Farmer Veterans Coalition.
Farming can give veterans a sense of purpose again, he said.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition, which is based in Davis, California, has helped about 2,400 military service members, some still active, get involved in farming nationwide. In Nebraska, there are 35 veterans on the coalition’s radar.
“Being able to work hard and have something to do every day and feel good about it is way better than just punching a clock and getting by,” said Bennetts, who works from Lincoln.
Forty-six percent of U.S. military members hail from rural settings and many will return to them, said Scott Mickelsen, associate dean with the University of Nebraska’s College of Technical Agriculture.
“It can be somewhat soothing for them to work with animals, to work with plants, to work outdoors in a little less stressful situation,” he said.
The work ethic drilled into soldiers transfers well to agriculture, Mickelsen said. The college has developed a program tailored to retired military called Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots, which attracts four to seven veterans a year.
Hromas liked working for the United Farmers Co-op, but it was just a job. He started thinking about summer trips to visit his grandparents’ farm in North Dakota, looking for the eggs the chickens that ranged free laid in straw bales.
“It was like an Easter egg hunt every day.”
He missed that and wanted his four kids to have the same experience. Plus, he likes to eat eggs, and he likes the idea of being his own boss.
In October 2012, Hromas took his first step toward becoming a farmer and signed up for a Farm Beginnings Nebraska program hosted by the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society. He networked, took more classes, wrote a business plan, applied for grants and joined the York Chamber of Commerce.
On May 31, 2013, he incorporated his business and three months later got his first 300 birds. He sold his first dozen eggs to a man at the local Eagle’s Club. His first commercial account was with Chances R Restaurant in York, which buys his eggs for Sunday brunch.
Today, his hens produce 3,150 eggs a week. He sells them to Grand Central Foods in York, the Hy-Vee in Grand Island and as of last week the Williamsburg Hy-Vee in Lincoln.
Once a month, he sets up a booth at the Old Cheney Road Farmers Market and last Sunday sold out of 62 dozen eggs in three hours.
His eggs cost a little more than the generic white ones at supermarkets, Hromas said, but people are willing to pay it because they know the eggs are fresh and were laid just down the road. He prefers the term “pasture-raised chickens” to the more ambiguous descriptors “cage free” and “free range.”
His main selling points are local, healthy eggs produced by happy chickens. When he has extra eggs, he donates them to local food banks and soup kitchens.
His chickens sleep and lay eggs in coops but spend their days roaming three acres he rents just northeast of York. He likes the peace of the farm and how it keeps him too busy to dwell on the past.
A person can get frustrated and throw a wrench, Hromas said. It’s not so easy to throw a chicken.
Hromas said he doesn’t like using his status as a veteran for personal gain but decided to use the Homegrown by Heroes label to reach out to fellow veterans, to let them know they’re not alone and help is available.
The program was started by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and recently went national through the work of the Farmer Veteran Coalition with underwriting from the Farm Credit Network, a group of borrower-owned lending institutions.
“I got to thinking if I have that label on the product, people are going to start asking questions,” Hromas said. “That will open the door for me to start talking about the Farmer Veteran Coalition, about agriculture.
“Veterans in general, especially veterans with disabilities, can have a future in agriculture if they want.”
Originally published in the Lincoln Journal Star on Sunday, May 29, 2014. Story by Nicholas Bergin.
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