Trading salutes for eggs: Local veteran taking part in new ag program

Prairie Pride Poultry - feeding chickens
Lincoln Journal Star / Matt Ryerson Dan Hromas tends to his chickens at Prairie Pride Poultry east of York.

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.


Prairie Pride Poultry - Dan Hromas
Lincoln Journal Star / Matt Ryerson Iraq war veteran Dan Hromas tends to his chickens on land he leases just east of York. Hromas found assistance programs from Nebraska and the Farmer Veteran Coalition to help bring his dream to life.

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.


Prairie Pride Poultry - watering chickens
Lincoln Journal Star / Matt Ryerson Dan Hromas tends to his chickens.

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.


Prairie Pride Poultry - chicken house
Lincoln Journal Star / Matt Ryerson Inside a small chicken coop a Prairie Pride Poultry chicken lays an egg as a rooster is silhouetted in a window at Dan Hromas’ chicken farm east of York.

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.


Lincoln Journal Star / Matt Ryerson
Lincoln Journal Star / Matt Ryerson Adrian Hromas, 9, helps his dad collect eggs at their chicken farm on a leased plot of land east of York.

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.

Letter to the editor of the Daily Nebraskan (Feb 18)

Kudos to the Daily Nebraskan staff for shedding light on the important issues of food access and eating habits with two pieces on UNL City Campus as a food desert on Feb. 5. Having lived near campus without a car for three years, I agree that a downtown supermarket would be very convenient. However, if “greening” the food desert is to truly create healthier eating habits, we must think beyond the food desert as we know it.

Last week, a National Public Radio piece showed that opening a new produce-stocked grocery store in a Philadelphia food desert did not change people’s eating habits. This is not surprising. Think about it: even if we succeeded in locating a grocery store in downtown Lincoln, would most students gravitate towards fresh fruits and vegetables, or pre-packaged snacks and frozen/instant meals? Somehow, I don’t see the “drunk O Street post-2 a.m. masses” satiating their munchies with broccoli and bananas.

While inconvenient access to fresh food is a major barrier to healthy eating, our “fast food culture” is an equally, if not even greater, challenge to healthier diets. Our 24/7 lifestyles are filled with marketing messages that continually emphasize that we have limited time to prepare or eat real food (but, somehow, plenty of time to surf Facebook). Additionally, those who do have an intention to eat well may not have the knowledge or resources to prepare healthful meals for themselves. We need to acknowledge that UNL students are living in both a physical AND cultural food desert. One cultural solution is better nutritional and culinary education. Another is the prioritizing of time for one of our most basic biological needs and cultural traditions – connecting with, preparing and savoring our food.

The fact is that food does not have to come from a store. After all, are we not in Nebraska? The agricultural state that claims to feed the world? By embracing the simple truth that real food comes from plants, animals and farmers, we can begin moving towards more transformative and innovative ways to address our physical and cultural food desert. We can start with two simple initiatives:

(1) An on-campus farmers market: Many universities (including others in the Big Ten consortium) have weekly farmers markets where local farmers and producers come to sell their products. My undergraduate school, Vassar College, hosted weekly farmers markets selling an array of local fruits, vegetables, meats, bread, flour and honey in the student union building, even in the deep of winter. My regular interactions with farmers at this market not only taught me fun and simple ways to prepare new foods, but also allowed me to better understand plant genetic diversity and the local farming landscape. A farmers market at UNL can be an ideal opportunity for both nutritional and educational nourishment – especially if incorporated into course curricula and combined with programming such as cooking demonstrations.

(2) Encouraging urban agriculture: What better way to green the food desert than to engage in actual greening? While gardening takes time and commitment, it is a transformative activity that tackles the root of our cultural disconnect with food. In essence, it’s a “slow food” counter to our “fast food” culture. In my first year as a grad student, my friend and I joined one of the dozens of community gardens around Lincoln and grew our own delicious tomatoes, peppers, greens and herbs. Research shows that people who engage in gardening are more likely to eat what they grow, and thus have healthier diets overall. Sure enough, not only did my friend and I eat incredibly well, but we also got plenty of exercise and stress-relief from working in the garden. Perhaps even more rewarding, however, were the connections we strengthen with other gardeners and our friends by sharing our garden abundance (we were quite popular at potlucks). As a land grant university, UNL should actively support and create opportunities for students to grow their own food.

In a nation faced with a serious epidemic of obesity and diabetes, issues of food and diet are critical. If our goal is to develop truly healthy, vital communities, we cannot solely rely on infrastructural solutions. More supermarkets might erase physical food deserts by increasing food access, but they cannot change our unhealthy cultural behaviors. We need a constellation of solutions to build a healthier community food system. Let’s start by thinking outside of the (big) box.

Joana Chan, UNL School of Natural Resources

(reprint from: