Tag Archives: producer

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.

Farms grass-fed beef barely keeping up with demand

Originally published in the Grand Island Independent on Sunday, March 30, 2014. Story by Ellen Campbell.

Luke and Lori Jacobsen in pasture with cattle
Independent / Matt Dixon Luke and Lori Jacobsen pose for a portrait with some of their grass-fed cattle in a pasture on their farm near Marquette. The Jacobsens’ beef products have been sold all over the United States and can be found online at rangewestbeef.com.

MARQUETTE — Many people believe grass-fed cattle produce a tough, stringy product, and that good beef comes only from corn-fed animals.

Luke Jacobsen, who farms near Marquette, is proving that, given the right conditions, the opposite is true.

His wife Lori, who is a first-grade teacher, helps with their beef business, especially the marketing. They live on the L&L Jacobsen Farm, where they raised their three children. The kids live away from home now, but assist on the farm when they are visiting.

“I come from a long line of beef producers,” said Jacobsen. “My great-grandfather Peter Jacobsen immigrated to the United States from Denmark in 1868. He came to Nebraska in 1872 and settled in the Marquette area in 1892. He was a cattle farmer, and sold his animals at the Omaha Stockyards.

Old photo of stockyard
Courtesy photo Peter Jacobsen, great-grandfather of Marquette farmer Luke Jacobsen, sold his cattle at the Omaha Stockyards. Photo was taken in the late 1800s or very early 1900s.

“At that time, there was a special market in England for fattened beef. The cattle were loaded onto rail cars at Marquette for the trip, and the cattlemen could ride along in the caboose.”

Then there were the next two generations.

“My grandfather, Christian, was born in 1884 and also raised cattle, as did my father Elmer (1919-2008).” Luke Jacobsen said. “I began farming in 1978 and have been involved with cattle since that time. I planted the first ‘finishing’ pasture in 2004 and began selling grass-fed beef in 2007 through the Nebraska Food Co-op. This cooperative is focused on local foods, and has a delivery point in Grand Island.”

Jacobsen said he became interested in grass-fed cattle from the health standpoint. Grass — not corn — is the natural diet for ruminants like cattle, and the meat from these cattle provides three times more omega-3 than those that are grain-fed, twice the amount of beta carotene, less saturated fat and fewer calories per serving. The Jacobsens use no antibiotics or synthetic hormones in their cattle.

“I took a trip to Argentina in January of 2003,” he said. “They grow excellent beef there on the Pampas plains, and I was with a group that wanted to counter the corn-fed theory. We learned that Argentine cattle genetics are different from ours, producing animals with a smaller frame. Also, with abundant rainfall, the pastures have a high moisture content, and the grazing is rotated.

“All of these contribute to a more tender, tastier beef. When we get away from all the grain and artificial additives, and decide to return to nature, we can have that.”

“We feel our flavor is superior to corn-fed beef. And one reason is that the animals are older before begin butchered. In earlier times, cattle were not sold until they were about 2 years old and had time for their meat to develop more taste. Then, when the push was on to get fat cattle to the market as soon as possible, to increase sales volume, the producers began feeding corn and giving supplements so that they attained the desired weight at a younger age.”


cattle at Jacobsen's farm
Independent / Matt Dixon These cows, and many others raised by Luke and Lori Jacobsen on their farm in Marquette, are raised on a pure grass diet.

Back home, Jacobsen began his experimentation with a small part of his 80-acre home place, and now uses all of the property. He has divided the pasture land into a number of different paddocks, and rotates the cattle through, giving each plot a 30-day rest period before another herd comes in. In addition, the pasture is irrigated to emulate the wet Argentinian Pampas.

He has also focused on genetics for cattle that are smaller-framed than the typical beef animal.

“We feel our flavor is superior to corn-fed beef,” he said. “And one reason is that the animals are older before being butchered. In earlier times, cattle were not sold until they were about 2 years old and had time for their meat to develop more taste.

“Then, when the push was on to get fat cattle to the market as soon as possible to increase sales volume, the producers began feeding corn and giving supplements so that they attained the desired weight at a younger age,” Luke Jacobsen added. “We sell our grass-fed cattle when they are more mature, and we get great feedback from customers.”

arm roast in package
Independent / Matt Dixon Grass-fed beef arm roast is one of the beef products sold by Luke and Lori Jacobsen.

The Jacobsens’ brand label is Range West Grass-Fed Beef. They established a website to provide general information, details on ordering including a price list, a chart of beef cuts, health benefits and a section for customer comments. A sampling of the comments:

  • Richard B. of Toronto: “Fantastic meat! Your flat-iron steaks are better than some rib-eyes I’ve had.”
  • Ken C. of Omaha, on a filet cookoff: “We compared your fillets against a competitor’s prime tenderloin at a large dinner party. Every single person preferred your steaks.”
  • Ellie S. of Lincoln: “Thank you. Your ground beef is sooo good!”

Luke Jacobsen recommends a book — “Steaks,” by Mark Schatzker — as an excellent source of information about the benefits of feeding cattle on grass. The Range West website has a link to a video of an interview with the author. In this interview, Schatzker mentioned Range West, and it brought numerous inquiries and orders to the Jacobsens.

cattle in pasture
Independent / Matt Dixon Pictured are some of the grass-fed cattle raised by Luke and Lori Jacobsen on L&L Jacobsen Farm near Marquette.

The Jacobsens have customers all over the United States, as well as a wide constituency of people in Asia, Europe and Africa who don’t like the American corn-fed beef.

“One of our problems is keeping up with the demand,” said Jacobsen. “We’re a small operation and can turn out only a certain amount of beef at a time.

“A frequently asked question is ‘Why can’t I find grass-fed beef in grocery stores?’ The answer is that American food production is geared for high volumes of basically wholesome, inexpensive food with little regard for nutritional differences. Feeding grain is the fastest way to fatten animals and has been the least costly. But our customers are concerned about availability, not price.