The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society promotes an agriculture that
builds healthy land, people, communities and quality of life, for present and
NSAS is a non-profit membership organization. Annual membership costs $25,
which includes a year's subscription to the NSAS newsletter. For more
information about NSAS or the information in this newsletter, please contact:
NSAS, PO Box 736, Hartington, NE 68739; 402-254-2289. Fax: 402-254-6930.
The NSAS newsletter is published quarterly. We welcome articles, letters,
poetry and other contributions, which should be sent to the above address.
Articles appearing in this newsletter may be reproduced; please credit the
authors and the NSAS newsletter. This newsletter is supported in part by
grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the US Environmental Protection
IN THIS ISSUE
Pocket your Profits with Creative Marketing
Planting and Growing Onions
Community Supported Agriculture Farm Succeeds in Rural Nebraska Town
Northern Plains Co-op Promotes Justice, Community, Trust
Cooperation Makes for a Fun, Successful Market
Prevent Pollution with Natural Housecleaning
POCKET YOUR PROFITS WITH CREATIVE MARKETING
Value-Added Business Strengthens Family Farm, Sprouts Returns
by Jane Sooby
For "the price of a used tractor," Ken and Karla Disney of Lodgepole, NE,
built a food processing facility at their farm and purchased a refrigerated
Sprouts - alfalfa, sunflower, clover, and a "hot mix" of radish, cabbage,
and mustard sprouts - are the Disneys' main products, but Ken plans to expand
his product line to include milled flours.
More and more farmers are finding creative ways to process a commodity on
the farm and then sell it as food. This is called "value-added" marketing,
and gives farmers greater control over the end-use and marketing of their
"It (the sprout business) has increased our overall sales substantially,
with a fraction of that increase in expenses," said Ken.
Ken has a full-scale organic farming operation as well as the sprouting
business. He grows amaranth, wheat, millet, oats, sweetclover, sunflower,
barley, and other crops. By constructing the food processing facility, Ken
and Karla took the next step in controlling the processing and sale of their
"We're sprouting now, and we'll be milling in the future," said Ken, who has
a small mill with which he can make many types of flour using fresh organic
grain. He and Karla have also investigated numerous industrial-strength
popping machines with which to pop amaranth grain. Popped amaranth can be
eaten as a cereal or pressed into snack-sized cakes. Amaranth has a sweeter
flavor and is higher in protein than corn. Popped amaranth cakes held
together with honey are popular treats in India.
The sprout business, using the brand name Lodgepole Creek, has grown
steadily over the 1« years Ken and Karla have run it. "Our primary customer
is restaurants," said Ken. "90% of the business goes to salad bars and deli
He has had some success in marketing sprouts to conventional grocery stores,
yet has built up a faithful clientele through the four health food stores in
western Nebraska. Ken's white-bladed wheatgrass leaves, made from sprouting
hard red winter wheat, are excellent for making wheatgrass juice, which is
considered a cleansing and detoxifying beverage.
Merely soaking wheat seed in water for a few days creates a value-added
product, sprouted wheat berries, that are a healthy snack food. "They're
sweet and chewy - better than Bacon Bits," said Ken. Soaked lentils and peas
make satisfying "munchies," too.
Ken has experimented with many types of sprouts, including buckwheat, pea,
barley, and amaranth. This last was inspired when Ken described amaranth
sprouts to Karla: "It has a pretty, pink sprout that would look good in
salads." Despite their attractive appearance, amaranth sprouts have a bitter
Ken and Karla demonstrated how sprout production works. Small seeds are
sprouted in a large, rotating drum. Alfalfa, clover, and hot mix seeds
(mustard, cabbage, and radish) are first soaked for 8-12 hours. This cleans
the seed, swells it, and initiates the germination process. The drum consists
of four 5' x 2' quadrants, each served by a spray bar with four nozzles. The
drum slowly turns, making a complete rotation about once every 5« hours.
Seeds are sprayed at intervals while they are turned in the drum.
Germination occurs within about 24 hours.
The sprouts are removed from the drum with a long-handled spatula that
closely resembles a plastic oar. They are placed into tubs containing water
and the hulls are rinsed off. This improves sprout shelf life and the
appearance of the sprouts. After rinsing, the sprouts are placed into the
spinner, which is a washing machine that has been inspected and approved for
this use. Ken and Karla previously used a restaurant-sized salad spinner to
get excess water off of the sprouts, but this process was labor-intensive and
didn't dry the sprouts adequately. Since starting to use the "spin" cycle on
their special-use washing machine, the Disneys regained some customers who
had left because the sprouts were too wet when spun by hand.
After the sprouts are spun for a few minutes, they are fluffed, unclumped
and packaged for sale.
Large-seeded sprouts, like sunflowers, peas, and wheat, are produced by
first soaking the seeds, then placing 1 lbs. of seed into a tray. The trays
are placed on a rack, covered for 3 days, and watered twice daily. This helps
even out germination. The trays are then uncovered, the sprouts allowed to
grow, and after a few days are harvested by hand. In the case of sunflower
sprouts, hulls must be picked off individually by hand.
It takes 5 days to produce sprouts from small seed and 11 days to produce
sprouts from large seed. All of the seed used for sprouting is organic.
PLANTING AND GROWING ONIONS
by Thomas N. Tomas
Onions may be grown from seeds, sets, or plants. Actually, they all begin
as seeds. Onion sets are grown from seed which is sown thickly the year
before and allowed to grow to the size of a large marble. They are then
harvested and stored until the following spring, when you buy them as sets.
Onion plants are started from seed, usually down south, and then grown to
about the size of a pencil before they are pulled, tied into bunches and
offered for sale. The seeds develop in the summer after a white ball of
flowers ripens on top of a tall stalk that shoots up from the bulb.
If you sow the seeds directly in the garden in very early spring, you can
expect good sized onions by August or September. This works well if you want
the greatest selection of varieties and are willing to weed the tiny plants
when they come up. The earlier you plant the seed the bigger the onions will
get, as the size of the onion is determined by the number of leaves the plant
produces before the day length begins to get shorter. I like to plant as
soon as the soil can be worked at the end of February or in March. They will
not come up until the soil warms up, but if we get an early spring they will
be able to take advantage of it, even if the soil is too wet to work for
planting later on. I plant about 12 seeds per foot of row and only thin the
ones that are really thick, as they will grow and push each other out of the
way as they need space.
Onion plants should be planted as early as you can get them in because the
same rule applies - the number of leaves present when the days begin to
shorten will determine the size of the bulbs, all else being equal. I space
onion plants about 3 inches apart as they are somewhat expensive, and wider
spacing makes it easier to control weeds. Select the freshest, greenest
onion plants you can find for the best results. If they are brown and
dormant they will take longer to get established. It is easier to grow big
slicing onions from plants than from seed because they are easier to get
started, and you can see where they are to start controlling weeds earlier.
Onion sets are the easiest way to grow green onions and small to medium
sized onions for cooking. The selection is usually limited to only a few
varieties that are best adapted for set production and storage. They can
usually be found in red, white and yellow, with no indication of the actual
variety. I like the taste of the red best with yellow a close second. To me
the white onions are too hot for a green onion. Select only sound dry sets
free from mold. They will usually range in size from one-fourth to an inch
in diameter. Believe it or not, the smaller sets will usually give you the
larger cooking onions. They are less likely to bolt, or go to seed, and
therefore put more energy into growing a large bulb. When I plant onion
sets, I alternate between large sets and small sets about an inch or two
apart in the row. As the large sets grow and bolt to seed I pull them for
green onions, leaving the smaller sets to grow into bigger bulbs that I
harvest as needed later or store for winter.
Each year I usually grow a few storage varieties from seed, a sweet slicing
variety from plants and green onions from sets. The sets are the most fun
because they are so easy to plant, and they take me back to my first
experiences in my father's garden where he would mark out the row and I would
carefully plant the sets. Perhaps that is the best thing about sets. You
can get your kids or grandchildren to help and almost certainly succeed.
CSA PROVIDES RURAL TOWN WITH GARDEN PRODUCE
by Cris Carusi
Once a week throughout the growing season, John and Suzie Ellis provide
bushel baskets brimming with fresh produce from their Community Supported
Agriculture farm, Libby Creek, to York and Lincoln families. Besides
great-tasting, chemical-free produce, the Ellis's customers enjoy regular,
personal contact with the people who grow their food.
Libby Creek, now in its second year, is different from many other Community
Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms. Two-thirds of the Ellis's customers live
in York, a relatively small, rural town of about 8,000 people. CSA farms are
usually found in large metropolitan areas like Minneapolis or Omaha, where
most residents don't have strong connections to the land and can afford to
pay higher prices for top-quality food.
Most of John and Suzie's customers, on the other hand, are middle-class
people who have family members who farm, or who hold jobs in agribusiness.
Other customers live in nearby rural towns or in Lincoln, where the Ellis's
sell their produce at the Haymarket Farmers Market.
Last year, Libby Creek had a total of 60 customers who learned about the CSA
through a flyer in the local paper, and at the York and Lincoln farmers
markets. So far, 22 people have signed up for the CSA in 1996. The Ellises
expect that more people will want to join once the farmers market season
"Most people were interested in our CSA because they remember garden-grown
stuff and how good it tastes," says Suzie. "Some were interested in the
health aspect, and others were interested in the convenience. CSA is
interesting to lots of folks because it is a different way to approach
customers, and because no one else here is doing it."
CSA creates a relationship between growers, eaters, and the land which can't
be gained through supermarket shopping. At the beginning of the season, CSA
customers purchase "shares" of the farmer's produce. They pick up their
shares each week on the farm or at a prearranged pickup point. Some CSA's
offer home delivery for a higher fee. Many CSA shareholders help with
gardening or deliveries, either voluntarily or in exchange for a discounted
share. Many CSAs host on-farm festivals or picnics for their shareholders.
Customers are always encouraged to visit the farm and learn how their food is
Most of John and Suzie's customers pick up their shares outside the York
Community Center or at the Libby Creek market stand in the Lincoln Haymarket.
A few pay extra for home delivery.
Last year, the farm was open to shareholders on Thursdays and other times by
appointment. Suzie penned five newsletters and included a few recipes with
the produce last year. This year, she would like to supply lists to help
customers identify unfamiliar vegetables, and provide more recipes and
One Libby Creek shareholder is a fourth-grade schoolteacher from York who
has jumped into the gardening operation wholeheartedly. He helps with
greenhouse chores, planting, and harvesting, and has even purchased some of
his own equipment. He likes the farm because it is a place for him to get
away from town and spend quiet time alone. John and Suzie compensate him with
produce and pay in exchange for some of his work.
The Ellises offer their customers the option of buying "full" or "double"
shares of in-season produce. A full share costs $125 for the 25-week season.
It includes $5 worth of produce at current market value each week, and feeds
a family of 2-3 people. At $250, the double share feeds 3-4 people.
Membership in Libby Creek is relatively low-priced compared with some urban
CSAs, where a typical share might cost from $200-$400 for a season.
John and Suzie make sure that each week's delivery includes the full value
of produce at supermarket prices, even if this means purchasing extra
products from their neighbors to make up for shortages on their own farm.
During last year's wet spring and early frost, they substituted neighbors'
honey and rhubarb, and grains from their own farm, to compensate for produce
shortfalls. This approach differs from other CSAs, where customers share the
risks by accepting smaller shares when crops suffer damages, and where shares
are valued above supermarket prices to reflect the real cost of sustaining a
John would eventually like the CSA to be the sole source of income for the
family, but he figures this will take 100-300 subscriptions. In the meantime,
the Ellises still market produce, plants, and herb transplants at the York
and Lincoln farmers markets and directly off of their farm. Up until last
year, John raised 220 acres of grain, including white corn, wheat, millet and
edible soybeans, which he sold directly to customers at the farmers markets
and at a Lincoln health food store. This year, he will grow and market
vegetables only. Suzie works in town nearly full-time.
Although John has farmed for the past 23 years, the rest of the family
wasn't involved until they began raising vegetables two years ago. Suzie now
keeps records for Libby Creek. She writes the newsletter, orders seed, works
in the greenhouse and helps John with transplanting, harvest, and dividing
and distributing shares. Their 12-year old daughter Annie helps organize
baskets, distribute shares and sell produce at the farmers markets.
John and Suzie believe that CSAs can succeed in non-urban areas like York by
drawing customers from several small towns in an area. "A person starting out
would have to consider not being confined to just one town. They might need
to work an area, and they'd need to be real good about promotion," commented
John. "CSA could work about anywhere in Nebraska."
John suggests that anyone wanting to start a CSA in a small town should
consider creative sales strategies like targeting customers who don't grow
their own gardens, or offering unique products like honey, berries or meat.
He also proposes that a small-scale CSA, where one backyard gardener would
support three or four other families, might work well in a small town, while
giving the grower some extra income.
CO-OP PROMOTES JUSTICE, COMMUNITY, TRUST
by Cris Carusi
"If we truly believe that more people must be on the land and steward it,
then we have to start doing things in the business world which will allow
that to happen."
- David Podoll, President, Prairie Organic
Organic farmers on the Northern Plains are working together to create a
just, compassionate marketing system that guarantees farmers, buyers and
eaters organic food at a cost that allows everyone in the system to earn a
fair profit. To achieve this end, they have formed a farmer-driven marketing
cooperative based on ideals of trust, mutual benefit and community.
The Northern Plains Organic Marketing Cooperative, which operates under the
trade name Prairie Organic, aims to build a market for organic crops that
will ensure the long-term survival of sustainable agriculture in the Northern
Plains region. The co-op sells its members' grain collectively and supports
them through guaranteed, prompt payment, fair prices, binding sales
agreements, and a farmer-based, farmer-controlled marketing system. Strict
quality control is maintained through an audit trail whereby each grain
shipment can be traced back to the growers. Because the co-op belongs to its
members, they maintain control of their grain past the initial sale, up to as
close to the customer as possible.
Prairie Organic's work rests on the belief that true cooperatives must be
driven by their members, with farmers' participation assured in the
democratic process governing the organization. Only in this way will the
cooperative achieve its ideals of community and justice, and continue to
serve the needs of small and large farmers alike.
According to David Podoll, Prairie Organic's Board President, most large
co-ops like Land-o-Lakes and Mid-America Dairymen were founded on solid
cooperative principles. As these co-ops grew in size, however, they began to
serve themselves and the profit motive rather than their members.
Presently, large cooperatives are often physically and psychologically
removed from their memberships. They typically offer incentives to large
farmers at the expense of their smaller members, to foster rapid growth and a
competitive edge in the marketplace. Competition and growth are primary
objectives. Their boards are led to believe that they lack the expertise to
make policy decisions, and put these decisions into the hands of management.
As a result, the co-op's members lose some or all of their power. Knowing the
history of the failures of large cooperatives, Prairie Organic does not want
a similar scenario to blemish its future.
"Prairie Organic must avoid this giving of special privileges to large
farmers," remarked Podoll. "Nobody should have an advantage based on size or
distance from the market. We have to concentrate on being stewards."
Wilfred Schill, Prairie Organic's Grain Merchandiser, describes the co-op as
working to develop a new food system. The conventional food industry depends
on energy-intensive farming practices which mine the soil. Long-distance
transportation from the farm to the grocery store adds to the high energy
cost of conventionally marketed food. Prairie Organic strives to create a
regional food system which encourages stewardship of the land and
diversification. Members' fields are inspected by organic certification
groups which encourage resource-conserving farming practices in addition to
the elimination of farm chemicals. The co-op seeks markets for unique food
crops, like millet and flax, which enhance crop rotations.
Unlike the conventional food business, Prairie Organic aspires to make
customers full partners in its work. The co-op hopes to connect farmers and
eaters by eliminating some of the middle layers found in the conventional
system, and by developing creative approaches like opportunities for
customers to win a week on an organic farm.
To provide just compensation for all of its members, the co-op plans to pool
transportation costs and price. This system will reward members for quality
rather than penalizing them for the distance they live from the market, or
for selling their grain at the wrong time.
To ensure that members have a significant voice in the organization, the
co-op would like to hold sufficiently long, closed meetings. According to
Podoll, "At Prairie Organic's annual meeting, prices are set, concerns are
voiced, and farmers can bare their souls and discuss those things most
important in their farming operations with respect to economics." This annual
meeting allows each family member who has a stake in the farm a voice in the
co-op's democratic process.
Podoll believes that including a feminine perspective in Prairie Organic's
work will help the group adhere to ideals of justice, cooperation and
democracy, and he would like to see more women on the board. "Often, women
are better able to capture and hold onto issues of justice and fairness in
the business world than men are," he commented. "Men are more pragmatic.
Women tend to be more philosophical, and they do democracy more easily."
Podoll says that putting Prairie Organic's philosophy into practice has been
tougher than he ever imagined, and that the co-op has had its share of
growing pains. The organization is regularly challenged by the workings of
the conventional market, and he has discovered that it is hard to develop and
practice Prairie Organic's business philosophy in the real world.
Nevertheless, Podoll believes that Prairie Organic has been remarkably
successful by some measures. Despite being highly undercapitalized, they have
built a committed core membership, and they are a powerful influence in the
organic marketplace. One of Prairie Organic's greatest accomplishments is to
serve new organic farmers and those farmers who have been either abandoned by
or left out of the organic marketplace in a significant way.
Ultimately, Podoll feels that "Prairie Organic exists to form a strong core
community which, by its moral conviction, will hold at bay the evils in the
Wilfred Schill outlined Prairie Organic's mission, philosophy and objectives
at a January meeting in Fordyce, NE. This meeting was sponsored by the
Fordyce Organic Growers group, with support from the Nebraska IMPACT Project.
Many thanks to David Podoll for his writing and editing contribution to
COOPERATION MAKES FOR A FUN, SUCCESSFUL MARKET
byThomas N. Tomas
Editor's note: This is Part I of a two-part article. Part II will run in the
summer NSAS newsletter.
We have been trained to believe that marketing is a competitive activity in
which the way to "win" is to beat the "competition" in the marketplace. This
approach takes the narrow view that the success of a marketing enterprise can
best be measured by making more money than anyone else selling in the market.
The real measures of success in marketing are much broader.
Marketing is an activity we engage in as a community in order to exchange
goods and services and to have fun. The real measure of success in a
marketing transaction is how much fun or enjoyment or satisfaction we as a
community get from the process. It doesn't show up directly on the balance
sheet, but without it a marketing enterprise soon dies. If the buyers don't
have a good experience they will go elsewhere. If the sellers don't enjoy
it, they will quit selling. The market will no longer exist.
Let's look at if from the vegetable buyer's point of view. He or she can go
to a supermarket and select almost any vegetable grown anywhere in the world
from a produce display of identical, cosmetically perfect specimens. The
store is well lit, climate controlled with background music. The price is
low. Recipes are provided along with tips on how to store and prepare. What
more could you ask for? If you want to know more you can always watch "Your
Produce Man" or some "Gourmet" cooking show on TV or pick up "Fact Sheets"
from your Extension office.
What's missing is contact with another real live human being who has worked
the soil, planted the seed and nurtured the crop. Someone who you can talk
to. Someone who knows something about vegetables beyond price. Someone who
you can have fun with sharing experiences about growing and preparing and
eating real food. Oh, sure, you may haggle about the price, but that is part
of the fun of a face-to-face bargain. It has always been a part of the dance
people have done in markets since they first began. You each make an
assessment of quality, quantity, value and how well you like each other
before you arrive at a price. That's what the supermarket cannot provide.
I like the idea of the dance in the marketplace as a way of understanding
why some markets succeed and others wither and die. You go to a dance for
many reasons, but mostly to have fun. If only you and your partner show up,
you have to really like them to have a good time, in which case you should
have stayed home and danced to records. At a dance you expect to have fun
with different partners in a group where everyone else is having fun. As a
matter of fact, you only have fun if everyone else is having a good time.
That's why someone is always encouraging the wallflowers and stags to get
together. Live music is best because you can ask for your favorite tune, and
the musicians improvise just for you.
So, too, in the marketplace. If you are the only seller, folks are going to
have to really, really like you in order to have fun and buy your vegetables.
You need other sellers to provide a setting in which you can do the dance of
the marketplace with your customers. You need to encourage both buyers and
other sellers to come to the dance, join in and have fun. You are going to
have to get together and decide what kind of live atmosphere you want to
create in your market so that everyone can have a good time.