Generations ago, most families had a connection to farming, but that’s no longer the case. And even though we live smack dab in the middle of “ag country,” our population continues to decrease as people move away from the family farm. According to the Nebraska Center for Rural Affairs and the 2007 agriculture census, family farms have decreased by nearly half since the 1960’s.
Even ag-related jobs and careers draw most young people away as the ag industry becomes just that, big industry.
Food in the United States is produced on a large scale often utilizing hundreds of acres of land for a single crop. Nebraskans buy $4.4 billion of food annually; however, $4 billion comes from outside the state.
But what about smaller tracts of arable land? Land not quite big enough to produce thousands of bushels of corn or soybeans, but large enough to sustain a good-sized garden.
Harold Stone of Davenport, says it takes only 250 acres of fruit and vegetables to feed every person in Thayer, Clay, Fillmore and Nuckolls counties. “That’s about 25,000 people,” he adds.
Stone, who also focuses concern on the outward flow of the area’s population, is currently organizing a grassroots group of growers interested in marketing their products. “Creating a food system cooperative is what I am proposing,” he says. “Collectively we can grow, prepare and sell food, and turn the tide of rural decline.”
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“Civic agriculture focuses on local production and distribution of fresh and processed foods that can compete with national distributors. This reduces the hemorrhage of revenues from communities, and creates local venues, products and jobs. It is one of the most valuable and useful concepts for economic development in rural communities.”
If it seems that farmer’s markets are on the rise, rest assured, your assessment is correct. In the last decade alone, these food meccas featuring locally grown and prepared food have increased from 2,863 in 2000 to 7,175 today.
Growers selling directly to consumers through farm stores, stands, markets and community cooperatives increased by 58 percent from 1992 to 2007 and in just a three-year period, 2004-2007, direct sales from the farm to schools increased from 400 to 2,350, a trend that continues to increase today.
Harold Stone, who is a transplant to the area through his wife, Barbara (Voigt), a native of Davenport, sees this trend as an opportunity to retain rural America’s hard working grower. “What if we could locally grow and process all of the food we need to supply all of the grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and hospitals with all the fresh, canned and frozen food in our area,” he asks. “In the city it would be impossible, but in a rural community, this is not only possible, it is a tool for creating jobs and keeping our money close to home.”
Stone, who recently formed a grassroots group of growers to begin the process of creating a community based sustainable food system, feels the local area has the potential to supply healthy locally grown fruits and vegetables for thousands of people.
“There are approximately 5,000 school students in Thayer, Clay, Fillmore and Nuckolls counties eating one meal a day,” Stone said. “Farm to school agreements are on the increase, as well as farm to hospitals and farm to grocery stores. I have been told that if we grow it, they’ll buy it.”
Janet Voss says yes. She puts together 150 Meals on Wheels meals for Hebron, Deshler, Chester, Alexandria and Davenport every day. “I spend $1,500 on groceries every week,” she says while standing in the kitchen at the Davenport Community building next to a heaping pile of potatoes. “I already have permission to purchase produce from local growers. I would use a variety of fresh, frozen and canned vegetables and fruit if they were available to me.”
Stone said Voss asked him for 180 quarts of tomatoes and zucchini canned together, a unique request that she’d have trouble finding in a grocery store. But it’s such a popular food item among the seniors she prepares dinners for, that having the product on her shelves would save her time and money because she wouldn’t have to prepare it herself. “She also wanted frozen corn,” Stone said. “Lots and lots of frozen corn.”
And speaking of corn, Stone says there are people who live in urban areas who would drive here to pick, shuck, blanch, and freeze corn and enjoy a nice lunch, much like pick-it-yourself orchards and berry farms.
“We need to use the resources we have available to retain our population,” he adds. “Jobs are what keep people here.”
Stone has spent the last year devising a plan to create a community USDA approved kitchen where people can produce, prepare and market food items. He has also brought together farmers and gardeners as potential business partners in the food venture.
The Southeast Regional Food Cooperative is a cooperative between Thayer, Fillmore, Clay and Nuckolls counties to share expenses, enhance distribution, and provide broader support to produce growers in the area, Stone voices in a brochure about the food-based business. The cooperative is supported by the Center for Rural Affairs, Nebraska Department of Economic Development, Stones Thoreau-Farm to Market Inc., Frontier Bank and the Davenport Community Foundation.
In a series of recent workshops backed by the Nebraska Rural Development Commission, Stone brought together local growers and other interested individuals to explain how the cooperative works and the potential of such an initiative.
“Local families and businesses growing, preparing and distributing local produce and prepared foods to other local businesses, institutions and families,” he explains in a circle-of-life definition. “This creates food based jobs and training skills to revitalize our rural communities. And it keeps the profits in our communities to benefit our businesses and residents.”
Stone sees civic agriculture as a foundation for economic development through agriculture, specifically “civic” agriculture. “Civic agriculture is a local agriculture enterprise that has community, social and economic development as its primary purpose,” he says. “When a business model focuses on the well-being of the local community, the quality of life for that community improves with the growth of the business.”
Stone’s concept can be found online at http://stonesthoreau.wordpress.com. In it he describes civic agriculture, sustainable food systems, and community based food systems. There he also explains the role of his supporters in the development of the Southeast Regional Food Cooperative.
“Our desire is to work with farmers, gardeners, grocers, restaurant owners, canners, school cafeteria managers and residents within the four counties who are interested in profiting from local sustainable food systems,” Stone says. “Collectively, we can grow, prepare and sell food, and turn the tide of rural decline.”