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Living off the land

Rural Nebraskans get the benefit of buying, selling and “eating local”
By Gene O. Morris and Phil Soreide

Farmers Markets

In ancient China, as the story goes, they had a curse disguised as a blessing: "May you live in interesting times." Interesting times challenge us, they test us, and occasionally they can even bring out the best in us. And the times we are living in are nothing if not interesting.

Take for example the opposing forces of localization and globalization. On the one hand, we mount massive trade missions to overseas countries to encourage them to buy more of our cattle, wheat, corn and scores of other products. And while foreign trade is valuable, it’s hard to understand why 20% of California table grapes are shipped to China – the largest table grape producer in the world, or why we export brussels sprouts to Canada and import them from Belgium.

Farmers Markets

A Weblog called “Life begins @ 30” recently posted 10 reasons to eat locally-produced food. Among them, buying locally does significantly more for the local economy, the food is fresher and tastes better, the food supply is less susceptible to bioterrorism, and, because of the long-distance transportation involved, eating local is better for energy consumption, air quality and pollution than eating organic.

Probably the most visible manifestation of the “eat local” movement is the farmer’s market – it’s capitalism at its finest and as American an activity as any you can name. Here local entrepreneurs – bakers, crafters, gardeners and sellers of eggs, lamb, barbecue, fruits and nuts, preserves and many other local products – meet directly with the buyers and consumers of their products, without middlemen and with relatively minimal government interference.

Profiled below are three stories about people who are living off the land; people who have contrived a way to live a rural lifestyle on a human scale and in a sustainable way, but without a 9-5 job.

Soderholm Farms: Selling sweet corn while the sun shines

In the peak of sweet corn season, pickups and trailers from Soderholm Farms of Holdrege fan out across south central and southwestern Nebraska, marketing thousands of dozens of freshly picked corn to local residents and travelers.

Starting as soon as the corn is ready—usually in early July—the Soderholm sweet corn operation begins at the crack of dawn, with crews picking prime corn and loading the pickups and trailers.

The sales teams then head out, taking loads to Holdrege, Kearney, North Platte, McCook, and areas to the north, including Burwell, Broken Bow and Sargent.

The Soderholm sweet corn operation began 25 years ago and has passed to the second generation, with brothers Tom, Bill and Ray now spearheading sales at Farmer's Markets and locations beside the highway.

Ron Soderholm, the youngest of a family of 12, helps out with sales, taking time off from his job as an over-the-road truck driver to take loads to McCook. "We take from 140 to 250 dozen a day, and stay until we're sold out," he said. "Sometimes on Saturday, we will take even more."

Part of the Soderholm's success stems from the delicious variety they have selected. "My brothers have developed a real good corn. It's a white-yellow mix that others try to copy, but haven't succeeded."

The Soderholm Farm is located east and north of Holdrege and has 22 acres devoted to sweet corn production, with the plantings staggered to keep corn in a ready state for a several week span. The family also has other vegetables for sale, including red and white onions, cabbage and potatoes, and later in the season, pumpkins.

The widespread appeal is not surprising. "Nebraska is the Cornhusker State. We produce outstanding corn and the people keep coming back," Ron said. "It makes you feel good to have so many satisfied customers."

Klooz Farm advises, “Sell the best; get rid of the rest”

Klooz Farm

Marv and Ruthann Klooz are two of southwest Nebraska's most successful garden farmers.

"We've been doing this for more than 20 years," Marv said. "It's been good to us, but it's time to slow down a little."

At the peak, Marv and Ruthann devoted 25 acres of their farm to garden projects. Even though they've cut down, this year's plantings still include three acres of asparagus and six acres of apples, as well as sweet corn, tomatoes and a variety of spring vegetables, including green beans, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and beets.

"We will keep doing the asparagus and apples, but we will probably cut down on the other stuff in years to come," the Kloozes say. "It's time for someone else to step up. There's always a demand for good produce."

Marv says garden fruits and vegetables would be a great way for a young mother with children to generate income. "She could be at home with the kids, and tend the garden and do the marketing with their help."

In Marv's opinion, there's one absolute necessity. That's quality.

"Sell the best; get rid of the rest," he suggests. "Your success depends on your reputation."

Klooz Farm keeps their produce looking so good that customers accuse them of having their fruits and vegetables shipped in. "We make it look like the grocery stores. It shines; therefore we have good sales."

Klooz Farm takes part in Farmer's Markets in McCook and North Platte. They also offer asparagus, apples and other garden items for sale at their farm, located five-and-a-half miles east of McCook.

Homespun: a baker without a bakery

Homespun

The love of baking has been a life-long pursuit for Sarah Risenhoover, but she didn’t try to make a business of it until her husband, Chet, became the shipping supervisor for the Valmont plant in McCook. Sarah said she had been a teacher in Carson City, Nev., but now she wanted to be home with her children, Lydia, 6, and Jacob, 3. That's when “Homespun” was born.

Homespun is an appropriate name for Sarah’s business as she makes all her creations from scratch in the family's kitchen. She's been in business less than two years, but is already building up a loyal clientele.

"I've printed up a brochure and take special orders. Business has been good, especially at holiday time," she said.

Her customer’s favorites include Banana Nut Bread and Cinnamon Buttermilk Bread. She also offers 16 cookie varieties, with Peanut Oatmeal Chocolate Chip and Cranberry Oatmeal Light Chocolate Chip among the delicious choices.

Prices for the specialty breads range from $2 to $6 per loaf, depending on size, while cookies sell for $4 a dozen or $15 for four dozen. Sarah markets her baked goods at the Farmer's Market in McCook from July through September, and is also a regular at craft fairs in the area.

Someday, Sarah would like to open a bakery and luncheon place. But, for now, she is getting great enjoyment from mingling with new friends and neighbors at Farmer's Markets and craft fairs.

"It is such a neat environment," Sarah said. "People are so friendly. There is some buying and selling going on, but it's also a social occasion. It's a place to mix and mingle. I love it."

And, as an added bonus, Sarah gets to share her baked goods. "It's such a joy to share something you make from scratch in your own kitchen. It's been a family tradition for years, and I'm blessed to be able to carry the tradition forward."

For many years Gene O. Morris was a writer for the McCook Gazette, and today takes on freelance assignments from his home in McCook, Neb. Phil Soreide is the editor of Nebraska Rural Living and works from his home in Holdrege, Neb.

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