When you turn on the TV and see a commercial for a national big-box store bragging about its food being fresh from the farm, you know the local food movement is bearing fruit.
That was among the messages Nebraska beef and dairy farmer Bob Bernt brought to an audience of more than 100 people Wednesday afternoon. Bernt was one of five Nebraska experts on local food production who were brought together for a panel discussion as part of the Paul A. Olson Seminars in Great Plains Studies at the Great Plains Art Museum in downtown Lincoln.
Farmers markets, community supported farms (known as CSAs) and local produce in supermarkets have seen explosive growth during the past couple of decades. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2000 counted 2,836 farmers markets in the United States. By last year, that number had grown to 8,144 and continues to increase.
Nebraska boasted 97 farmers markets this summer, four more than it had the previous year. That's a growth rate of 4.3 percent, which ranked Nebraska 10th overall among all states in the growth of farmers markets. The growth has taken place in communities both large and small, said Billene Nemec, the state coordinator of Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska.
But challenges remain for producers who want to grow organic food and run operations outside of dominant agricultural models. Access to financing, farm expertise, specialized equipment, insurance and distribution networks can be difficult obstacles to overcome, the panelists said.
The future of local food is establishing centralized hubs where farmers can aggregate the food they produce and distribute it across the state in a reliable way, Nemec said. It’s one thing Nebraska lacks, and something proponents are working to bring to the state.
A hub would let farmers create cooperative agreements with buyers such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes. The Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities, a state nonprofit, is studying the feasibility of creating a cooperative food network, possibly based in a renovated Pershing Center and saving it from demolition.
Renee Cornett, the owner and chef of Prairie Plate, a restaurant on her family farm near Waverly, said that, in the end, it will be hungry people, forks in hand, who decide whether farmers will be successful in growing, marketing and selling foods locally.
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Cornett said banks balked at lending her money to start her restaurant, so she had to get creative, using less financing and more hard work.
“You as the consumers have the power on the other side of the plate," Cornett said. "You’re the ones who get to decide what you eat. The more you demand, the more you ask, the more you want to know, where did this come from.”
And once young people see they can support their families on a small-scale farm, she said, they will give it a go.
Cornett said there are myriad reasons to buy local: the economic impact of keeping dollars local; the health benefits of fresh food; lessening the environmental impact of food production by reducing long-distance transportation.
But in the end, she said, local food just tastes better.
“There are flavors you cannot get in a jar," Cornett said. "You can’t buy a salad dressing that tastes like the ones I make with fresh cheese."
The other panel speakers at the more-than-hourlong event included William Powers, executive director of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, and Ruth Chantry of Common Good Farm.