By Sarah Smith, Farm to School Lead, Center for Rural Affairs
Three years ago, family farmers Robert and Kristine Bernt of Clear Creek Organic Farm weren’t sure what to make of farm to school. They were part of a gathering of food producers, rural organizations and food advocates who joined the Center of Rural Affairs at a fire hall in Ord, Neb., to discuss farm to school efforts happening in the region. And they, along with others around the table, were concerned that the perceived complexities of selling local products to school cafeterias would limit farm to school activities in the state.
But thanks to the dedication of numerous farm to school champions like those gathered that day in the fire hall, these concerns have significantly diminished. Interest and buy-in from both schools and farmers have soared, and new connections and partnerships are on the rise across Nebraska. Schools are hosting special lunch events and showcasing products such as local beef; school greenhouses and agriculture education are expanding into edible education; school gardens are growing in afterschool programs; and farmers like the Bernt’s are finding success in selling their products to schools.
As these farm to school efforts have grown, so has interest from school nutrition professionals to learn more about how the food they serve to students makes it from farm to cafeteria. So at a recent Nebraska School Nutrition Association meeting, the Bernt’s hosted a tour of their family farm operation. More than 60 attendees toured Clear Creek’s fields of vegetables, explored high tunnels and greenhouses, learned about chicken tractors and saw hogs and cows out on pasture. They toured the farm’s dairy processing facility for making cheese, ice cream and butter. And, they learned about the new onsite, and almost fully constructed, meat-processing plant.
Farm tours are great experiential learning opportunities for both youth and adults, alike. The folks who toured Clear Creek that day saw how edible corn roots differ from the miles of corn planted along Nebraska’s highways; they felt and tasted the brightness of several different varieties of fresh beans, like pinto and kidney; and learned the value of planting crops in rotation and incorporating cover crops. They tasted the difference in foods picked at the peak of perfection, and experienced how these fresh foods are packed with rich nutrients and flavor.
They also heard first hand from Robert Bernt how farm to school efforts positively affect family farmers. When Robert started farming on his 700 acres, he and his dad grew commodity crops that provided an income for two families. Today, they’ve diversified their farm and operations and are finding success in selling to institutional markets, including schools. In addition to fresh produce, the Bernt’s create value added products, like turning milk into cheese and freezing green beans for offseason sales, that schools have shown great interest in purchasing. The farm’s same 700 acres are now profitable enough to support four to five families, and have allowed several of the Bernt’s adult children to return to the farm and work across its various enterprises.
The end of the tour meant a hungry crowd, and this group was not disappointed by the outdoor meal that awaited them. Kristine Bernt prepared casseroles, salads, pulled pork, and cornbread – each dish highlighting products that were sourced straight from the farm. Farm fresh products included several varieties of winter and summer squash, multiple leafy greens, roasted pulled pork, cornmeal, butter, honey, pinto beans, tomatoes and a homemade pumpkin ice cream. This farm tour experience makes it clear why several Nebraska school districts are committed to sourcing year round from Clear Creek Organic Farm.
The farm to school landscape has significantly developed since the Bernt’s sat around that fire hall table three years ago, and tours like this are helping even more school nutritional professionals become invested in efforts to serve our children fresh, local food. The Center for Rural Affairs applauds the many miles farm to school has come over the years, and the great investment made by farmers, schools and organizations like the Nebraska School Nutrition Association. The Bernt’s story is a prime example that the farm to school movement is not just growing healthier kids, but that together, we’re supporting vibrant local economies and viable economic opportunities for family farmers.