Nebraska Food Cooperative cultivates healthy food system across the state
Nebraska is known for growing food. Rows of corn and soybeans and fields of wheat meet the eye from nearly every country view this time of year.
But, those aren’t the only crops grown in the state. Smaller farmers who produce everything from lettuce and cucumbers to goat-milk soap, gluten-free products and grass-fed meats are growing in popularity.
The Nebraska Food Cooperative gives these smaller Nebraska farmers a direct route to sell their products to customers across the state through a convenient online ordering site. From Omaha to Ogallala, NFC is providing access to healthy, wholesome Nebraska products.
“We want to ensure that the family farms, the small growers, the small businesses have a way to market their products to consumers,” said the cooperative’s General Manager Caryl Guisinger. “We are cultivating that farmer/consumer relationship.”
And the producers and customers who belong to the cooperative have grown significantly in the past year since Caryl began work as the general manager.
At the height of the summer season, NFC supports 60 producers, 2,300 members, and 34 drop sites across the state, with all three areas continuing to grow.
Caryl, a retired teacher who lives in rural Belgrade, an hour northeast of Grand Island, said she enjoys traveling the state promoting the small family farms and the healthy foods they produce. Her passion for the long-term benefits of eating healthy and eating fresh, non-processed foods is part of what drives her enthusiasm for the cooperative.
She said the NFC producers are like family.
“We’ve all grown to be very close,” she said. “Everybody helps everyone. It’s not just a business, it’s a cooperative. It’s a family.”
How it works
Customers who visit nebraskafood.org can browse through hundreds of products sold by Nebraska producers. Every other week, customers can fill their online baskets with goodies such as bread, granola, eggs, chicken, cheese, lettuce and much more. Orders can be placed Wednesday through Sunday twice a month.
On Sundays, cooperative growers check their order requests and prepare products to be picked up by one of three NFC trucks on Monday or Tuesday. After picking up orders at farms across the state, the NFC drivers meet at a transfer point in Aurora, Neb., on Wednesday morning. From there, the food is organized and placed onto the trucks for eastern, central and western delivery routes.
Besides Caryl and the three drivers, NFC also employs a logistics coordinator, Beth Kernes Krause, who has been with the organization since the beginning.
The food cooperative mainly served eastern Nebraska until just recently when several central and western Nebraska drop-off sites were added including Holdrege, Hastings, Burwell, Sidney and Chase and Perkins counties. Drop-off sites range from churches to businesses to people’s homes. The food cooperative provides the site coordinator with a freezer or refrigerator, and the coordinator sets his or her own pick-up times for customers who placed orders from the area.
Technology makes connecting producers and customers possible
Caryl’s husband, Roy, is a web programmer and has always had an interest in locally grown, healthy food. He has been part of the cooperative since it began in 2006 after a rural sustainability conference. A few years after it started, Roy became the lead developer for the NFC software and website that makes the process of connecting food producers and customers possible.
Roy has spent countless volunteer hours over the past decade listening to feedback and improving the site to make it easier and more convenient for producers and customers. He designed the software that drives the NFC website as open-source software, meaning other organizations may use the software for free.
Roy said he believes there are eight to 10 organizations in the United States who are using the software for similar purposes, including the Iowa Food Co-op and the High Plains Food Co-op in Colorado, plus several in Canada. He stays in touch with these organizations and continues to make improvements in the software.
Producer transparency is unique aspect of NFC website
A unique aspect of the website is that customers can see specific information about growing practices for each producer. There is a brief producer description and a link to each producer’s website or Facebook page from the NFC site.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on in transparency,” Caryl said. “We want our members to know how their food is raised and what’s in their food.”
Some producers sell a handful of items, while others may sell 200 different products.
Caryl said producers set their own product prices based on their operating costs. The food cooperative adds a small percentage fee to pay for organization and transportation costs. Caryl and Roy said the cooperative operates at cost and is not in business to make extra money. Instead NFC exists to help Nebraska producers sell their products and to help consumers eat healthier.
The cooperative has proven to be successful for many producers. Caryl said one producer increased sales from a few hundred dollars per cycle to $1,000 per cycle.
Angela David of rural Stamford began selling her goat-milk soap through NFC in February. She said it has been worth her time to join, adding that it saves time for her to sell through the cooperative compared to the time it takes to load her supplies and travel to sell them at area farmer’s markets.
How to become a member
NFC is a cooperative and is governed by a 14-member board of directors consisting of both consumers and producers.
Customers have several options for joining. If they plan to order frequently, a voting membership with a fee of $100 the first year and $20 each year after that is recommended. For customers who order 5-6 times a year, a non-voting membership with an annual fee of $40 is recommended. For customers with infrequent orders, Caryl recommends ordering as a non-member with a $6 per-order fee.
The site is open for retail orders every other week and for wholesale orders — such as restaurants, hospitals and schools — every week.
“The restaurant owners were saying they want to have that frequency,” Caryl said. “It was their decision. They want to have the freshest food possible.”
The largest NFC restaurant customer is the Prairie Plate restaurant north of Lincoln, which serves only locally grown food.
Caryl said her vision for the future of NFC is to continue to grow customers and producers, to help small producers make a living and to continue to provide healthy foods for more people.
“We want to get as much healthy food out there as possible,” she said.
Nebraska Food Co-op producers grow and create more than 800 products. Below is a partial list of products available. For a full listing, please visit www.nebraskafood.org.
- Heritage breed chickens
- Chicken and quail eggs
- Grass-fed lean longhorn beef
- Angus beef
- Pasture pork
- Artisan sourdough breads
- Naturally-grown beef, lamb and free-range poultry
- Cheese made from certified organize Jersey cow milk
- Vegetables (potatoes, asparagus, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, spinach, broccoli, lettuce, cucumbers, squash and more)
- Fruits (cantaloupe, apples and more)
- Jelly, jam and salsa
- White Pekin duck
- Goat-milk products
- Certified organic and non-GMP whole grains and seeds
- Gourmet mushrooms and medicinal mushrooms
- Raw and liquid honey and beeswax
- Salad dressings and seasonings
- Gluten-free baking mixes
- All natural and mon-GMO snacks, crackers and biscotti
- Whole bean coffee, ground coffee
- Grass-fed bison, buffalo skulls, hides, home-made soap from buffalo tallow
- Heritage turkeys