The demand for organically grown food continues to rise throughout the United States.
According to the USDA, consumer demand for organically produced goods continues to show double-digit growth, with organic products now available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and nearly 3 out of 4 conventional grocery stores throughout the country.
Research released by the Organic Trade Association in 2017 showed that sales of organic food and goods crested at $47 billion in 2016, an increase of more than 8 percent over the previous year. Organic food now boasts more than 5 percent of the nation’s total food sales.
With the demand for organic food growing throughout the country, a group of Nebraska farmers, ranchers, and community organizations are focused on increasing access to, and production of, those foods by promoting regenerative agriculture practices throughout the state.
The group, known as RegeNErate Nebraska, held a conference at YMCA Hazel Keene Lodge on Monday, featuring a variety of speakers who focused on various regenerative agricultural practices being pursued throughout the state.
According to information released by RegeNErate Nebraska, the purpose of regenerative agriculture is to continually improve and regenerate the health of soil by restoring its carbon content, which in turn improves plant health, nutrition, and productivity or yield.
Regenerative farming and ranching practices used in Nebraska include cover cropping, prairie restoration, silvopasture, tree intercropping, agro-forestry, managed grazing, degraded farmland restoration, composting, enhanced nutrient management, and livestock integration back onto cropland.
The local conference, billed as RegeNErate Fremont, was held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday and featured presentations by U.S. Forest Service’s Richard Straight, Prairie Plains Resource Institute Executive Director Bill Whitney, Del Ficke of Ficke Cattle Company, Main Street Project’s Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, Ben Gotschall of Davey Road Ranch and several others.
Straight focused on agro-forestry systems and practices and their effect on soil health management. Some of the agro-forestry practices Straight touched on are already commonplace throughout Nebraska, like wind breaks, while others, like alley cropping, are lesser used across the state.
“Basically agro-forestry is about integrating perennial plants, primarily trees and shrubs, into row crop agriculture and livestock systems to take advantage of those interactions between perennial plants and annual crops,” he said.
Straight covered some of the commonly known uses for wind breaks like interrupting winds to reduce the amount of top soil being blown off-site, and suggested lesser known advantages of planting trees and shrubs in specific areas along fields.
“Some other things that happen when you slow down the wind speed is it changes the evapotranspiration rate, or how much water the plants need,” he said.
Straight also touched on several other types of agro-forestry including riparian forest buffers, silvopasture, alley cropping, and forest farming or multi-story cropping.
According to Straight, riparian forest buffers are promoted as a conservation practice to offset poor farming practices.
“The idea is we put permanent vegetation between streams, ponds, or lakes and the agricultural land that is eroding to intercept the storm water run-off which is carrying sediment, contaminants, and nutrients as a way to keep that out of our streams.”
While Straight focused on promoting strategies that create more sustainable agriculture through agro-forestry, Prairie Plains Resource Institute’s Bill Whitney focused on his organization’s mission to restore and maintain Nebraska’s native prairies.
Prairie Plains Resource Institute was founded in Aurora in 1980 with the intent of preserving native Nebraska habitats for use as educational sites for biodiversity, preservation, science, history and land management.
The non-profit organization preserves, maintains and restores native prairies and wetlands on its own land and on other private and public lands.
“We are a land trust and we specialize in prairie restoration and management, which differentiates us from a lot of other land trusts out there,” Whitney said.
According to Whitney, prairie restoration is the process of recreating a prairie where one once existed but is now gone. His organization defines the term broadly, including everything from planting a new prairie where the former prairie had been broken and farmed, to improving a degraded prairie that lost many plant species due to prior land management practices.
“Local ecotype prairie and wetland restoration has obvious benefits for wildlife conservation, livestock forage production and soil conservation, as well as often overlooked benefits for water filtration and percolation into the ground,” he said. “Prairies in the Platte River Watershed are extremely valuable resources because of their relevance to both ground and surface water quantity and quality.”
Following the morning presentations, conference attendees were treated to lunch which featured a variety of foods that were grown and produced using regenerative agricultural processes.
The main course was grass-fed brisket provided by Del Ficke of Ficke Cattle Company, sides included organically grown and produced rolls and oatmeal cookies from Open Harvest Co-Op Grocery, locally grown spring garden mix and sweet potatoes.
“With this meal we just want to show that this can be done, we don’t have to go to California for our food,” Randy Ruppert of Nebraska Communities United said. “It’s right here, we just have to be able to make it available in a cost effective manner.”
Along with the lunch serving as an example of local food that can be produced through regenerative farming practices, breakfast also gave organizers an opportunity to show what regenerative and sustainable farming practices can produce.
“This morning when you came in some of you tried a cornmeal muffin, that corn is grown in the Platte Valley and it is organic and is currently being made available for sale,” Mike Williams of OPINS Co-Op in North Bend said.