Small business REAPs benefits by helping the environment in a stylish way

“What to wear?” is every woman’s daily dilemma, and a problem Refined Boutique and Reclaimed Brands, in North Platte, Nebraska, is able to solve.

In 2010, Missy Couse and her husband considered starting a business.

She asked him if it made a difference what they sold. His response was, “no.” However, when she mentioned a boutique, she could tell he was skeptical. He let her run with it.

Like most businesses, the boutique started out very small, in a side space of a salon, and expanded slowly.

In 2013, the venture moved into its own storefront, at 518 N Dewey St., allowing for the launch of Reclaimed Brands, which offers affordable “previously loved” clothing.

“Refined Boutique and Reclaimed Brands offers an experience, which is what shoppers want if they go to a store," said Nancy Flock, loan specialist with the Center for Rural Affairs' Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP). "Merchandising and customer service also play a very important role.”

The boutique offers fashionable outfits and accessories, and caters to a variety of shopping budgets with both brand new items and items ready to be reloved. The business also attracts environmentally conscious consumers concerned with clothing waste.

According to Couse, consumers in North Platte are comforted in knowing they can open the doors of a small business and find just what they are looking for.

And, no matter what side of the store the shopper ends up in, they will receive excellent customer service.

“Customer service has a great impact on success," Couse said. "Having regular hours, networking, featuring new items, hosting promotions, and being creative with displays is also very helpful."

Last year, Couse was at a local craft expo when she and other business owners discussed the concept of a mobile store. A mobile store could be used to increase the number of customers and could be a marketing piece for a storefront. However, challenges could include packing items for a weekend and unpacking when the show is over.

Couse approached Flock, who is very familiar with the concept — her parents owned a traveling storefront curios shop. The duo discussed access to financing, specifically to obtain a trailer which could simplify the mobile store.

“One of the first steps in the financing process is working with business owners to develop a solid business plan and sound financial projections,” Flock said.

REAP was able to provide a loan for a mobile store. Flock also provided one-on-one coaching and technical assistance to fine-tune the business plan.

Planning increased the efficiency of the mobile store, which allowed more time for Couse to focus on ecommerce.

According to Flock, in today’s fast paced, mobile world, ecommerce is a must-have for small businesses.

"It’s a great way to connect with a target market and can also help generate sales, both online and in store," she said.

Future plans for Refined Brands include expanding clothing selections by adding lines of jeans and basic layering tanks.

Couse became interested in small business at a very young age. She created her first venture in the third grade with a business that catered to roller skating. Couse would play a cassette tape with the top hits — after recording the hits each week. She also made pom poms to attach to roller skates.

“I considered charging an admission to skate on a fresh driveway, but that didn’t work out so well, so I sold beverages and snacks instead,” she said.

Others in Couse's family enjoy executing business visions. Over the years, she has learned many tricks of the trade from family — specifically from her grandparents' bar and trucking company and an uncle's marketing and public relations firm.

In total, she has been directly involved with five businesses.

“I get the greatest satisfaction from creating something out of nothing, learning from mistakes, and sharing in success” Couse said.

To browse Reclaimed Brands, check out the website and Facebook page. For information on business loans, click here. To apply for a loan, click here.

At a Glance

Refined Boutique and Reclaimed Brands
518 N Dewey St.
North Platte, NE 69101
308.539.4642
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday

Feature photo: Missy Couse, owner of Refined Boutique and Reclaimed Brands, pictured at her mobile store. Look for it at an event near you. | Photo by Nancy Flock Read more about Small business REAPs benefits by helping the environment in a stylish way

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Top 5 of 2017: From the desk of the executive director: New approach needed for small town housing

It's official! The first day of 2018 is here. What better way to kick it off than with a look at our most viewed post in 2017, authored by Brian Depew, our executive director.

This piece takes a look at a community development issue faced by many rural communities — housing. What do you do locally to address a lack of housing in your community? In our top post of 2017, Brian lists a few ideas.

From the desk of the executive director: New approach needed for small town housing

Housing in small towns would take care of itself, or so I used to believe.

If we could get employment, education, health care, and quality of life right, the market would surely solve housing. In many rural areas, I figured, decades of population decline left more housing stock than people. Certainly a lack of houses wasn’t stopping people from moving to our small town.

I was wrong.

Now I understand the real story. I’ve heard from employers, from young families, and from recent college graduates. We’re interested in moving to your small town, they say, but we can’t find housing. More often than not, they end up living in a nearby larger town with more housing options.

Consider what you can do locally to address this challenge.

Financing — A growing number of banks have stopped writing mortgages for less than $50,000. Where property values are low, this effectively blocks low and middle income workers out of home ownership. What can you do to counter this trend? Community-centric lenders such as local development agencies, nonprofit lenders, and community-oriented banks could fill the gap.

Rethink Construction — Have you ever noticed how every new home looks the same and costs $200,000 to build? Rural Studio, a group of architects at Auburn University in Alabama, has developed a house that costs just $20,000. Their price point is competitive with a trailer home. By thinking differently about materials and construction methods, their designs can help expand your thinking about what is possible.

Get deliberate about repairs — Epicenter, a nonprofit in Green River, Utah (population 929), launched Fix It First, a program that provides low-interest loans and technical assistance to help homeowners fix minor problems (e.g. roof leak) before they become major problems. Dealing with issues early helps keep local housing stock in good repair and saves residents money.

Put cash on the table — We’re quick to invest public money in economic development incentives, but slow to invest in housing development. For a small town, cash incentives for new home construction may make a lot of sense. A $5,000 or $10,000 incentive will pay back directly (in property taxes, utilities, and fees) and indirectly (in new residents in town and new kids in the local school).

Change policy — Most public policy around housing seeks to address low-income housing. By banding together to expand policy to address workforce housing, local advocates can direct additional resources to this challenge. A bill introduced in the Nebraska legislature would establish a competitive grant process to address workforce housing needs.

Those are a few of the ideas we are thinking about at the Center for Rural Affairs to address rural housing. What are you seeing work in your town? Get in touch. Read more about Top 5 of 2017: From the desk of the executive director: New approach needed for small town housing

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Top 5 of 2017: Cora grew up in the middle of everywhere

Cora Fox, policy associate, joined our organization in May. In our second highest viewed post of 2017, Cora shares that she looks forward coming back to her roots to work with Midwestern farmers, and talks about growing up in rural Iowa. She works primarily on agricultural policy, and can answer questions on our farm bill work or anything regarding "Answering the Call: Veteran Farmers Conference" set for March 24, in Hastings, Nebraska. We are glad to have her on our team.

Cora grew up in the middle of everywhere

I am an Iowa native, raised on a century farm in the heart of the Loess Hills. I grew up in Monona County, near the town with the little star on the hill, to be exact. As part of the sixth generation to live and work on my family farm, I’ve learned farming isn’t an occupation, but rather a livelihood.

Looking back, all of my favorite childhood memories happened on the farm. I remember spending countless hours exploring in the Loess Hills, following worn cattle trails and looking for Pasque flowers. I loved riding in the tractor with my dad and grandpa. During the summer, I’d pick apples from our orchard to make pie for the local county fair (Iowa State Fair-worthy, I might add).  

Why is it we often want to get away from the rural way of life when we are young? In my high school years, I found myself wanting to live in a big city. I didn’t really have a reason other than wanting to experience something far different from what I had known.

I left home to start college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, studying political science. Though I enjoyed what I was studying, I felt an intrinsic motivation to serve my country and to be a part of something bigger than myself. After my freshman year, I decided I would enlist in the Air Force.

As an enlisted member in the Iowa Air National Guard, I spent most of the next four years supporting various contingencies worldwide, either deployed or on temporary duty in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve. I commissioned in 2016 and currently serve as an officer.

During this time, I continued to further my education at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in political science and minoring in environmental sustainability. I am currently pursuing a Masters in Public Health with an emphasis on health policy and ethics at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.

Over the past year, life has drastically changed for me. I now serve in a part-time capacity, which allows me to pursue other ventures. I no longer keep packed bags by the door pending a call for the next trip halfway around the world. My boots aren’t worn; my hands aren’t covered in grease. Although I had loved my job in the Air Force, after each and every deployment and trip I found myself back on the farm. During these trips home, I developed a greater appreciation for rural Iowa and our family farm.

I think my parents knew all along I would come “home.” I didn’t just wake up one day to decide I would live on a farm the rest of my life. My life took a long, meandering path to where I am today. Though my experiences in the Air Force and in higher education have helped shape me, the rural way of life has always been a part of me.

Last week, I had a conversation with the Center’s executive director, Brian Depew. I casually mentioned I came from a rural county in the middle of nowhere. Brian made an insightful comment that really stuck with me — he’d stated that he disliked the phrase “the middle of nowhere.” After some thought, I responded, “You’re right, it’s the middle of everywhere.” Rural America isn’t empty, boring, or bland — it’s thriving, full of life, and anything but average.

I look forward to coming back to my roots and working with the most resilient, hardworking, and innovative people I know — Midwestern farmers. The Center for Rural Affairs has a longstanding history with the farming community, and I am excited to join the team. I understand many challenges rural communities face firsthand, and I am grateful for the opportunity to serve rural America.

If you enjoy the smell of fresh cut alfalfa as much as I do (or just appreciate the rural way of life), feel free to give me a call at 402.687.2100 x 1012, or send me an email at coraf@cfra.org.

Pictured: Cora's family farm near Turin, Iowa. She is the sixth generation to call the farm home. | Photo by Cora Fox Read more about Top 5 of 2017: Cora grew up in the middle of everywhere

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Top 5 of 2017: Dear Iowa lawmakers: Leopold Center deserves recognition and respect

Today, we share number three in our top five posts countdown, a letter sent to Iowa lawmakers. Last spring, lawmakers proposed a budget bill that would have eliminated the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. In the end, the governor vetoed the provision, allowing for the continued existence of the Leopold Center. The Center for Rural Affairs has worked alongside the Leopold Center on conservation and agriculture, and will continue those efforts.

Thanks to people like you, we were able to make a difference through a massive grassroots effort. Every phone call made, every petition signed and drafted, every story shared, every op-ed submitted, and every testimony presented added up to a political win.

About the Leopold Center: The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture is a nationally-recognized leader on crop system and market research that helps farmers adopt alternative crops while remaining profitable. We hear from our farmer supporters that they would love to grow more oats, small grains, and perennials but need access to improved seed varieties, research on growing techniques, and information about markets. The Leopold Center has long supported that research. At a time when commodity prices are falling and farmers are increasingly concerned by water quality, the work of the Leopold Center is more important than ever. 

Dear Iowa lawmakers: Leopold Center deserves recognition and respect

Dear Gov. Bransted, Lt. Gov. Reynolds, and Iowa lawmakers,

We, the undersigned, oppose any proposal to eliminate funding and authority for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. While the work of the Leopold Center is focused in Iowa, it has long been a leader in sustainable agriculture research and serves as an inspiration to sustainable agriculture work nationwide.

For 30 years, the Leopold Center has supported research on water and soil resources through more than 600 projects. The progress made in many other states on water quality, diversified cropping systems, livestock grazing, cover crops, soil health, and local food systems is due in part to initial research that the Leopold Center supported.

In order to continue to address many issues we face in our food and agriculture system - nutrient runoff, soil erosion, manure management, and others - the need for the innovative research that the Leopold Center supports is greater than ever. Eliminating support for the Leopold Center would have dramatic and harmful impacts on future work to improve soil and water health nationwide.

The 30 years of leadership in sustainable agriculture research from the Leopold Center deserves recognition and respect. We strongly urge you to oppose elimination of its funding and authority.

 

Sincerely,

John Fisk, Wallace Center at Winrock International, Arkansas, Virginia, and National Organization
Virginia Clarke, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders (SAFSF), California
Julio Contreras, SOCLA- NAB: Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology - North America at Berkeley, California
Kali Feiereisel, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, California
Eric Holt-Gimenez, Institute for Food and Development Policy, California
Charlie James, Food, Equity, Entrepreneurship, & Development (FEED), California
Ann Thrupp, Berkeley Food Institute, California
Tom Willey, T&D Willey Farms, California
Skye Cornell, Wholesome Wave, Connecticut
Marty Mesh, Florida Certified Organic Growers and Consumers, Florida
​Donn Cooper Cooper Agricultural Services, LLC, Georgia
​Albie Miles, University of Hawaii - West Oahu, Hawaii
Aaron Lehman, Iowa Farmers Union, Iowa
Sally Worley, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa
Stephanie Enloe, Center for Rural Affairs, Iowa and Nebraska
Mary Fund, Kansas Rural Center, Kansas
Kate Clancy, Maryland
​Kourtney Collum, College of the Atlantic, Maine
Dena Leibman, Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, Maryland
Robert Martin, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Maryland
Rebecca Haag, Island Grown Initiative, Massachusetts
Alicia Harvie, Farm Aid, Massachusetts
Rick Foster, WK Kellogg Foundation and Michigan State University, Michigan
Mike Hamm, C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture, Michigan
Richard Pirog, Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems, Michigan
Jan Joannides, Renewing the Countryside, Minnesota
Ben Lilliston, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minnesota
Helene Murray, Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, Minnesota
Kathleen Zurcher, Minnesota
Alex Borst, Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network, Mississippi
Melissa Vatterott, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Missouri
David Oien, Timeless Seeds, Inc., Montana
Shelly Connor, Wild Farm Alliance, National Organization
Bridget Holcomb, Women, Food and Agriculture Network, National Organization
​Brise Tencer, Organic Farming Research Foundation, National Organization
Duane Hovorka, Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Nebraska
Alice Varon, Certified Naturally Grown, New York and National organization
Roland McReynolds, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, North Carolina and South Carolina
Nancy Creamer, Center for Environmental Farming Systems, North Carolina State University, North Carolina
Nancy Creamer, Inter-Institutional Network for Food, Agriculture, and Sustainability, multi-state network of Universities’ Sustainable Agriculture Programs
Jonathon Moser, Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota
Casey Hoy, Agroecosystems Management Program, Ohio
​Amalie Lipstreu, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, Ohio
Sam Arnold, The Common Market, Pennsylvania
​Eowyn Corral, Dakota Rural Action, South Dakota
Laurie Ristino, Vermont Law School, Vermont
Ricardo Salvador, Food & Environment Program, Union of Concerned Scientists, Washington, D.C.
Kendra Klein, Friends of the Earth, Washington D.C.
Savanna Lyons, Refresh Appalachia, West Virginia
Michael Bell, Wisconsin
Jill Hapner, GrassWorks, Inc., Wisconsin
John Hendrickson, Stone Circle Farm, Wisconsin
Karen Hendrickson, Small Farm Works, Wisconsin
Jack Kloppenburg, Open Source Seed Initiative, Wisconsin
Lindsey Day Farnsworth, Wisconsin
Kelly Maynard, Wisconsin Read more about Top 5 of 2017: Dear Iowa lawmakers: Leopold Center deserves recognition and respect

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Top 5 of 2017: Remembering Jeff Reynolds

The year in review countdown continues with news that still weighs heavily on our hearts. Jeff Reynolds, our small business development program director, unexpectedly passed away in April. Coming in at number four in our countdown is the announcement written by Brian Depew, our executive director.

Remembering Jeff Reynolds

It is with a heavy heart that I write to share the news that Jeff Reynolds passed away unexpectedly on April 20, 2017. Jeff directed the Center's small business development program, the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project, or REAP, as it is widely known in Nebraska. He was a veteran staff member, having worked for the Center since 1994.

We will miss his dedication, his good spirit, his can-do attitude, and his uplifting presence.

Jeff was always willing to step up to a new challenge, and I turned to him for wisdom and advice many times during my time at the Center. Nearly all who worked for Jeff over the years praise him for being a coach, a mentor, a friend and someone who always believed in them. He was all of those things. He was also a proud father, devoted husband, and dedicated leader in his local community. 

Jeff was committed to rural small business development and to each and every small business owner we ever worked with. Since becoming program director in 2000, Jeff led a dramatic expansion of the Center's small business lending, training, and technical assistance work. The future of the Center for Rural Affairs has been indelibly shaped by Jeff’s vision and hard work.

Jeff fundamentally believed in small business development as a strategy. He helped design, campaign for and win both state and federal programs that now provide resources to other small business development organizations. His impact, therefore, extends far beyond the Center and far beyond Nebraska.

I imagine many of you have your own memories of working with Jeff. If you send your memories or condolences along to our office, we will share your words with his family.

Please keep Jeff’s family and friends in mind in the days, weeks and months ahead. Jeff, we miss you and are proud to have worked alongside you. Read more about Top 5 of 2017: Remembering Jeff Reynolds

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Top 5 of 2017: Veteran farmer homesteads with a kick

Countdown time! With less than one week remaining in 2017, a recap is in order. So, here's a review of the five best Center stories of the year, chosen by the most views on our website.

Number five features Matt and Emely Hendl. Matt recently retired from the U.S. Navy, and the couple had a dream to farm in Nebraska. Since this blog was posted, they found an acreage and are establishing their farm. The couple helped us plan the first ever "Answering the Call: Veteran Farmer Conference" last June, and are in the process of helping us plan the next conference, set for March 24, in Hastings, Nebraska. The piece was written by Rhea Landholm.

Veteran farmer homesteads with a kick

Three years ago, Matt and Emely Hendl didn’t picture themselves as farmers.

They thought Emely would support their family with her government service job after Matt retired after 20 years in the U.S. Navy.

However, after changing their minds a few times, they decided to move their daughter, Annika, dog, cat and hamster, to the Platte River valley in Nebraska to pursue an altogether different venture: small-scale farming.

Cultivating interest

Matt and Emely began their agricultural adventure in Connect­icut. They lived on 7.5 acres with a small-scale organic farm on one side and a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm on the other.

Emely helped the organic farmer raise microgreens and herbs and sell them at the local market.

And, after visiting with the owner of the CSA farm, the couple decided they could produce their own food, starting with chickens.

“I thought a little bit bigger than we needed to,” Matt said. “It was the first time I hadn’t been under­way, attached to a submarine.”

He cleared out a 50-foot by 60-foot area, using lumber that was on the land to create fence posts and build a chicken coop. And ended up with 22 chickens.

“Every single one of them had a name,” Matt said. “They were everything from Bob and Marley to Baby Alligator and Twilight Spar­kle. Our daughter was just like a little chicken whisperer.”

Then the couple was wowed by their CSA neighbor. She won a women entrepreneur award for those 25 years or younger, com­peting against women who worked at large corporations.

“That made us think, if some­one from small town Connecticut can do something like that, we can too,” Matt said.

Starting anew

While making their decision of where to go next, they looked at the Midwest for its agriculture and proximity to family. However, Matt said he still has a bit to learn.

“As one of the most senior ranks in the military, I was used to knowing what I was doing,” Matt said. “I feel like I’m starting over. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“We said, We’ll just come,” Emely said. “People would call us homesteaders. We’re not pioneers, but what we want to do is essen­tially homesteading with a kick.”

Planting roots

Matt started agricultural cours­es at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in the fall. The couple also has found mentors in Del Ficke and Kerry Hoffschneider (Emely’s high school classmate).

“We have good mentors who won’t let us fail,” Matt said. “We’re so appreciative and humble that they’re able to give us this oppor­tunity.”

The Hendls are helping out at Ficke Cattle Company, owned by Del, while using the land to work on their own projects.

Growing aspirations

First on the to-do list is starting a destination farmers market at Ficke Cattle Company, outside of Pleasant Dale, Neb.

Additionally, the Hendls would like to pursue agritourism, provid­ing a place with cheese tasting, beekeeping classes and more.

The couple is inspired by agri­tourism on the east coast, particu­larly for people who did not grow up on farms.

“They are able to smell the farm and hear the sounds,” Emely said. “When you see the sun setting on a hill with cows on it, and you’re drinking a coffee, that’s serenity.”

The Hendls would also like to host school field trips.

Sowing knowledge

Another future venture for the Hendls is providing agriculture education and training.

“A lot of people are coming to this state who have never lived here, like me,” Matt said. “They don’t have an agriculture back­ground but, they want to know where their food is coming from.”

One way is to provide mobile chicken tractors and laying chick­ens – two at a time – for rent.

“People are scared about what they don’t know,” Matt said. “We want to provide an avenue to get educated and to get more comfort­able, kind of like what we’re doing, and what Del’s done for us.”

The couple has been encouraged by the sense of community and support they’ve received.

“In the military, that is what you strive for,” Matt said. “To be able to get that in a community that isn’t the military is amazing.”

“We’re not afraid of the hard work,” Emely said. “Our goal is to be able to work from home and provide the love and the informa­tion to people. We have the plan and the dream. We’re ready.”

Supporting new neighbors

Matt and Emely are helping the Center for Rural Affairs and Legal Aid of Nebraska plan “Answering the Call: Veteran Farmer Confer­ence” in June 2017.

Note for 2018: The conference is scheduled for Saturday, March 24, in Hastings, Neb. Click here for more information, or contact Cora at coraf@cfra.org or at 402.687.2100 ext. 1012.

Feature photo:  Matt and Emely Hendl have settled in the Utica, Neb., area, and, with the help of their mentors, plan to offer agritourism and education to others. For now, they are renting a house in town, with the Utica sign in their front yard. They are also helping the Center for Rural Affairs plan an inaugural Veteran Farmer Conference set for June. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about Top 5 of 2017: Veteran farmer homesteads with a kick

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Will Iowans Prevent Solar Tax Credit from Fading Away?

By Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - Iowa

Just as Iowa's crops require sunshine to grow, clean energy advocates say so does the state's economy. 

Part of the solar production tax credit for large utility-scaled projects expired last year. And, given Iowa's $133 million budget shortfall, there are concerns that state lawmakers will also allow the credit for small-scale and residential solar installation to fade away. 

Katie Rock, a policy associate with the Center for Rural Affairs, notes the state invested nearly $16 million in the credit between 2012 and 2016, leveraging more than $123 million in private solar energy system investment. 

"This is a fairly small tax credit,” she states. “It's only like $4 or $5 million. So, it's something that Iowa can afford in return for more growth in renewable energy. Iowa has been a longtime leader in renewable energy, and we just want to continue that for the state."

According to Rock, solar job growth topped 60 percent in Iowa from 2015 to 2016, and the industry statewide now includes more than 560 full-time workers in 45 different companies. 

Rock says solar energy is spurring innovation and returns in rural areas, as farms and businesses invest in solar installations as a way to cut costs. 

"You drive around rural Iowa, you can see some of these installations, right next to the Hach building and the farm operations,” she points out. “And the top county in Iowa for solar jobs is actually O'Brien County in northwest Iowa. So, farms and businesses are a huge part of driving this growth in solar energy."

Rock notes Iowa currently gets more than one-third of its electricity from wind power. With continued growth, she's convinced that advances in solar power could push Iowa to over 50 percent renewable, clean energy.

Feature photo: Adobe Stock Read more about Will Iowans Prevent Solar Tax Credit from Fading Away?

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Building a self-sufficient food system for the Santee Sioux

By Mary Kuhlman, Nebraska News Service

Imagine having to travel 100 miles in order to get fresh, affordable food to your family's dinner table. That's life for a majority of Nebraska's Santee Sioux, as the nearest full service grocery store is an hour away. 

A report from the Center for Rural Affairs examines this problem, as well as other barriers to food access. 

Wyatt Fraas, assistant director of the Center’s Farm and Community Program, says that includes poverty and a lack of jobs.

"The Santee Reservation is like many reservations in the country and in fact, many rural communities where income is low and unemployment is high,” he points out. “So, having the money for food or for transportation to get food is a problem for many people."

Since 2015, the Center has worked with the Santee Sioux Reservation to research the food system and develop strategies to help the community move toward food sovereignty. Its report suggests increased public education, as well as creating better access points for local foods, such as mobile grocery stores, grocery co-ops and food hubs.

Fraas says interest in creating a self-reliant food system is growing among the Santee.

"After a few years of this garden and market activity people are becoming more aware of the possibilities of what they can do for themselves,” he relates. “This project and this report also help people to identify what they could do looking forward to improve the situation longer-term."

Fraas says there are also efforts to connect producers of locally grown foods to institutions on the reservation that already provide food to community members as part of their services. 

"Senior housing, the Women, Infant and Children's program, and the health center also has other special programs where they provide food or meals,” he states. “All those things could be really directed at providing particularly healthful, nutritious, fresh foods that are not really part of those programs at this point."

The report also suggests changes to land-use policies. The majority of Santee Sioux Nation cropland is rented to non-tribal farmers, and Fraas says the tribe could repurpose a portion of it as a cornerstone of a healthful, local food system. Read more about Building a self-sufficient food system for the Santee Sioux

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Municipal electric utilities can be independent

When it comes to rural development, the town of Bloomfield, in southeast Iowa, is holding its own, and can act as a model for other municipal electric utilities.

A 2014 study concluded Bloomfield (population 2,643) could become energy independent in its use of electricity by 2030. The city council is now pursuing a combination of efficiency upgrades and investments in clean, renewable energy.

In the study, six strategies are summarized to achieve energy independence. The first strategy focuses on implementing a comprehensive set of energy efficiency programs that would reduce electricity use by 23 percent over 10 years. The next set of strategies would use diesel generators and other equipment to help reduce peak loads. The remaining strategies outline how Bloomfield could achieve 50 percent, 75 percent, or 100 percent of its electricity through solar and wind.

For 100 percent independence, Bloomfield would need to add 11,400 kilowatts (kW) of solar power, two large wind turbines, and 130 kW of microturbines over 10 years.

The installation of wind and solar power generation would bring an estimated $35 million of investment and new jobs in construction and maintenance of projects.

Bloomfield offers an alternative to rural development that combines community engagement with investments leading to broad savings and environmental benefits for the public, including property owners, residents, and schools.

Your town could also strive for energy independence while offering the benefits of small town living. Read more about Municipal electric utilities can be independent

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Women’s Learning Circle Spotlight: Crystal Powers utilizes land

This is the second of two case studies we completed on our Women's Learning Circles. Check out the one page case study here.

Crystal Powers’ motivation for farming is to help people restore the land through sustainable agriculture.

“The combination of doing something for my local community from a food standpoint and also utilizing farm ecosystem services, like bringing clean water, clean air, and beauty to the community, is the whole package for me,” she said.

An environmental engineer by trade, Crystal gained an interest in agriculture during college. Initially, she wanted to establish a dairy, however, through schooling, found potential to impact the land at the same time.

Today, she owns and operates a dairy, Darby Springs Farm, with her husband, William. The Ceresco, Nebraska, farm has an on-site creamery and pastured poultry. Perennial fruits and nuts are grown to add diversity. Though this may sound like a standard dairy, the business owner prides herself on using sustainable farming practices to run her operation.

There are five Guernsey cows on the farm, and the owners hope to get more. The cattle are 100 percent grass-fed, and are rotated through pastures to give the grass time to recover after each grazing period. Milking starts in late spring, and lasts through the end of the year, which gives the cows, and farmers, time to recover during the cold months when the grass is dormant. Calves nurse from their mamas, and stay with them in the pastures to learn how to graze.

The farm is a permanent home to 100 laying hens, and 300 to 500 meat chickens each summer. For variety, Crystal has added hogs, and may bring on sheep in the future.

According to the dairy farmer, hogs can be hard on a pasture and need shade; however, they eat any leftover skim milk, so they add value to the farm. Sheep contribute by grazing down kochia plants better than the cattle are able to.

“We are trying to experiment and figure out how we can manage what could be a problem; whether it’s waste from the creamery, weeds in the pasture, fly management, etc.,” Crystal said.

Darby Springs Farm is part of the Rock Creek saline wetlands. The pasture slopes down into the wetlands, with two definite springs and hundreds of feet of seeps. These wetlands are home to a diverse group of insects, wildlife, and native plants, and also provide water to the livestock.

The business owner finds ways to utilize the land to her advantage, rather than changing it for more convenient use. Since the farm is located in the wetlands, it floods frequently; however, the cattle eat the natural grass in the flooded areas and stand in the water to cool down.

Every aspect of the farm is utilized in multiple ways. Eggs are used in ice cream made in the creamery. Fruits and nuts flavor the ice cream. Chickens follow cattle in the pasture, eating fresh greens and insects, while also helping spread manure as they walk around scratching at the earth.

Chickens are also moved multiple times every day to fresh pastures, which allows them to eat natural foods like different grasses, weeds, and insects.

The philosophy at Darby Springs is simple, and consists of much love and attention paid to their livestock.

“Our principle is that nutrition starts in the soil and that we are what we eat,” Crystal said. “We invite people to experience with us the joy of good food grown with care, and to join us in nurturing our vibrant local food system.”

Crystal shares her experiences in the Center for Rural Affairs’ Women Learning Circles; peer group sessions that consider participants as the experts on their own production, farmland, and conservation needs. Information, experience, and resources are shared at each circle, allowing women to implement what they’ve learned into their own farm business or operation. In August, she invited fellow women to her farm and led her own learning circle.

"It was really rewarding learning from other women in a collaborative group,”  Crystal said. “Each woman brings her own knowledge, helping all of us see a fuller picture. For the session I led, there was no pressure to have all the answers with the learning circle. I could offer my knowledge and experiences and others could build on it and teach me even more.”

Feature photo: Crystal Powers (far right), co-owner and co-operator of Darby Springs Farm near Ceresco, Nebraska, gives a tour of their microcreamery at a Women's Learning Circle in August. She and her husband, William, received a $50,000 value-added grant in 2015 to create and expand their farmstead ice cream and milk caramel topping made from ingredients grown or produced on the farm. Their micro-creamery features a walk-through milking station and three separate rooms - one for milk, one for ice cream, and one for a store. Read more about Women’s Learning Circle Spotlight: Crystal Powers utilizes land

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Conservation Stewardship Program in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, and North Dakota

Working lands conservation programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, provide the necessary tools for farmers and producers to maintain agricultural production on their land, simultaneously addressing resource concerns within their operations. Funding and strengthening working lands conservation programs ensure farmers and producers are supported and rewarded for their environmental stewardship. Read more about Conservation Stewardship Program in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, and North Dakota

From the executive director: tax proposals put rural priorities at risk

As the hotly debated tax bills appear headed toward final votes in the House and Senate this week, the Center for Rural Affairs calls on members of Congress to send the bills back to committee for further debate. The Center opposed both the House and Senate versions of the bill.

In our review of the bills, a few of the provisions that will negatively impact rural people include:

Renewable energy credits targeted

The House bill directly cuts tax credits that help drive wind and solar energy development. The Senate bill makes a change to corporate income taxes that effectively does the same. Wind and solar energy are especially important economic drivers in rural America, and are critical to a clean energy transition. It is short sighted to end tax credits that support this emerging industry.

Tax cut for the wealthiest estates

Under current law, a married couple can pass on $11 million of assets in their estate without paying any estate tax. The Senate bill doubles the exemption to $11 million per person and $22 million per couple. Even under current law, only 0.2 percent of estates pay the estate tax. Just 28 estates in our home state of Nebraska were subject to any estate tax in the last year. Congressional leaders tout the estate tax roll back as a boon for small businesses and family farmers. In fact, it is a cut for the wealthiest individuals.  

Tax bill triggers automatic cuts

Under budget sequestration rules, if the proposed tax bills go into effect and Congress takes no other action, countless federal programs could see budget cuts as soon as 2018. For example, $3.86 billion would be cut from farm bill programs including cuts to conservation, beginning farmer, and small town infrastructure programs.

Health care programs targeted

The Senate bill could trigger $25 billion in cuts to Medicare. Furthermore, by ending the individual mandate for health insurance, it is expected that 13 million low-income Americans will drop health coverage, leading to major reductions in tax credits designed to help working adults afford health insurance.

Cuts to corporate income tax permanent; cuts for individuals temporary

The Senate bill would cut corporate income taxes from 35 percent to 20 percent. Proposed cuts for real people are weighted in favor of high income households. Furthermore, cuts for real people would expire after 2025 while corporate tax cuts remain in place, permanently.

These are just a few of the provisions in the two bills that would affect rural people and small towns.

Given our concerns, we urge Congress to return the bills to the respective tax writing committees. The current bill was hastily written and benefits the very richest individuals and corporations too much, while doing too little for everyday people and small town development.

There are innovative changes to our tax code worth considering. The Center supports proposals that use the tax code to promote investment in employer-owned small businesses, beginning farmers, and small town infrastructure. Returning the bills to committee will allow for a more robust public debate and consideration of these ideas.

We will continue to monitor and report on changes to these bills, as well as project the impact of any legislation that does pass. Read more about From the executive director: tax proposals put rural priorities at risk

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Women’s Learning Circle Spotlight: Erin Schoenberg’s philosophy is that nutrition starts in the soil

This is the first of two case studies we completed on our Women's Learning Circles. Check out the one page case study here.

Erin Schoenberg, and business partner, Margaret Milligan, used their knowledge of growing produce, vegetables, and herbs to launch their business, The Darlin’ Reds.

Located northwest of Lincoln, Nebraska, the small, diverse vegetable farm provides healthy, fresh, and clean produce to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), local restaurants, and grocery stores.

The women started the venture while working full-time off the farm, and found land to rent through existing contacts. Their landlords wanted to help beginning farmers and entrepreneurs, which was a perfect fit.

“We wanted to grow in the same way we wanted to consume,” Schoenberg said. “Our goal was to use our personal experience growing vegetables to help us farm specialty crops.”

The duo spent extra time and care to make sure only sustainable farming practices were used. Conservation was a priority.

“In a world of mass-produced, globally-sourced materials, we strived to show our community just how good local food can be,” Schoenberg said. “Growing good food is a passion and addiction for us.”

Farming methods included careful planning, crop rotation, and cover crops. Soil amendments, such as using manure to improve soil quality and overall plant health, were also utilized. The farmers do not use synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or genetically engineered seeds.

When The Darlin’ Reds began, Schoenberg’s full-time job was with the Center for Rural Affairs, which gave her much-needed support. She and Milligan also received a microloan from the Farm Service Agency, which helped pay for a hoop house, tractor, and tiller. The owners networked with other women at the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society’s young farmer nights.

For four years, The Darlin’ Reds sold produce wholesale to restaurants and farmers markets, and hired an employee for two seasons. Volunteers were paid in produce.

In late 2016, the two women decided to discontinue the business. Though Schoenberg says she and Milligan were great business partners, and the business was financially successful, they were not ready to commit to farming for the next 20 years of their non-professional lives.

“We couldn’t find balance,” she said. “We were definitely overdoing it. It was hard to maintain sanity and be productive, and hard to stay focused on our other jobs.”

The business owners share their experiences with others – what worked and what didn’t work. Schoenberg took part in the Center’s Women’s Learning Circles; peer group sessions that consider participants as the experts on their own production, farmland, and conservation needs. Information, experience, and resources are shared at each circle, allowing women to implement what they’ve learned into their own farm business or operation.

Eventually, Schoenberg became a Farmer Leader at the learning circles, where she educated other women about agriculture by sharing her own experiences.

“It's boundlessly good for the brain to be exposed to something outside the norm and for us to have conversations with people whose challenges may mirror or completely differ from our own,” she said. “Bonus points for getting to catch up with my neighbors.”

Though The Darlin’ Reds venture didn’t last, Schoenberg remains active in local agriculture, and as a leader in the Center’s Women’s Learning Circles.

“We couldn’t make a living [on a vegetable farm] by year three, like we had hoped,” Schoenberg said. “Be realistic and focus on your business. It’s really important people understand farming is all-consuming. Have a good understanding of what it will take; know you are committed and dedicated; be serious about it, or don’t bother.”

Feature photo: Erin Schoenberg, second from left, talks turkey production with Latino farmers while leading a farm tour. Read more about Women’s Learning Circle Spotlight: Erin Schoenberg’s philosophy is that nutrition starts in the soil

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Local FARMS Act feeds rural economies

Where our food comes from matters – for our health, for the vitality of our communities, for our wallets, and for the environment. One of the Center for Rural Affairs’ goals is to connect the local people who grow and make food with the local people who eat it.

We work to bring together farmers and consumers through community food systems and farm to school projects, providing workshops, webinars, and technical support. We have long supported local foods as an economic development tool in rural communities, working with community leaders to build healthy, sustainable, local food systems.

Recently, the Local Food and Regional Market Supply Act (The Local FARMS Act) was introduced in both the Senate (S. 1947) and the House (H.R. 3941). Through an investment in programs and policies that spur economic development, the act prioritizes the development of new markets for farmers and expanded healthy food access for American families.

Findings from the Agricultural Census in 2007 and 2012 show that farmers who market food directly to consumers have a greater chance of remaining in business than similarly sized farms that market through traditional channels.

In 2015, more than 167,000 U.S. farms produced and sold food locally through food hubs and other intermediaries, direct farmer-to-consumer marketing, or direct farm to retail. Those sales resulted in $8.7 billion in revenue for local producers.

We stand with Congressional sponsors in calling for this critical investment in our food and farm future. The Local FARMS Act should be included in the 2018 farm bill. Read more about Local FARMS Act feeds rural economies

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Weekly column

Iowa cover crop incentive: "A step in the right direction"

By Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - Iowa

Planting cover crops now could save Iowa farmers money in the future. 

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship recently kicked off a three-year project aimed at increasing acres of cover crops and improving water quality in the state. 

Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union Aaron Lehman, says the program offers a $5-per-acre premium reduction on 2018 crop insurance for farmers who have fall-planted cover crops with a spring-planted cash crop.

"It doesn't pay for the entire cost of a farmer using cover crops but it's a step in the right direction and it's first of its kind,” Lehman states. 

“There is no other incentive like this in the entire country, so we're really happy that the state of Iowa is breaking ground on this new incentive."

Lehman notes that the incentive provides good support for those just starting cover crops, and adds that over time farmers find ways to save money and increase yields. 

The USDA Risk Management Agency is offering the funding as an additional insurance premium discount through the regular crop insurance process. Applications will be accepted through Jan. 15.

The project is part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative, which aims to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff by 45 percent. 

Lehman says it's a win-win for farmers, since crop insurance provides income stability and cover crops improve land resiliency.

"Cover crops retain the nutrients in the soil during the late fall, early spring period, and that's extremely important to improve Iowa's waterways,” he states. “In addition to that, it helps the farmers' fields by improving soil health, eliminating soil erosion, helping deal with compaction issues."

Lehman says cover-crop seeding dates have been extended, and as harvest comes to a close, farmers are encouraged to continue seeding winter-hardy cover crops to provide protection from the elements this spring.

Feature photo: Cover crops on a field in Black Hawk County, Iowa. | Photo by Lynn Betts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Read more about Iowa cover crop incentive: "A step in the right direction"

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