Back in November 2013 I jotted down a list of some of my favorite restaurants in Omaha, Nebraska. The restaurants were established within the four years I have been living in Omaha, and they became my favorite places to dine in and take family and friends to. The fifteen or so establishments I wrote down were also places where I felt I was supporting entrepreneurs who have since became friends, and, among others, included Culprit Café (1603 Farnam Street), Kitchen Table (1415 Farnam Street), Lot 2 (6207 Maple Street), Block 16 (1611 Farnam Street), and The Grey Plume (220 South 31st Avenue #3101).
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Of only fifteen species of cranes in the world, just two species occur in the western hemisphere: the sandhill crane, which is the most numerous, and the whooping crane, the rarest. Why have the two North American species experienced such different recent fates? We know that the sandhill crane is perhaps the oldest crane species on earth. Their bones have been immortalized in stone for six million years. Secondly, this crane has evolved characteristics beneficial to prairie life and has adapted to farming practices that have replaced the historic native prairies of North America.
However, the whooping crane, who is not even a close relative of the sandhill crane, is decidedly dependent on wetlands, both freshwater and coastal fringe habitats. As conversion of prairie potholes to agricultural lands progressed across the continent, habitat for whooping crane was lost and resulted, along with hunting pressure, in a significant decline for the species.
This essay begins a series of pieces by Peter Carrels called “Seeds of Wisdom,” with the goal of providing environmental and other insight by farmers and ranchers on what they do: farming and ranching.
Jim Kopriva and his son Lee ranch in the hill country of northeastern South Dakota, a unique area geomorphologists call the “Coteau des Prairies,” or prairie hills. This hummocky topography rises sharply above the level James River lowlands to the west and the Minnesota and Red River lowlands to the east. Scientists say that although glacial ice sheets overrode this highlands region, its stature was sufficiently influential to deflect the main masses of ice, creating calmer landscapes flanking the coteau. Up on the hills, where the Koprivas run four hundred head of Black Angus cattle on almost three thousand acres of grass and prairie, the land is decently fertile, but it also contains enough rock and roll to have dissuaded grain farming until recently.
When wild birds fill the skies above south-central Nebraska each spring, their voices seem to echo across the past and carry the memory of countless, massive migrations that once characterized the Great Plains.
What might northbound birds have seen from above as they flew into this region? To migrating ducks, geese and cranes, the Rainwater Basin must have looked like a watery paradise: From western horizon to east, thousands of wetlands, large and small, glittered in a vast prairie. Ahead, in the distance, was the long curve of the Platte River, flowing toward the sunrise.
When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water. —Benjamin Franklin
Irrigation accounts for 95 percent of the water used in Nebraska. Most of this water is groundwater pumped from aquifers and used for growing corn and beans. Nebraska has approximately ninety-five thousand irrigation wells and nine million irrigated acres, the most of any state. Irrigation continues to grow, and since 2008, over four thousand new irrigation wells have been registered within Nebraska. Although there are no exact numbers available, irrigation pumping in Nebraska uses millions of acre-feet of groundwater each year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre one foot deep).
An empty two-acre lot near the corner of 40th and Old Cheney in Lincoln, Nebraska, is transforming. A gift of Southern Heights Presbyterian Church, this previously farmed land will go back to its roots and feed the Lincoln community—both figuratively and literally.
The space—Southern Heights Food Forest—will include over fifty Community Crops gardens, an urban agriculture plot, a Nature Explore outdoor classroom, and Nebraska’s first food forest. The organizers believe the SHFF will become much more than the sum of its parts; they aim to create a space in which families gather together to build relationships, where children can play freely while learning about nature, and where individuals teach each other about growing, harvesting, and celebrating food.
Our discovery of a white oak grove required of us considerable wandering. They were not the trees we had been looking for; those had been mutilated by a county right-of-way edict. But our grove of fifty or so trees was safe in a savanna adjacent to a narrow farm lane that had been either spared or forgotten by the chainsaw gang. The corridor that had been so savagely cleared might have been overlooked as well, as it was remote and rarely traveled. But the possibility that one day this road would see heavy traffic outweighed the rarity of a white oak stand in the eyes of the authorities.
For Nebraskans, trying to decide where to go birding in the spring is like trying to decide between chocolate and strawberry ice cream. The Platte Valley, with its amazing numbers of cranes and waterfowl, is virtually my second home during March, but that has not prevented occasional trips to other locations having other attractions. Over the years I have made birding trips to nearly all the great birding places of the Great Plains between North Dakota and Oklahoma, with occasional forays beyond. Here, I suggest several of my favorite sites, choosing one each for Nebraska and four of its adjoining states. All five sites are within four hundred miles of Lincoln or Omaha, and nearly all (with one exception) have the highest published number of spring bird species so far reported for any location in that state. All are national wildlife refuges, having (with one exception) free public access, and all have seasonally specific bird lists. All have headquarters that provide toilet facilities and varying degrees of information on the natural history and biological diversity of the site. Numbers of bird species mentioned below are based on the most recent information that I have, but some are no doubt out of date by now and the totals should be considered as minimums.
Chile is a fascinating environment in which to study beekeeping. The South American country is often referred to as an “ecological island”— an area of land isolated by natural barriers, which allows for a large amount of “endemism” or development of special plants in each place. As a result, Chilean apicultural (honey) production is characterized by a great variety of specific types that are derived from unique native flora; products that can be found nowhere else on earth.
Yet in just about every small town in Chile, you find nothing but humble plastic containers of generic honey. A kilo sells for about 2,500 pesos, or five dollars USD. This product looks the same everywhere, with cartoonish bees and the word Miel. But it has no date, no location, no information to distinguish it as a special product.
Each year, OCIA (Organic Crop Im_provement Association) Research and Education names a “Farmer of the Year” to recognize talented producers who certify to the OCIA’s level of excellence. The 2014 Farmer of the Year award went to Bernard and Sharon Kavan.
OCIA is an international charitable organization created in 2003 by certified organic members of OCIA International, a global leader in organic certification. OCIA Research and Education’s mission is to support organic research; facilitate connections between farmers, researchers, consumers, and decision-makers; and educate producers and communities regarding organic farming and foods.
More than nine hundred Nebraska high school students from more than fifty schools across the state have started thinking about their own personal finances and their financial futures through a free program announced less than a year ago by the Nebraska State Treasurer’s Office.
The program, called Nebraska NEST Financial Scholars, is part of an initiative by the Treasurer’s Office to promote financial literacy education for high school students and to increase awareness of the state-sponsored 529 college savings program known as the Nebraska Educational Savings Trust (NEST).
Arguably, the single greatest accomplishment of the Nebraska Farmers Union has been our founding of the vast majority of the co-ops of this state. Creameries and grain elevator cooperatives dominated early days, but through the 1920s and ’30s and on, nearly anything families needed to farm or ranch, fuel, garden, or keep house was available through some nearby local or through the Farmers Union State Exchange stores in Omaha and across the state. No-frills warehouses, the exchanges prefigured modern big-box stores—but the profits were returned to the patrons instead of to outside investors like Wal-Mart today. The success of the cooperative model operated exactly upon the principles of ordinary business in the economy of the time, as today, with this single great exception—no untoward profit had (or has) to be generated. Each cooperative was created to serve its patrons, ordinary people who owned it through investment and patronage.
Along with the inequality in income in this country, which is becoming a bigger and bigger issue, as it should, we all need to be aware of the coming retirement crisis. Several things have caused this crisis. The conning of defined benefit pension plans being replaced with defined contribution plans—401(k)—is a disaster that seems to have sneaked up on us; however, we all should have seen it coming. Increasingly, corporate America has discontinued the pension plans worked so hard for in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s by the labor movement. Remember the three-legged stool CWA and AFL-CIO always talked about for retirement? One leg a pension, another leg Social Security, and the third leg personal savings, including 401(k)s. More and more, the leg of pension is being kicked out from under workers.
Again this morning I heard one of the talking heads, sometimes called political experts, say that the government in Washington is broken. (By the way, if you look up the parts of the word “expert” in the dictionary, you will find that ex means “has been” and spurt is “a drip under pressure,” and that seems to fit admirably.) I would agree that it isn’t working as envisioned by the founders of this great nation, but I prefer to think that it is like a very complex piece of equipment that continually has new parts inserted in the “system,” and, although intended to make the machine run like new, they don’t always accomplish that. It is easy to blame the mess on “those people in Washington,” but that is not where the real fault lies. The fault lies with the people who “buy” those parts—the members of Congress and the president and the Supreme Court. I use the term “buy” intentionally because, unfortunately, that is really how most of those parts are obtained and sent to Washington.