Editor's note: This week we are profiling a few of the wonderful people we met at the 7th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Austin last month. More than 1,100 farm to cafeteria movers and shakers gathered for four days of inspiring field trips, workshops, keynotes and more. We are excited to share their stories.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Desiree and Calvin Wineland’s two young boys, Calvin and Austin, were in the Pentagon daycare center. They had arrived a week earlier because Desiree had been selected for an Army Congressional Fellowship. Both Desiree and Cal were helicopter pilots in the Army, but they never expected they would bring their kids anywhere near a battlefield. They all made it home safe that night, and while discussing the day’s events and the consequences that would surely follow, the Winelands made a solemn promise to their children that they would keep them out of harms way, and the middle of Nebraska, near where Cal's great-grandparents homesteaded, seemed like the place to do it. It would take a few years before they were able to retire and make their move.
Generations before, Cal’s family had made a similar journey, pushing west across the Great Plains, settling on the shores of the Republican River near Cambridge, Nebr., about 300 miles shy of the Rocky Mountains. It was here that Calvin, Desiree and their two kids would make a new life.
Once they had decided to move to Nebraska, Desiree began studying local history, trying to figure out what to do. She learned that early settlers planted grapes. The idea that they would be following in the steps of the pioneers appealed to them, and so did the idea of giving their friends a reason to visit rural Nebraska. But first, they needed to figure out how to grow grapes and make wine.
Wine making and grape growing involves a surprising amount of chemistry. Desiree commuted to Denver every weekend for a year to get certified through the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) and became involved with the American Chemical Society. As they learned more, they expanded their vision for the vineyard to include using it as a field lab for students. With approval from the local school district, they started teaching kids how to grow grapes, taking them through the process from soil samples through BRIX testing.
Another new venture
It takes grape vines 3-5 years to produce fruit after they are planted, so once the work of choosing the right grapes and establishing the vines was done, the Winelands needed another projects to keep them busy. While they now knew a lot about viticulture, all of their new friends were mostly interested in cattle, a topic Desiree knew nothing about. Their interest grew, however, and soon the Winelands enrolled in the University of Nebraska to become certified in all things beef.
As the Winelands learned more about agriculture and the dwindling incomes farmers face, they started to think of ways they could cut out the middle-men so that farmers could keep more of their own profits. Farm to school programs emerged as a great solution for produce, but because all meat processing is centralized, there were logistical hurdles to selling local beef to local schools.
Having hit a dead end, the Winelands needed a sign. A few nights later, they got one. A local preacher, Bill Weaver, came to the door of their farmhouse. He said that if they wanted to create jobs and support agriculture, he had a great opportunity. He started describing a facility that needed new management. It was a "locker," he told them. The only problem was that if this "locker" wasn’t part of a locker room at a gym, then Desiree had no idea what it was.
The following Monday, the Winelands travelled to the neighboring town of Beaver City to get their first look at the locker. It was a meat locker, and it was in a state of disrepair.
In the military, officers are constantly put into situations where they are totally unfamiliar with their surroundings. They are trained to learn quickly and rely on the expertise of people around them. Where many people would have walked away, the Winelands used their training to assess the situation, quickly realizing that the locker was the key to processing meat for local farmers and delivering it to local schools. They decided to set up shop, and American Butchers was established in April 2011.
A community focus
Instead of focusing on scale, they focused on the relationship they had with farmers. They established a set price for farmers to use the locker and encouraged farmers to sell their beef for whatever they could get, keeping the difference. That stood in stark contrast to the big corporate operations that buy cattle for rock bottom prices and churn out as much beef as they can, as quickly as possible.
In communities like Cambridge, Nebr., trust trumps money. Cal and Desiree set out to earn the trust of local farmers and ranchers by cleaning up their facility and establishing high standards. They also started working with schools, donating organs to biology classes and engaging with FFA and 4-H groups. They are currently working on a new program through which show animals raised by 4-H and FFA students will be purchased by local business leaders, processed, then sold to schools at a discount. Posters on the cafeteria wall will advertise the student's hard work: "Now serving Amelia's pork.
The Winelands have learned that there are many ways to start a farm to school program and many potential leaders. Sometimes the change-maker is the superintendent, sometimes it's the nutrition director, and sometimes it's the passionate owner of a meat locker.
We are showing kids how they can build businesses and how their English and business teachers can help them build business plans while their math teachers are helping with the finances," Desiree says. "There are setbacks and delays, but like plants or anything that grows, it takes a lot of elements working together. And it takes time.”
Through their efforts, the Winelands have won awards and have even been honored by the governor of Nebraska. But the highest honor they have received is the respect of the farmers and ranchers in their community. Desiree knew she had earned this respect on the day she received the simplest of invitations.
There's a table at Shirley K’s coffee shop in Cambridge where a group of farmers gather for coffee every day. Seats at this table are more coveted than seats on the city council. But recently, when Desiree dropped into Shirley K’s, one of the old men called her over and asked her to join them so they could hear about all about what she and Calvin had been up to. It’s hard to overstate this honor.
Meanwhile, the grapes that were planted in the spring of 2011 are growing. If all goes well, their first harvest will be in the summer of 2016. In the Army, Desiree would inspect her troops as they stood at attention to see how they were doing and to make sure they were mission-ready. Now she says that each one of the vines is like a formation of soldiers. She inspects them as she walks the fields – from top to bottom – correcting anything that is out of order.
After a career in the military where she always had a mission to accomplish, Desiree says she spent her first years in Nebraska searching for her next mission. "When I arrived, I was lost," she said. "But through agriculture I found a mission and my purpose. Agriculture saved me.”