It's 82 degrees before 9 a.m., and Ali Clark wants to get the morning harvest done.
Ali, Matt Cronin and Dan Egan, all members of the Omaha farming collective Big Muddy Urban Farm, met me on a plot of land near the busy corner of 33rd and California Streets, adjacent to California Taco and the Shelterbelt Theatre, to bundle thick kale leaves and pluck pattypan squash from creeping vines.
We hustled to 18th Street and Fowler Avenue, past shuttered buildings, around city buses and down a deserted dirt road to gather bins of red, orange and yellow heirloom tomatoes.
Ali, Matt and Dan slurped coffee from a huge Mason jar as we drove through north Omaha to the third stop, a plot near 48th and Sahler Streets, where we got wet and dirty pulling and cleaning beets. Nearly everything we harvested that morning would be taken home that afternoon by Big Muddy's Community Supported Agriculture customers. The market where the customers pick up their food is a block from where most of it grows, in the heart of the Gifford Park neighborhood.
These kids look nothing like traditional farmers, aside from the dirt under their fingernails. But Ali, Matt and Dan, who are all 24 years old, and the other 20-somethings who are part of Big Muddy Urban Farm have set up their agriculture business in some of Omaha's most diverse, urban neighborhoods. They sell local food raised using organic practices to customers each week, help other young Omaha urban farmers get started and do more than their fair share of community outreach with hundreds of school kids from all over the city.
They do more than just grow food. They aim to harvest change.
“The spots where they are gardening have never been positive,” said Martin Janousek, who is a partial owner of the land where the 33rd and California Street garden is now. “It's been negative for years and years. The attention the garden has gotten from the street has been positive. That's what's been good about it.”
Big Muddy Urban Farm started as an idea between friends.
Ali met her future collective partners in late 2011, when she moved to Omaha from Milwaukee.
She met Dan and Matt her first day in town, and Dan invited her to a potluck at his house. He lived with two more soon-to-be friends, Caitie Caughey and Tyler Magnuson.
Those five, along with one more friend, Brent Lubbert, were all interested in community involvement and sustainable living. They started throwing around the idea of a CSA.
“We thought about what it would look like,” Ali said. “We started seeds for plants before we even had a plot to plant them on.”
The group of friends created a general partnership, got insured, registered their name and created a website and a Facebook page. They did it all without a loan, instead funding their business by getting CSA subscribers. They found 24 people willing to buy into their urban farming plan for $300 each in return for weekly produce deliveries once the crops were ready.
They got the first piece of land near 33rd and California in 2012. In exchange for the rent-free use of the land, Big Muddy told the land owners — Martin Janousek, Rob Janousek and Chris Foster — that they would sell vegetables at the weekly Gifford Park Neighborhood Market, which they still do now, every Friday evening during the season. Though the crops aren't certified organic, the collective uses organic farming practices and raises the produce without pesticides or synthetic chemicals.
They got more land, including a spot in the Gifford Park Community Garden on 34th and Cass, which Foster manages. Another on the corner of 33rd and Webster, which the Janousek brothers also own. They also have plots at 48th and Sahler inside the Sahler Street Community Garden, on 27th and Dewey, 18th and Fowler and 60th and McKinley. In the first year, the collective ran the plots as a group. Then, after Caitie and Tyler had a child and moved to Lincoln, they reorganized and each collective member took the helm of one plot, planting it, tending, watering and eventually harvesting.
The first year, challenges mounted. The crops got planted late. It barely rained in the summer of 2012. Some of their plots had bad soil, and bugs proved a nuisance. The members of the collective were also still trying to figure out how to organize their business and how to actually grow food.
They had to figure out how to efficiently move from site to site during the harvesting. And they had to figure out how and where to process their crops for the CSA — they now do that work in the back room of Jane's Health Market in Benson.
For two weeks during the 2012 CSA, the thin harvest meant Big Muddy didn't have as much produce to give to customers. Ali said the collective made up for that later in the season. This year, they've hit all their CSA goals.
The group maintained the same number of subscribers into year two — 24 — and many of the first-year subscribers returned.
Brenda Allen is one of the original subscribers to Big Muddy's CSA. Allen attended an event in Benson with some friends that turned out to be a fundraiser for the farm.
“When I found out one of the gardens is two blocks from my house, I was in,” Allen said. “I know where my food is growing. I can walk by it every day.”
Allen, who works for Guckenheimer, the food supplier for the Union Pacific dining room in its downtown headquarters, said she appreciates the diversity of the CSA deliveries — it introduced her to lacinato kale and pattypan squash. The CSA helped her meet a dietary goal to eat more vegetables, and she also appreciates Big Muddy's work in her neighborhood.
Big Muddy members lead activities for kids at the outdoor market, including yoga and outdoor games. They also work with school students from around the metro area.
I met members earlier this month when 57 12- and 13-year-old students from Millard Central Middle School's Montessori program worked on three of the Big Muddy plots hauling soil, weeding gardens and watering plants, among other activities.
Deanna Davis, one of the middle school teachers, said the kids worked that day as part of the school's commitment to service learning. But it was more than that.
“We really want them to see that you don't have to live in a rural area to farm, that you can farm in a city,” Davis said. “We want them to work and get their hands dirty.”
Brandon and Megan Sperry supervised another group of students at a plot at 33rd and Webster, where the kids helped paint a chicken coop and dig holes for fence posts.
The Sperrys, 24 and 23 years old, live in a duplex across the street from the land where they're building the chicken coop. Big Muddy added the Sperrys to its insurance and helped with some cash to build the coop and buy the heritage-breed chickens that will live in it; the couple will eventually become full members of the collective and provide their eggs to the CSA.
“I never thought I would farm in the middle of Omaha,” Megan said. “But the neighborhood is open to ideas and creativity, and we realized that we can start something here. It's an inspiring place to live.”
The Sperry's eggs, along with those from chickens at a second coop in the Gifford Park Community garden, will go into the CSA next year, its third.
Most of Big Muddy's subscribers pick up their CSA boxes at the Gifford Park Community Garden, which takes place Friday afternoons near 33rd and California. The Big Muddy table sells all the crops left over after its CSA orders are filled; on one recent week, the food for sale included tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, small green peppers and apples.
The members mill around the open lot where the market takes place, listening to the live music, talking to neighbors and selling vegetables.
The market is a big part of Big Muddy's connection to the neighborhood, Ali said. Next season, they won't look for more land, instead working to refine what they do on the land they already have. The collective will try to find other new, young farmers like the Sperrys. Making the collective do better than break even might be the biggest goal; right now, all of the members have outside jobs.
“Eventually,” Ali says, “we want to get paid for farming.”
Big Muddy sold its vegetables this spring to Kitchen Table, a new locally focused downtown Omaha restaurant, and Ali said the collective will sell crops to the restaurant again this fall.
The farm also works with Table Grace Cafe, a pay-what-you-can restaurant also downtown, but the arrangement is less traditional. When Big Muddy established its 2013 CSA, it gave members the chance to be part of a “community share CSA.” Members gave anywhere from $50 to $200 to support the community CSA; that money paid for the crops that the farm drops off each week at Table Grace, which then is used on its menu.
“The restaurant can reach an audience that we can't,” Ali said. “It takes away the exclusive nature of a CSA.”
Ali said it's a relationship she hopes to continue, and there's a chance the collective might expand its work with chefs and restaurants down the road.
Chris Foster, one of the landowners, said the most important thing to him and other neighborhood residents is the group's commitment. He cited a recent class Big Muddy led on seed saving. They lined up speakers, led a treasure hunt through the garden with children to find seeds and taught the adults how to tell what a good seed looks like. They made it fun.
“I don't know how many people could do that good of a job teaching about seeds,” he said, “without losing interest.”
He said he knows the young members might leave Omaha, or decide to do something else. Selfishly, he said, he hopes they stay right where they are.
“Their energy is exactly what the neighborhood needs,” he said. “Their perseverance is inspiring.”