Tamara Jones donned a long-sleeved plaid shirt and pulled a skittish rabbit from her cage. The doe was due for a weigh-in, and trying to kick her way out of it. Jones hugged the rabbit to her chest while instructor Patrick Duffy gave directions. “Like a football,” he said. “Put your hands under her feet. There you go.”
She eased the rabbit into a basket with a scale attached, held up by a classmate, and they marked the rabbit's progress: half a pound closer to her goal weight and the start of breeding season.
Elsewhere in the horticulture department's new farming complex on Metropolitan Community College's Fort Omaha campus, young chickens were eating romaine lettuce grown organically a dozen yards away, and bees were making honey in a new hive managed by students.
The animals are a vital, hands-on part of a new small-market farming program at Metro. In a state where big agriculture has always reigned, interest in smaller-scale urban agriculture is growing enough to warrant the program, said Kristina Engler, professor in the horticulture, land systems and management program.
In its first semester, 16 students have enrolled in the courses, which are specific to small-market farming. While some are taking a class as an elective, a career certificate or an associate degree is now available in the specialty for those who hope to start their own small farms.
“A lot of our students are interested in CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), raising their own chickens, going to farmers markets,” Engler said. “Once we give them the experience in this really hands-on, focused program, it would be enough for them to get their feet on the ground.”
Classes focus on small-animal husbandry, cultivating herbs, vegetables and fruits and understanding planning and food systems. Students will breed rabbits and pigeons, collect eggs from the chickens and honey from the bee hive.
In the aquaponics class, they'll learn to build a system to allow a tub full of tilapia and a rack of aquaponic greens to support each other. Much of the food grown and raised by students will then be used by culinary students at the Sage Student Bistro on campus.
The growth of smaller operations has been impressive in recent years, according to statistics from the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. Since 2000, the number of roadside farm stands has more than tripled to almost 150. Active farmers markets have doubled to more than 80, and individual produce growers selling their product have grown from 78 to 500.
The changes mean farmers markets that are much different than decades past, said Billene Nemec, coordinator of Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska.
“A farmers market here used to be a small gathering of people, all hoping for enough money to get gas to go back home,” Nemec said. “They're ag entrepreneurs now.”
The change has been driven by consumers who want more local, healthy choices and by young people getting into the farming world, she said.
That's why the only real growth in the number of new farmers in recent years has come from smaller operations, said Traci Bruckner, assistant director for rural policy at the Center for Rural Affairs.
The land and farm equipment required to join the dominant system of agriculture — mainstream, commodity growing — are expensive to purchase. But offering a niche product or direct-marketing to consumers is within reach for a beginning farmer, Bruckner said.
“There's definitely a greater opportunity for people to get started in ag by doing small-market farms,” she said.
Though some of the eight students enrolled in Metro's first animal husbandry class plan to pursue careers in urban farming, for Jones, it simply lines up with her interests. She likes to garden, has worked on farms and volunteered with CSAs. She started taking classes to learn more, but now she plans to complete a degree.
Kevin Grobeck, who has also enrolled in the small-market farming program, hopes he'll be able to grow his own food and build a career with what he learns.
“It's important for America right now to focus on environmentally friendly growing, and growing organically and raising small animals to support a family,” Grobeck said.