UNADILLA, Neb. — It’s midmorning at Orchard Hill Creamery, which means it’s time for 9-year-old Alexander Chisholm to feed the calves.
The blond boy reaches through the slats of a metal gate, and the Jersey and Jersey-Normandy calves, in hues of chocolate, spotted tan and chestnut brown, trot toward him, their deep, round eyes unblinking and curious.
There’s Floyd, Honey and Nutmeg, Alexander tells me. There’s Pumpkin and Cupcake. The calves busily slurp away at the oversize bottles tucked in Alexander’s elbows.
It’s just another day at this small farm outside Lincoln, one of more than 30 that work with a local food hub, Lone Tree Foods, to deliver milk, cheese and ice cream to area restaurants, including west Omaha’s Dante Ristorante.
In its first year of business, Lone Tree has gone from representing 11 local farms to close to 40. It connects those small farms to chefs and grocery stores and delivers fresh produce, meat, cheese and other items.
That list of farmers continues to grow as more restaurants broaden their focus on local ingredients because more customers demand it, chefs and farmers say.
Dante’s chef and owner, Nick Strawhecker, has been working with Lone Tree — and serving Orchard Hill’s milk — for about a year. He has a weekly phone call with Erin Schoenberg, Lone Tree’s sales manager, to run through what ingredients the food hub will deliver to his kitchen each week.
Unlike the many farmers Strawhecker works with outside of Lone Tree, he’d never met the owner of Orchard Hill Creamery. He’d never visited The Edible Source, which provides Dante with mixed greens and celery, or the Abie Vegetable People, who stock his kitchen with kale.
“I’m super proud to be serving their stuff,” Strawhecker said. “I wanted to see their places and meet the people.”
So he asked Schoenberg to set up a farm field trip to visit the farms and meet the farmers who grow what his diners eat. She agreed, and they invited me to ride along and visit four farms sending all sorts of local food throughout Nebraska thanks to Lone Tree: Orchard Hill near Unadilla; The Edible Source in Lincoln; Abie Vegetable People in Abie; and Schoenberg’s own operation, The Darlin Reds, in Lincoln.
At Orchard Hill, Laura and Andy Chisholm raise cows on 160 acres of land. They sell cheese, milk, yogurt and ice cream; just this fall they launched a cheese-of-the-month club. Strawhecker and other chefs — including Paul Urban, co-owner and chef at Block 16 — like the Chisholms’ milk because it’s close to half and half in its texture and is rich with flavor.
Laura Chisholm took us on a stroll around the property, where we spotted cats, dogs, chickens and one very portly hog. The cows are tame, and as we walked through the Chisholms’ pasture, they strolled toward us and let us touch their wet noses and broad backs. Each of the 32 cows has a name — “whoever finds the calf names the calf,” Laura Chisholm said.
Andy Chisholm, originally from Bath, England, milks the cows each morning beginning at 8 a.m. and wraps up around 11. “Some cows take three minutes,” he said, “and some take 25.”
The couple have five children; all have been home-schooled, including their oldest, who is now 22. They help on the farm between lessons.
Laura Chisholm started making cheese in 2011, and the family moved to its current location in 2012. The Chisholms finished building the on-site creamery in 2013.
Now their small country store sells a variety of hard and soft cheese, homemade yogurt, milk and ice cream. Laura Chisholm began by making cheese for her family, and then taught herself to make ricotta and cream cheese. Eventually she got more adventurous, creating a sweet blueberry and yogurt compote, a mild blue cheese and a fromage blanc.
French cheeses, she says, are her true passion.
“Most creameries have four or five cheese, and that’s it,” she said. “I’m just not cut from that cloth. I’m always looking for something new.”
After the farm field trip, Strawhecker asked Laura Chisholm to make him burrata, an Italian cow’s milk cheese, which she’s still working on.
“I felt comfortable to ask her to give it a go after we visited,” he said.
That kind of connection between farmer and chef is what Lone Tree Foods hopes to foster.
Lone Tree is farmer-owned and -operated. The three owners, who are also producers and sell products through the hub, are Ben Gotschall of Davey Road Ranch; Mark Roh of Abie Vegetable People; and Justin Jones of Jones Produce, which is in Crete.
The three started the business because they saw the need for local food in grocery stores and restaurants, and they were part of a discussion among other farmers about how to make that happen. The company is now a farmer-owned, for-profit LLC.
Customers shop through Lone Tree’s website, which provides descriptions and photographs of the food the hub will have each week. Among the products Lone Tree regularly stocks and delivers to restaurants are beef, bison, chicken, turkey, lamb, grains, dried and fresh mushrooms, milk, cheese and a vast variety of produce.
Farmers don’t pay to join Lone Tree. Instead, the service charges its buyers a small fee.
Before Schoenberg started working for Lone Tree this past January, farmers like the Chisholms had to make their own deliveries to Lone Tree customers. Schoenberg and her husband, Chris, now pick up product at centralized locations and do the deliveries to Lincoln and Omaha on a weekly basis.
“Now the restaurants see one person through the door making deliveries each week versus a bunch of people,” Schoenberg said. That’s easier on the farmers, too.
Iowa has many businesses similar to Lone Tree, and Nebraska has two others: Tomato Tomato, a west Omaha business that sells directly to customers and through an indoor farmers market, and the Nebraska Food Cooperative, a co-op that delivers to locations around Nebraska, including Tomato Tomato.
Strawhecker said he wastes very little of what he gets from Lone Tree farmers.
“We find a use for everything,” he said. “And everything has a better shelf life when it’s picked to order and not on a truck from California.”
Urban, who co-owns Block 16, gets all his beef through Lone Tree — from Davey Road Ranch, a small operation in Raymond.
Without Lone Tree, he said he probably wouldn’t work with Davey Road or many of the other small farms that supply the restaurant with produce, dairy products and vegetables.
“I would give Lone Tree a lot of credit for that,” he said.
Roh, one of Lone Tree’s founders, said times have changed for small farmers in Nebraska.
“It’s been in people’s heads that you can’t grow vegetables in Nebraska,” he said, “but you can. We’re growing amazing, flavorful stuff.”
The harder part for many farmers, he said, is making the connections to sell the crops.
“No one has a contract,” he said. “It’s more of a relationship game.”
That’s where Lone Tree becomes essential, Schoenberg said. As long as local chefs and customers are after their crops, there’s work to be done.
“It’s all driven by shoppers and diners and chefs,” she said. “Everyone wants more local.”