ShadowBrook Farm’s family foundation

Kevin Loth watering sprouts, which are seeded and harvested weekly.
Photos by Steve Trusty.

One of the mainstays of the popular Omaha Farmers Market on Saturday mornings from early May through October is ShadowBrook Farms certified organic salad greens mix. Most days find a long line of customers quueed up with money in hand. The success is founded on a firm family belief in quality and customer service.

Owners Kevin Loth and Charuth Van Beuzekom met while in college at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was from Nebraska and had completed a year at Chadron State and had studied to become a construction management engineer at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He was drawn to the environmental studies program and the apprenticeship in ecological horticulture at UC Santa Cruz. After completing those programs, he spent several years working as farm manager for a grower who had taken on new production near Watsonville and Gilroy, Calif. Over the course of four years, Kevin helped expand the operation from 10 to 90 acres and from seven employees to 25. In 1996, still passionate about locally produced, sustainable agriculture and armed with first-hand experience on savvy and not-so-savvy marketing techniques, Kevin and Charuth, with their 8-month-old son Graydon in tow, headed to Nebraska, where his parents and other family members lived. With the backing of his parents, they were able to purchase 34 acres on the southwestern edge of Lincoln to start their own growing operation.

The growing

The Loths currently use 10 of their 34 acres for growing organic vegetables, herbs and flowers. The flowers take about 1 acre. They extend their growing season with two hoop houses that measure 20 feet by 192 feet and are strictly passive in heating and ventilation, and another 30-foot-by-96-foot house that can be heated and cooled with furnace and fans. The two passive houses were built from scratch at a cost of 70 to 80 cents per square foot. They also have a smaller, 25-foot-by-48-foot house purchased from Stuppy Greenhouse Mfg. in Kansas City, Mo., that is used primarily for seed germination and for growing sprouts for market. Propane is used for heating the two smaller houses; the others use sunlight only. As part of their commitment to sustainability, the Loths annually plant green manure crops on approximately one-third of their vegetable growing land. These crops help minimize erosion, while building soil organic matter by sequestering atmospheric carbon and adding fertility through the use of legumes such as clovers that fix atmospheric nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with rhizobium bacteria.

Crops in one of the hoop houses extend the season at ShadowBrook Farm near Lincoln, Neb.

Twelve acres of the 34 are planted in alfalfa overseeded in other forages for the rotational feeding of their dairy goat herd. The balance contains a milking parlor, the cleaning and packing area for the vegetables, storage and other outbuildings, a retail store and their home.

Crops are planted from seed, on-site, from early February into late fall. Some crops, such as the sprouts and salad greens, are planted and harvested weekly. Others, like tomatoes and peppers, are planted in stages and harvested over a period of time. Crops like summer and winter squash are planted once or over a short period of time and harvested as they ripen. Sprouts are grown on benches. Most of the other crops in the houses are grown directly in the ground. The Loths rely on the cover crops and compost from their 70 milking goats, a few beef cattle and plant waste and lime to maintain a good soil quality. Insect control utilizes a combination of healthy plants, Bt and other certifiably organic pesticides and row covers to exclude pests. Weed control is handled by timely cultivation, stale seedbed preparation, hoeing and flame and hand weeding. Most irrigation is drip on long-term crops, with overhead watering using 3-inch latch-style pipe for seedbeds and short-term crops. They have their own well on-site, with a 4-inch buried main and risers every 90 feet.

Kevin Loth shows off some cucumbers growing in one of the hoop houses.

The crops

ShadowBrook’s biggest seller each week is its salad mix, containing a mixture of several different varieties of red and green lettuce, romaine lettuce, radicchio, frisse, arugula and other baby mustard greens and kales. The mix changes with the season and always contains the best from the field that week. They usually sell about 350 pounds of the mix each week between the five farmers’ market stands they operate. It sells for $10 per pound and is washed thoroughly before sale; while they don’t specifically advertise it as such, it is ready to use. Other crops include several varieties of tomatoes, including heirlooms, pea and sunflower sprouts, scallions, garlic, basil, dill and other herbs, beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips, radishes, potatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, and summer and winter squash.

Lettuce and other salad greens are seeded in the field each week for continuous harvest.

Preparing for market

Harvesting begins in the early morning two days before a market. They start with the root crops that will hold up the longest and finish with the greens and sprouts, which have the shortest shelf life. All crops are taken into the converted dairy parlor and washed thoroughly in stainless steel former milk chillers. Everything is inspected and any unsalable items removed. The salad mix receives a double inspection. The packing area is constantly sanitized. They are currently using chlorine but looking forward to switching to hydrogen peroxide in the near future. Large commercial salad spinners remove excess moisture. The salad mix is placed in bags of six pounds each and then five of those bags are placed in a portable cooler; they have some larger coolers that will hold eight bags. The coolers are then placed in a converted beer cooler that has a maintained temperature of 36 to 38 degrees. By the night before a market, the cooler is usually packed full. Loth notes that the tighter the individual coolers are packed, the easier it is to maintain a constant temperature within them. On the other hand, if the walk-in cooler is packed too tightly it takes longer for the temperature to drop. An additional cooler is in their plans. They start loading the trucks for the respective markets at 4 in the morning.

The marketing

Most of their sales are conducted at five different farmers markets. They also have their own Country Market on site. In addition, ShadowBrook sells through a limited number of specialty grocery stores and supplies the Omaha Whole Foods Market with a few items. Customers can check the website, www.shadowbrk.com to see what will be available the coming week at any of the locations and for the current hours of their Country Market.

Kevin and Charuth in front of the sign on their farm near Lincoln, Neb.
Sprouts are seeded weekly for continuous harvest.

Their customer-friendly approach shines through in the modified Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program they offer. Customers can sign up for different levels from $100 to $1,000. By paying before March 1, they can receive a discount of up to 12 percent. After March 1, the top discount is 10 percent. Instead of a preselected box of produce, customers can choose what they want each week up to their contracted limit. Offerings aren’t limited to vegetables; CSA customers also can apply flowers and cheese selections to their balance. They can add to their investment at any time at the “After March 1” rate. This gives the consumer more flexibility and provides ShadowBrook more leeway if they should happen to have a crop failure like the hailstorm that struck early in 2010 and the rain that kept them from having a salad crop in early August 2010.

Besides ShadowBrook Farm, Kevin and Charuth have the 70 goats to milk twice a day as part of their Dutch Girl Creamery operation, the cattle to care for and a family to raise. They have also partnered with another farm couple and started Farmstead First to produce and market artisan cheeses. Samples offered at the markets encourage shoppers to try and buy. Total overall sales are in the neighborhood of $250,000.

The staff

The family is active at various levels. Besides Kevin and Charuth, 16-year-old Graydon, 14-year-old Tristan and 8-year-old Tucker also help out. Four full-time employees work in the field with an additional full-time intern in the summer. Three part-time employees help with harvest and preparation as needed. They have a regular group of 10 to 12 people that help with sales at the markets. These folks usually take some of their earned hourly rate in produce. Several of their team have been with them almost from the beginning.

Conclusion

With the attention to detail and the quality of product, it is no wonder that the ShadowBrook Farm stand at the various Lincoln and Omaha farmers markets usually has a long line of customers waiting their turn to select many delectable offerings for their upcoming meals.

The author is a longtime contributor to Growing based in Council Bluffs, Iowa.