A Place at the Table
Embracing Rhizosphere Farm
Story and Photography by Alison Bickel
Very early each Saturday, May through October, you’ll find a familiar scene unfolding along 12th and Jackson streets in Downtown Omaha: farmers, food artisans and vendors setting up their stands and carefully unloading the goods of labor and love they’ve come to share with eager market shoppers at the Omaha Farmers Market. Looking down the rows of stands, one in particular catches the eye. Stacks of fresh herbs tied with string, baskets of salad greens, heads of romaine and French breakfast radishes are artfully styled in a manner reminiscent of European markets. The stand belongs to Matt and Terra Hall of Rhizosphere Farm, and for them, this Saturday morning scene is anything but routine. It marks their return to the market after a yearlong farming hiatus.
After years of working on an organic farm in Oregon, Matt and Terra returned to the Midwest to give their dreams of farming a chance. In 2009, on three acres of leased land in Waterloo, Nebraska, Rhizosphere Farm was launched. They chose to lease property, viewing it as an opportunity to see if they could be successful being farmers and growing food before making the investment to buy. Four years of working the rich soil of the Elkhorn Valley not only cultivated farming experience and bountiful harvests but a strong presence in the food community as well.
When asked how they were able to connect with the community and popular local restaurants such as Dante Ristorante Pizzeria, La Bouillon and the Grey Plume, Terra explains, “We were all starting out about the same time and were able to build business relationships that have been mutually inspiring.” Rhizosphere Farm’s presence in restaurants, along with successful weekend farmers markets and a popular community-supported agriculture program (CSA) helped cement their place as an active and important part of Omaha’s food culture and community.
Armed with their successful experience in Waterloo, they began the search for land—a permanent place of their own—where they could grow annual produce and, using permaculture design principles, create a sustainable and self-sufficient farm. The challenge became finding out how to put the next phase of their dreams into action.
Terra recalls, “It took us three years to find a financial institution and someone to give us a financial road map on how to get from point A to point B.” Financial plan in place, the focus turned to finding land, but as their lease was coming to an end in Waterloo, the search for land continued to come up empty. After weighing the risks and benefits, Matt and Terra made the decision to take a year off from farming. “It was a big gamble, but we knew there was a place for us, we just had to find it,” she shares about the agonizing decision to take a farming hiatus.
They moved in with family and continued to pursue their search with the bank and their realtor. Terra maintained her job at Trader Joe’s and picked up another serving at Dante Ristorante Pizzeria. Matt took contractor jobs.
Despite the farm’s absence during 2013, they maintained relationships and connections in the community. “We kept hearing how much we were missed from the market scene and our CSA, which was encouraging,” says Terra, who frequently ran into her former customers while working. When asked about their name remaining on Dante’s list of local purveyors during the hiatus, Terra smiles and says, “Chef Nick Strawhecker’s support was unwavering. He knew we’d be back.”
Finally, in late 2013, after finding a listing for land in the Loess Hills of Iowa, it seemed they may have, at last, found their home. Worth the wait, not only did the property site have a suitable home, the land was flat and had infrastructure in place including outbuildings and a chicken coop. Having looked at countless listings, Terra explains, “this is the last we looked at.” Land found, they moved quickly with only one month passing from the time they toured the Iowa property until it was theirs.
At this point, the real work began. First up was a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds, essential for “all the things we wanted to do to set the farm up right,” explains Terra. A lofty $11,000 goal was picked, with funds to be used for establishing the farm, building greenhouses, purchasing chicks, ducklings, bee hives and trees for an orchard. Contributions rolled in quickly and they met their goal 10 days before the end of the campaign. “The Kickstarter made it all feel bigger,” recalls Terra when asked about the immense community support. La Bouillon hosted a fund-raiser dinner for the farm, and a mention of Rhizosphere Farm’s CSA in the Omaha World Herald filled all available slots and created a waiting list.
So what’s next for Terra, Matt and Rhizosphere Farm? “A lot of work,” Terra laughs when posed this question. She describes their ambitious plans and progress: greenhouses are built, almost two full acres dedicated to annual
vegetables, deer fencing is in place, and a chicken coop has been filled with both chicks and ducklings. Looking farther ahead, there are plans for a “food forest,” using a permaculture concept, with pea shrubs, sugar maples, peach, apple, pear and plum trees, along with bees for honey and pollination. They also hope to obtain nonprofit status to enable further expansion into farmer education, an internship program and community class offerings about topics such as sustainable growth and permaculture.
For now, there is the daily work of the fields, wholesale deliveries to restaurants, the weekly CSA and farmers market to keep them busy. Although Rhizosphere Farm was gone for a year, it is clear that the food community of Omaha has saved them a place at the table.
Update: On Tuesday, June 3, 2014, severe thunderstorms rolled through eastern Nebraska and western Iowa bringing winds in excess of 80 mph and hail that ranged from golf-ball to baseball size. Rhizosphere Farm was one of many farms whose fields were devastated by damage. Once again, the support of the community rolled in. “We feel a deep responsibility to grow incredible food and bring it to the table,” says Terra Hall when asked about the work of replanting the fields. “The support we’ve received has been amazing.”
Alison Bickel is a freelance writer and photographer based in Gretna, Nebraska. Her images have appeared in cookbooks, on websites and national publications such as, Good Housekeeping, Go Gluten Free and Natural Solutions. To see more of Alison’s work, including her Farm-to-Table project, visit her blog at ThisHomemadeLife.com.