By Summer Miller
Photography by Dana Damewood
Inside the steel walls of an inconspicuous warehouse is the story of the Vetter family, who dedicated themselves to organic farming and manufacturing long before the word “organic” meant much to anyone.
The Vetter family business started as a small family farm called TheGrain Place, and has blossomed into a regional, national and international organic grain, legume and seed processing facility known as Grain Place Foods. It was one of the first in the region to serve small-scale organic growers by providing quality processing and distribution for organic whole grains. InNebraskaalone, it processes grains from 46 growers in 27 counties.
The road to this type of agriculture was slow, steady and purposeful. It began in the 1940s when Don Vetter was one of the first farmers inMarquette,Nebraskato use post-World War II chemical farming practices. Enticed by the prospect of high yields and stable growth, he accepted this new modern-farming approach as the best way to manage and maintain the family farm. Within five years his tone changed, and by 1953 Don became one of the earliest adopters of organic farming practices despite the harsh scrutiny of his peers.
“My dad has always been an observant man. He’s probably more observant than most. He spent his life in nature hunting and trapping. It’s probably how he survived the 1930s,” explained David Vetter, Don’s eldest son. “So it didn’t take too long for him to notice the impact that this new way of farming had on other species, crops and the environment as a whole.”
By the 1960s Don physically wasn’t capable of farming anymore, so he rented the land to a tenant farmer who agreed to avoid pesticides and herbicides. But he didn’t follow other organic practices such as crop rotation.
David eventually left the farm with the intention of becoming a physician. His desire to help others and improve their quality of life took a different path, however. He ended up earning a degree in agronomy and soil science from theUniversityofNebraska-Lincoln, followed by a Master of Divinity degree from the United Theological Seminary inDayton,Ohio. “Once I shifted from premed, my intention was always to do this kind of work,” explained David. “I always wanted to do what I am doing, but in a different context.”
David’s intention was to serve God through agriculture and economic development in church mission work, not necessarily through a private business. But God had other plans. By 1975, David returned toMarquetteto continue the family farm and diversify its offerings through manufacturing. One of the first orders of business was to convert it back to a true organic farm. “I knew when I returned to the farm that it was going to be organic,” said David. “There was no discussion there.”
David and Don worked together to convert and certify the 280-acre farm. The first parcel of land was certified organic in 1977, and the remainder in 1978. It was one of the first certified farms in the region. Because this predated the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s interest in organic certification in the 1990s and the 2002 National Organic Labeling Program, Don and David made sure that the agencies they used were audited and reviewed in order to uphold certain standards. Father and son are true pioneers for continuing standards of quality for organic farming practices—a theme that would continue throughout the development of Grain Place Foods.
Through David’s experience in community agriculture, he soon learned that many families were seeking organic grain products. David and his father set out to test and research varieties and options that would work well for the environmentally, healthconscious consumer. David also learned that many small organic growers were in need of quality processing options.
“The question I got from people was how to tap into an organic farm to get grains and beans for their diets,” said David. “My question then became, ‘How do we connect with those young families that were interested?’ Most people asking the questions back then were in their mid-20s and early 30s.” The Vetters started looking at corn and wheat varieties that would be suitable to home milling, as well as soybeans that would work for soy food processing such as for soy milk and tofu.
Finally, during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, they secured a bank loan at 18.9% interest to build a grain processing facility. It was a big risk during a tumultuous time that eventually paid off in the early 1990s. It was then that they realized there was enough demand for high-quality organic grains, and they were in a position to meet it.
Today, the company’s single largest product line is organic microwave popcorn. In certainNebraskalocations, it is sold under the brand “Grain Place Foods,” but nationally and regionally it’s shipped to a company that specializes in private-label packaging. If you buy organic popcorn—regardless of the brand—there is a good chance you are munching on Grain Place Foods popcorn.
“That came about in the 1980s when ‘microwave’ and ‘organic’ were rarely used in the same sentence,” David said, moments before he flipped the light switch in a room that illuminated hundreds of pallets with thousands of pounds of popcorn awaiting its next processing step.
Nationally, Grain Place Foods’ products show up in a variety of organic food lines, including bulk bins at major supermarket chains and well-known brands such as Amy’s. Many regional restaurants and bakeries also use its grain, such as Back Alley Bakery inHastings,Nebraskaand The Grey Plume restaurant inOmaha. You can also stock up on whole grains for fall baking atOmaha’s indoor farmers market, Tomāto Tomato.
What began as an opportunity to help small organic growers like themselves has become the primary business for a family that has now ushered in its third generation—David’s son, Madison, who serves as the warehouse manager. Where and how the business will evolve as the demand for organic products continues to increase has yet to be determined. For now, the Vetter men are happy to work together to bring quality grains to people everywhere.
Summer Miller is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Every Day with Rachel Ray, AAA Living, The Reader and more websites than room to note. She lives with her husband and two children in Elkhorn, Nebraska, where she spends most of her time thinking and writing about food. As of late, she has been traveling the forgotten plains of Iowa and Nebraska writing her first book, which is, of course, all about food and those who love it.
Where to find them
You can purchase organic whole grains from the Grain Place Foods online store: www.GrainPlaceFoods.com