Farm Fresh

Farm Fresh

Planning a potluck? You could do a lot worse than to invite Hannah Connealy Raudsepp, BS’13, Pat Hoffmann, BSBA’89, Faith Kurtyka, PhD, and Taylor Keen.

They’re among Creighton alumni and faculty who are putting a fresh spin on raising crops and livestock, bringing wholesome food — and spirits — to their tables and ours.

For these four, it’s personal. And it should be.

“Food is such a personal thing,” says Raudsepp, whose Honest Beef Company goes so far as to give the names of the Angus cattle from which each cut comes.

Adds Hoffmann, who is among the few distillers in the nation who grows his own grain: “People today think more than ever about what they put into their bodies.”

These folks aren’t about shortcuts, artificial coloring, preservatives, additives, hormones or anything else that Mother Nature would frown upon.

Sit down and enjoy. Keen will bring the “Four Sisters” and Kurtyka a bounty of raspberries and strawberries. Raudsepp will grill up a juicy T-bone. When we’re done, we’ll sip some of Hoffmann’s smooth-as-silk bourbon.

All fresh, all ways.

Great Beef, Honestly

Bostonians might know clam chowder and lobster, but as Hannah Connealy Raudsepp might tell you, they don’t know a hill of baked beans about … beef.

A 2013 Creighton exercise science graduate, Raudsepp came to that realization shortly after moving to Beantown following graduation and starting a gig as a personal trainer. Concerned as much with input as output, she’d always ask clients if they were getting enough protein.

Not from beef, many would say.

“There was an underlying feeling of distrust that I detected — especially around beef,” Raudsepp says. “How it's raised, its nutrition, and from where it comes.”

They saw beef as environmentally harmful, too corporate and bad for your health.

“I was just floored at the amount of misinformation out there,” Raudsepp says. “Kind of frustrating to the point where I was scared for the industry.”

Worse than the unfounded bias, she says, was that people were speaking with their wallets by simply not buying.

“That’s a travesty for thousands of families who work their tails off.”

Including her own. Raudsepp was raised and worked on an Angus cattle ranch in Whitman, Nebraska, in the Sandhills just off Highway 2. The family’s cattle-raising days there date back more than 100 years. And they continue today — her parents and two of her three brothers still work the ranch.

Now Raudsepp is in the business too, as founder and owner of Honest Beef Company (honestbeefco.com). There, beef lovers (and soon-to-be beef lovers) can make online purchases of beautifully marbled, dry-aged Angus beef cuts as direct from the rancher as possible, bypassing the majority of the conventional beef supply chain.

Almost from grass to grill.

Customers get a packing list with each package naming the cow’s ranch of origin and its location, names of the ranchers and butcher, and the cow’s pedigree going back at least three generations (it’s almost biblical).

“If you know exactly what ranch this animal came from, the rancher has a chance to tell his story,” Raudsepp says. “Trust, for our customers, comes when they know the faces, personalities and ethics of the family responsible for the steak on their plate.”

Raudsepp owns the business with her husband, Erik, a software designer she met during a study abroad trip to Estonia as a Creighton student. She works with her family’s ranch and other cattlemen and a butcher and fulfillment center in Hastings, Nebraska, to pull it all off.

The beef is cut, flash-frozen, then shipped with dry ice in corrugated boxes insulated by a liner made from recycled jeans by a Norfolk, Nebraska, company.

Wait, frozen beef? Isn’t that a no-no?

No. Raudsepp points to studies that show that consumers get whatever was there — all the quality, taste and nutrition — at the moment a cut is frozen. “That’s way better than what’s fresh but has been sitting out a couple of weeks,” she says.

The beef is shipped in various-sized packages with different cuts. The first shipments went out in May 2016. Sales have hit both coasts and urban centers (yes, Boston) with lots of repeat business and growth.

And her story is resonating. CNBC, the Wall Street Journal and others have reported on her startup. It appears to have some staying power.

Like the four generations of ranchers on the Connealy Ranch.

Spirited Away

For months, Pat Hoffmann kept the secret from his wife. No wonder, given the malodorous aroma he raised whenever he brewed beer.

“Stinks up the house terrible,” Hoffmann says. “My wife wasn’t fond of it.”

The new idea Hoffmann was brewing also involved alcohol — but he figured it had the smell of success. Hoffmann, who farms a spread in Earling, Iowa, with his father, wanted to turn the grains he grew into vodka, gin, bourbon and more — a “seed-to-spirit” concept done by few in the country.

Hoffmann kept the concept to himself for nearly a year. “I kept thinking, ‘Maybe it’s just a crazy idea and I would talk myself out of it.’”

He never did. Instead, he talked his wife, Amy, into it. Early this spring — about five years after Hoffmann’s idea began to ferment — the 1989 Creighton business graduate bottled the first batch of North 40 Vodka for his Lonely Oak Distillery (lonelyoakdistillery.com).

It’s a third career for Hoffmann. Since finishing his Creighton studies, he’s worked in administration for his family-owned Little Flower Haven Nursing and Rehab in Earling. And for the past decade, he’s helped his father raise corn and soybeans on 600 acres.

His idea makes sense. No one would expect a Napa Valley winery to truck in Iowa grapes, right? So why should Hoffmann get grains for his spirits from anywhere but what he calls some of “the most fertile ground probably in the world.”

It satisfies his almost primal desire to see the fruit of his labors.

“I’ve always wanted to have a finished product ever since I started farming,” Hoffmann says. “We talked about the joy of planting seed and watching it grow over hundreds of acres.”

But it’s out of sight, if not out of mind, soon after harvest. It used to be commonplace for farmers to have a still, Hoffmann says. “Distilling was just another way of preserving grain,” he says.

Then came Prohibition. When it went away, so did many of the recipes and ways of distilling.

Hoffmann started from scratch but had plenty of help. He bought a new, German-engineered still made by Kothe — perfect given the area’s German-Catholic roots. He solicited consultation from experts including “Mr. Whiskey,” former Maker’s Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell. “If you’re Catholic and you get to talk to the pope, that’s kind of like if you want to make bourbon, you’d want to talk to Dave Pickerell.”

Help like that gives Hoffmann faith there’s something to this seed-to-spirit idea. It used to be he grew corn for disease and insect resistance. For yield and “standability.”

“But ask me what it tastes like? I don’t have any idea.”

Now he knows, thanks to the spirits abounding at Lonely Oak.

Foresting Food

Participants in a neighborhood garden walk got quite the surprise when stopping at Faith Kurtyka’s backyard a couple years back.

And it wasn’t pretty.

“It’s ugly,” Kurtyka says about her garden. “Our yard has nothing beautiful.”

But, there is plenty that’s tasty in there.

Kurtyka, assistant professor of English, and her husband, LaRue Diehl, have grown a “food forest” in their Omaha backyard, supplying them and their infant daughter, Juniper, with plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts and more.

So the folks on the garden walk didn’t get what they were expecting — chrysanthemums, roses, zinnias and other decorative beauties beautifully arranged and manicured.

“But when they came to our yard and we explained the philosophy of it, you could see people’s minds change,” Kurtyka says. “Our garden is a lot more than something beautiful to look at. It’s practical, useful and sustainable. A food forest is a little bit different than a garden. Typically, we think of gardening as rows of plants. It’s exposed dirt. In a food forest, we’re trying to mimic a natural ecosystem with an overstory of trees.

“Instead of growing a single plant all by itself, we’re growing plants in a certain ecology where it’s going to survive best.”

Her husband, a biology teacher at Papillion-LaVista South High School, was the one pushing for the food forest. “This is more borne out of his interest in the natural world in general,” Kurtyka says.

In September 2013, the couple moved into their current home with a large triple lot purchased in part so they could build their food forest. They tore out a concrete patio and put in a small pond. They cleaned and put up a fence. Friends helped. So did Creighton students logging service hours.

They ordered from a seed catalog and got a head start with grow lights in their basement.

Then they planted. Lots. Three years later, they have fruit and nut trees, kale, collard greens, tomatoes, snap peas, raspberries, strawberries, pear and apple trees, a hardy kiwi, herbs, carrots, radishes, figs and rose hips that make a sort of tea.

Oh, yeah, and a goose, ducks and chickens.

Not everything went so well. Sweet potatoes came out the size of quarters. “Just because something is supposed to grow does not mean it will,” Kurtyka says. “Mother Nature does not read books. It’s hard to predict, but that’s what we like about it.”

But there have been plenty of successes. Enough that the family stays busy come harvest preserving with a food dehydrator and freezing. They can go a week eating only food grown in the yard.

Kurtyka’s not trying to fool anyone — this isn’t easy.

“No way we could do this if we were not teachers and didn’t have summers off, especially the first couple of years getting the infrastructure going,” she says. “It takes a lot of work.”

But the results?

Beautiful.

Sacred Seeds

Taylor Keen insists it was the best corn he ever ate.

“It’s different, for sure,” he says. “It was real, not genetically modified. It had a lot more taste — like the difference between eating white rice and eating wild rice.”

It’s also the oldest corn he ever ate. Corn that traces its roots to a time when bison freely roamed the wide open plains and tribes like the Omaha planted corn that was much different from the plain yellow variety that stands in field after field across the Midwest today.

Better yet, Keen grew this corn with his own hands.

A Heider College of Business faculty member, Keen’s harvest came through Sacred Seed, a nonprofit he began in 2014 to collect, preserve and grow indigenous and heirloom seeds once known to his native Omaha and Cherokee tribes.

“We’re just trying to embrace and continue our tribal tradition, revive something very, very essential to tribal culture for almost all of the indigenous tribes in the Americas,” Keen says. “As a member of the Omaha tribe, it’s very important for me to revive as many of our traditions as we can, and corn is such an essential part of our relationship with the land. It’s the thing used in our sacred ceremonies, and we’re trying to reconnect with this.”

His efforts, he says, are part of a larger seed sovereignty movement occurring across the country. Most of his first seeds came from a Cherokee Nation Seed Saving Project. He since has gotten seeds elsewhere, sometimes through trade — Ponca, Osage, Pawnee and Cherokee varieties.

“All consider having their own stories,” Keen says.

Some grow yellow, some blue, red or white. Keen plants the corn in his own yard and in about a dozen plots in and around Omaha. All are in urban areas, far away from where they might cross-pollinate with “GMO stuff” in big rural fields.

The success of “sacred” seeds, though, is not as easy as pushing a seed into the ground then letting Mother Nature do the rest.

“Organic farming is really hard,” Keen says. Some of his first plantings, in the Creighton greenhouse, didn’t go so well. “The local raccoons pretty much decimated it,” he says.

Last year, it rained too much and some of the water-soaked shoots had trouble bearing all the weight. “Across our other ambassador plots, we probably lost 50 percent of what we planted last year in terms of corn.”

What he did get, though, was worth the wait.

And it’s not just corn. Keen’s corn is planted alongside the rest of the “Four Sisters” — beans, squash and sunflowers.

“They are meant to be planted together. Pretty much intermingle in the same plot,” Keen says. “True companion planting.”

With a taste that’s new — and centuries old.