Daniels Produce

Daniels Produce employees sort and clean vegetables.

COLUMBUS, Neb. — Flooding this year in the Loup and Platte River valleys caused panic for some at Daniels Produce, but it’s ironic that flooding actually caused the family produce farm to exist at all.

The deep snow, heavy rain and quick melt in March pushed the Loup River from its banks. Normally a mile or two north, water came within 100 yards of the Daniels operation.

“I was home with the kids panicking,” said Kelly Jackson, daughter of Andy and Tannie Daniels.

Columbus, where Jackson lives, was surrounded by water. Her parents were at the farm, about 15 miles directly west of Columbus; but it is 16 miles via U.S. 81 and Nebraska 22 through Monroe or 22 miles taking U.S. 30 through Duncan. But, with highways and bridges closed, to get from home to work took a route through St. Paul that, on a good day, took two-and-a-half hours and covered upwards of 150 miles.

Ultimately, damage to the farm was minimal.

“I’ve had hail that was more damaging,” Jackson said. “There is debris that will take years to get back.” She said they have been trying to fill a hole that just won’t be filled.

The family moved to their farm in southwestern Platte County in the late 1970s, growing corn and soybeans. Three consecutive years of flooding in the ‘80s produced no income.

“There was one piece of land that was planted with watermelons,” she said. “They took them to Walmart in the pickup. My dad said anytime he’s had a request for anything else, he tried it.”

In 1996, the farm converted entirely to growing fresh vegetables, selling in Lincoln, Omaha and Kansas City.

Kelly joined her parents on the farm in 2006, not sure if there would be enough to do year-round, “but that’s not been a problem,” she said. “The last 10 to 15 years, we’ve grown quite big, quite fast.”

Daniels Produce now has seven full-time employees and has grown from 24 seasonal employees in her first year to 140 this growing season.

Heads of the household, Andy and Tannie, are chief executive officer and retail manager, respectively. Kelly is vice president and her brother Jason is general manager for production. Both are fourth generation farmers.

There also is a farm manager, human resources manager and an office coordinator. The HR manager is necessary because of the large expansion of the seasonal and temporary crews. That growth is directly related to the H-2A labor program, which allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs.

Jackson said Daniels has employees from Mexico and Guatemala, longtime employees, some of whom are on the farm for eight months, others for three or four months.

“Most of them go home and have their own farms they go to in the winter,” she said.

H-2A is a government program, so there is plenty of red tape and regulations.

“There’s a ton of paperwork,” Jackson said. “But it’s legal.”

Daniels Produce also provides housing for the 140 H-2A workers, in four houses and 10 trailers.

H-2A is the reason the operation went from 90 workers to 140 in one year, converting to two shifts, and changed what the farm raises and how it is raised, Jackson said.

Raising vegetables is labor intensive, with production that’s not only good on the inside but must look “polished and perfect for the consumer,” she said.

And it continually needs attention. Zucchini, if not picked every day, will turn as hard as a baseball bat, she said. “And, you’ve got to keep picking or they’ll stop producing.”

Marketing their produce is another huge step in the continuous operation. Jackson said production could be even more rotational if not for Nebraska winters. Some vegetables would produce multiple years if not for the frozen temperatures.

Tannie Daniels heads up the marketing. Daniels Produce is at farmers markets: Old Market, Aksarben Village and Village Point in Omaha, College View and Haymarket in Lincoln; and retail stands: two in Columbus, one each in Fremont and Grand Island.

Daniels also has weekly truck sales, started two years ago and added a second daily truck this year, to Albion, Genoa, Duncan, Central City, Osceola, Fullerton, David City, Stromsburg, Humphrey, Clarks, Kearney and Hastings.

Jackson said she wanted a certified kitchen two years ago, so one was set up on the farm site.

“Dad said why not pickle this stuff,” she said. “We have anything you can pickle.”

The use quickly outgrew the facilities and a store in Duncan has been converted into a larger kitchen.

“We make it all ourselves,” she said.

The canned products can be found in all Hy-Vee Food Stores throughout Nebraska, and at Russ’s Markets and Super Saver stores.

The farm also has 18 greenhouses — half of them just for the many varieties of peppers — which provide head starts for spring-through-fall outdoor production.

In all, Daniels Produce plants crops on about 700 acres.

“It wasn’t our intention to get this big, but we had to in order to have (marketing) contracts,” Jackson said. “It’s like farmers, in order to have a certain combine, they have to be so big.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t continuous watch over the products. They grew cabbage until a disease came in, and they got out of it.

“There’s a lot of trial and error,” Jackson said. “This year we thought about getting out of zucchini, but we didn’t because the price was good.”

Most of the Daniels production stays in the Midwest, to Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota, but some also goes to Texas, New York, Florida and Canada. The East Coast likes white corn and Mitchell Bottomley, a major holiday greenery grower in North Carolina, buys ornamental and miniature pumpkins.

Jackson said the vegetable markets are very volatile, so they try to contract their marketing.

“We may miss the highs, but we’re not at the lows either,” she said. “We also don’t grow it unless it’s sold. That’s why there are three acres of eggplant this year. We can’t just hope.”

They do hope that the Loup bridge north of the farm will reopen soon so they can get to Monroe and a shorter drive to Columbus.

Terry Anderson can be reached at terry.anderson@lee.net.