The New Nebraska Neighborhood: Growing Food, Growing Community

July 27, 2015

TedX Innovations:

In a neighborhood close to downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, homeowners are transforming their lawns into small farms. Turf grass is abandoned for tubers, berries and corn. Strawberries grow next to sidewalks; apples hang from trees; potatoes are dug close to porches. Residential agricultural has become a trend.

TEDxLincoln speaker Tim Rinne is the catalyst for this phenomenon. Concerned about climate change ever since he first heard the term “global warming,” Rinne’s worry about the environment didn’t really start to hit home until he read about the potential for climate-related food scarcity, he says in a talk at the event. He had to know why and what he could do about it.

“Up until [then], the perils of climate change had simply unnerved me,” he says. “Now, though, it was getting personal — we were talking about missing meals.”

Rinne set out to discover the source of the food on his plate and his supermarket’s shelves. He learned that much of the food he ate came to him via long journeys spanning thousand of miles, and that 90% of the money he and his fellow Nebraskans spend on food leaves the state. “We’re not buying food that’s from here,” he says. He wondered if he could change that.

Soon, he was the first in a group of Nebraskans to abandon the traditional American lawn in favor of rows of edible plants. “I learned that the largest irrigated crop in the United States is the lawn,” he says. “My head was spinning … Why do we always plant things that we can’t eat?

“I began tearing up my lawn with a vengeance, determined to grow food on every inch of my property,” he says. He installed rain barrels, planted crops and soon attracted the attention of his neighbors. Before he knew it, Rinne and his wife were inviting neighbors to start their own “edible landscapes,” and slowly but surely, food began popping up in lawns throughout the area.

Neighbors donated land for Rinne to cultivate; families tore up their own front and backyards; and chicken coops, a greenhouse and beehives were installed. The gardens grew to a count of 20 and Rinne started calling the area the Hawley Hamlet — named for the neighborhood close to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

A garden in the Hawley Hamlet (Photo: Hawley Hamlet Facebook)

We’re growing more than food in our hamlet,” he says, “we’re growing community. We’re getting to know the people we live next door to while we put some homegrown food on their tables. And with the onset of climate change and the threat of food shortages, this is exactly what our neighborhoods need to be doing.”


26 Responses to “The New Nebraska Neighborhood: Growing Food, Growing Community”

  1. this is great…Sadly, my neighborhood has all sorts of rules that stop people from growing food where the lawn is. We need a change in mindset.

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    Say, don’t you think these selfish homeowners should pay an extra fee for having their own gardens? After all, they are not paying their fair share for the upkeep of the agricultural system.

    • jimbills Says:

      If you want to look like Omnologos here, okay. Anyone who home gardens knows that 99% of home gardens only provide a fraction of one’s food, and also thinks it’s a much better use of land and water than ridiculously wasteful green lawns. They also probably know that our agricultural problems are not related to a lack of demand, and that the agricultural system is not run like a commune, where everyone has to pay in their “fair share”. They also might know that they do pay in, anyway, in the form of income tax.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Actually, I kind of DID get the “satire”, obscure as it was, and so unrelated to this thread. You are getting OCD about the electric grid.

      I think it’s nice that a small conclave in Lincoln NE is tearing up their lawns to grow veggies during the 162 day growing season they have there. In NO VA, I could tear up the lawn (that I don’t water or pay much attention to) and take advantage of a 200 day growing season. In Burlington, you only have a 148 day season.

      That’s why we depend on CA, where the main agricultural areas have ~300 days a year, to supply a lot of our food, especially in winter (remember seasons?)

      This is a “feel good” idea that, as jimbills says, is NOT going to allow people to grow much of their own food or help us deal with the big problem.

      • 1happywoman Says:

        Not that Gingerbaker needs me to come to his defense, but his satire was not obscure, DOG–I got the allusion immediately, and I’m usually the person looking clueless when everybody else gets a joke.

        And I don’t consider it unrelated to this thread. Big Energy, Big Ag–the analogy was apt.

        I wish you guys wouldn’t squabble so much. We’re all on the same team here.

        • jimbills Says:

          Obviously, I didn’t. That, plus GB’s previous comments that seem to rush to the defense of Big Ag and belittle individual attempts to reduce consumption, and I knee-jerked a bit.

          I still don’t find the analogy apt, however. I always thought EP had a point about individual homeowners having an obligation to pay for grid services if they use them. The difference being here – people who grow their own food still pay for their own food (in both supplementing the food they buy elsewhere and in the supplies the buy for gardening), whereas someone with a 100% solar-powered system that isn’t off-grid without taxation doesn’t pay for maintaining the grid they still rely upon. There’s no grid equivalent with Big Ag. It’s another commodity, like computers or waffle irons. They’d balance supply to demand, and there’s no cost to them if someone buys less of their product. The electrical grid is in addition to the actual energy product, however, and still has to be paid for and maintained. It’s a separate entity, and those that use it should pay for it.

          I don’t have strong feelings about this particular issue myself, though. Anything that helps renewables and hurts our more destructive environmental patterns is fine by me. So, by all means, allow wealthier consumers who can afford a full solar system and have the home to support it get free grid service to the detriment of those without solar power in the form of a faltering electrical infrastructure and higher prices. All around it punishes higher energy use and supports renewables, which would lower total carbon emissions.

          All humans are on the same team. We only squabble about our disagreements. I don’t wish GB or anyone else any ill will.

          • 1happywoman Says:

            “All humans are on the same team.”

            You’re right, and thanks for the reminder. I don’t like to consider that truth as applied to Senator Inhofe, the Koch brothers, the Republicans running for President, et al.

            I think of this quote from the Dalai Lama from my Page-a-Day calendar a few years back:

            “It is easier to generate compassion while visualizing a sentient being who is very destitute, but we need also to reflect on persons who do not seem to be suffering at all, but who are, in truth, acting in ways that will eventually bring about manifest suffering.”

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Is it safe to assume that your handle and reference to “you guys squabbling” means that you are a woman?

            IMO, much of what you see as “squabbling” is better described as “ball busting”, which is perhaps an alien concept to women but is a male pastime in many parts of the country—-it was a team sport in NJ where I grew up. It’s all a symptom of too much testosterone and is why I tend to think that we should replace nearly all males in elected positions with women ASAP before we destroy the country and the world.

            Of course I too got the “allusion” immediately—I was just busting GB’s balls (although he really IS getting OCD over it). God knows GB has been going on about it for ages, and jimbills and he have expended much energy going round and round on the topic (and I generally try to stay out of their “squabbles” because it gives me a headache).

            I also disagree with “We are all on the same team”. We are most assuredly not. The Dalai Lama is on the right track, and you are off to a good start with Inhofe, the Kochs, and the Republicans running for president. I do a lot of BB-ing on j4zonian when he gets up on too high a soap box, but he is 100% correct when he speaks of the Wetiko


      • SmarterThanYourAverageBear Says:

        148 days is far more than you need to grow most vegetables

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Yes, you ARE smarter than your average bear! Even though you missed my point. Of course you can grow “most” vegetables in 148 days. We are now in the season when folks are starting to give away all those tomatoes and all that zucchini—-that ONE crop a year that is all you can get in areas with shorter seasons. Abundance now, but what about January? Blueberries at that time of the year come from Chile, tomatoes from Mexico, lettuce from California.

          Perhaps I wasn’t clear, but my point was that most people don’t have the available land, talent, or time to grow, harvest, and preserve anything but a small part of the food they need, and modern “civilization” has evolved “agribusiness” to take the place of the societies of just a couple hundred years ago in which half of the people were engaged in agriculture. Locavorism is a great concept, but like so much else in this complicated modern world, it can’t solve the problem.

          • SmarterThanYourAverageBear Says:

            Yes I did misunderstand – way too much rum 🙂

            True, barring greenhouses. In the Yukon and Alaska they are experimenting with year round greenhouses (and a well built greenhouse does not require as much artificial heating as you might think – and the new tuned LED lighting from GE will allow for low power costs and growing condition even when the sun don’t shine) Given the price of food up there it makes sense. That may very well be the future needed elsewhere as well as global climate change brings about droughts, floods, heat too much in current farming areas for plants to tolerate, etc. While individuals will find this difficult – for the reasons you said – most towns, cities, munis what have you – have plenty of empty lots, abandoned homes etc where that acreage can be turned into productive greenhouse space. In large cities I’m a proponent of vertical farming using office towers and hydroponics. This will all work fine for greens and even root vegetables, it’s grains that are going to be a problem.

            I’m in my late 60s so I’m not going to see the worst of what’s coming but my grandkids will. I hope they are able to survive it.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Hope springs eternal. I’m 75 and will likely miss the end of the movie too, but rather than us attempting to grow traditional foods in greenhouses and such, I see us turning to growing GMO algae and bacteria in huge tanks and making “food biscuits” that way (a la Soylent Green?). It doesn’t have to look like a tomato to be just as nourishing.

  3. 1happywoman Says:

    Yes, I’m a woman.

    Interesting, your observation about too much testerone. I often think so when I read the comments here. I’m always glad when Linda Plano drops in.

    • 1happywoman Says:


    • dumboldguy Says:

      Yes, it’s nice that you and Linda can have your polite little conversations, share pictures of family, and trade recipes over in the corner while we men “take care of business”.

      That’s an example of typical ball-busting, and if you were a man, you’d either laugh it off or go ballistic, but you likely would RETALIATE. Some women I have worked with were very good at BB-ing, and enjoyed it as much as the men—-they were regarded as being rather strange by everyone.

      Seriously, although in many animals the female of the species is larger and/or tougher than the male (female lion, praying mantis, and black widow spider come to mind), human evolution has led us down a path where testosterone-fueled behavior was apparently adaptive and contributed to the success of the species. That is becoming more and more questionable in the “civilized” stage we are now in—-watched a great documentary on PBS last night—-The Bomb—-some great history, photographs of BIG explosions, and scary talk about how we almost did ourselves in and the madness called MAD saved us—recommend it to all.

      And at age 75, my T level is declining as expected, but that doesn’t seem to be making me any more “docile”. If anything, I’m getting to be more combative. Perhaps that’s because the human race at large is getting dumber and heading down a path to destruction in so many ways, and that raises my anger level. I need some puppy-dog pictures to cheer me up, got any?.

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    DOG has nailed it with his B-B-ing analysis. The internet doesn’t allow us to see facial expressions or body language. Nuances get missed, semantics is often a problem. All these things magnify differences of opinion while lowering the significance of the disagreements.

    And for men, giving other men sh*t is an art form, an expression of personal affection through sarcastic and somewhat aggressive humor – you don’t give sh*t to people you don’t know. I like almost everybody here (when they are in top form, especially), find their opinions and analyses valuable, and forgive them their foibles as we all have them, and lord knows they have forgiven mine.

    There are a couple or so commenters here for whom I have little affection, I admit. And I daresay DOG or jimbills know exactly to whom I am referring, and both know full well it is NOT either of them.

    It’s a guy thing. And I am sorry if it is upsetting anyone. 😦

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Well said, GB, although I’m not very sorry if the BB-ing is upsetting anyone. I get way more upset over the lying and stupidity that we see too often. I have friends in Middlebury that I haven’t visited in a long time—-maybe I’ll pop up to
      Burlington and we can share some maple syrup vodka and do some face-to-face BB-ing.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        I’d Love that, DOG! Click on my gravatar pic, and you can see my e-mail address. 🙂

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Looked at that page way back. If I make the Middlebury trip, you’ll hear from me. Last time I was up there, the mosquitoes were so bad that you needed to carry a can of OFF in the car and keep one by each door of the house—-has that gotten better?

    • 1happywoman Says:


      No, no–I’m not upset! I just misinterpreted what I now understand to be male bonding behavior.

      I appreciate both you and DOG taking me aside, figuratively speaking, to explain.

      I realize now that this comments section is a Man Cave and that I am an alien interloper. 🙂

  5. Nebraska is dependent on the Ogalala aquifer, which is dropping fast — here in Michigan we have the Great Lakes — much better. Our big impediment to a big community garden is the need for a big deer fence. Time to learn to can. Imagine your stock investment in Ball jars growing faster than Microsoft.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      When the SHTF, we won’t have to worry about the deer problem. People everywhere will be shooting them for food and their population will plummet.

      Of course, those same well-armed and hungry folk will be shooting anyone who stands in the way of them looting the veggies on the front lawn, but that’s a different kind of problem.

  6. addledlady Says:

    “Time to learn to can.”

    Not just canning.

    People with shorter growing seasons need to learn to grow plenty of long term keeping produce and have a suitable shed/cellar/whatever to keep them in good condition. Potatoes, pumpkins/squash, long-keeping onions (personally I could never be bothered with the fuss of growing something that’s in the ground so long and needs so much careful TLC) as well as varieties of nuts and fruits which can be kept – apples, pears, quinces, most nuts can be harvested and stored without much hard work. When space is limited of course you have to learn how to keep potatoes separated from apples and other things.

    Then there’s drying. There are quite easy to operate dryers for home use, pears, peaches, apricots are reasonably easy to do. And nowadays of course, freezing. Excellent for berries and soft fruits and, for those who didn’t know the ghastly consequences of growing zucchinis, an extra freezer for zucchini chocolate cakes, zucchini cupcakes, zucchini muffins, zucchini bread, zucchini quiches, zucchini & bacon slices, zucchini anything and everything. Don’t try and fob them off on neighbours more often than once a fortnight. (Planting extra zucchinis “just in case” they’re needed is a mistake made only once.) Though if you have chooks you could have lots of zucchini-fed eggs I suppose.

    Of course, this lot is all predicated on having your own solar power to run dryers, freezers and fans for ventilating storage areas if you’re to do it really cheaply.

  7. I recently read an article about growing food in lawns in Slovenia, of all places. Apparently you can’t walk very far in just about any town in Slovenia without seeing food growing somewhere. SO I fired up Google Earth and dropped the needle on a few towns just to see if what the author had purported was indeed true. Yep. Cities, smaller towns, just about anywhere, it didn’t take long to find a bed of greens or plastic mini-greenhouse over tomatoes (needed in their short season), pole beans, grapes on fences, etc.

    Likewise, using Google Earth, I found the “Hawley Hamlet” in Lincoln, Nebraska and was disappointed. While the presenter in the TedX Talk tried to be honest about the scale of the project, that only a few homes were adopting it, that’s perhaps an understatement. Maybe the gardens aren’t as obvious. A few bigger back-yard plots were easy to spot from the air, but in street view it was all landscaping and typical residential features.

    Yes, we do need more of this, less lawn and more food at the home level. I think it is part of the solution and very scalable. If more folks did this we’d rely less on food trucked across the country, and carbon emissions would probably lessen. But that’s not even back-of-the-napkin sketching, that’s just wishful thinking and idealism. Perhaps some hard data could be helpful.

    Personally, I wrestle with this question – what would be more productive and successful, encouraging this sort of lawn-to-garden movement to grow in a viral way through social media, etc., or through more official channels like Master Gardeners or using existing city properties like school campuses to grow food? Yes, we can have both. But if time is of the essence and the climate clock is ticking, where is the best use of energy? What is most likely to gain traction quickly and be accepted? What will make the most difference in emissions and public health? What will be more influential in getting others to adopt similar practices?

    If I do what he did and go through neighborhood channels, through the friendship networks and the community (such as it is) will that be a better use of my time, vs. working through existing groups like civic clubs (Rotary, etc.) and groups that already have a national presence? Just pondering. But also gardening.

  8. addledlady Says:

    “What is most likely to gain traction quickly and be accepted?
    What will make the most difference in emissions and public health?
    What will be more influential in getting others to adopt similar practices?”

    Start from where you are. The first question is easy, and you really need to get people on board with that rather than setting the huge challenge of the second one as a huge, intimidating task.

    Square foot gardening is probably the simplest way to get people started without being too challenging. Especially for people whose greatest concern about gardens is neatness and ease of maintenance. It stops people from starting plots that are too big for novices to manage effectively, and getting discouraged because of it. For people who don’t want that kind of precision, any version of raised bed gardening would be good.

    The most important thing to get across to newbies is that you’re not in the business of growing the biggest crops of the biggest possible carrots or cauliflowers or tomatoes. One of the great advantages of a home garden is the pure luxury of a ready supply of gourmet quality young vegetables – baby carrots, small beetroot, baby peas, bok choy, broccoli – as well as all the cut-and-come-again greens. If you do it right, you can use this as a way to make room for other plants in the same group to grow larger – and you haven’t left large spaces between those plants for weeds – instead you’ve got more veg and sooner out of the sane area. This works well for some varieties of cabbage and cauliflower as well as for carrots. Planting a square metre each of non-heading lettuce and spinach and other leaf vegetables and being able to harvest a meal’s worth whenever you want it and then come back the next day or next week and do it again and again and again is a revelation.

    Getting other people on board?
    Word of mouth will spread throughout your family, workplace, neighbourhood. You’ll always have a favourite nursery, shop, book or online site or forum that’s helped you, or supplied your seeds or soil amendments, and you can give people references to those.

    Importantly, not all gardens have to be the same. Some people might prefer to plant stuff that will just grow and not need much more than water after initial soil preparation. If they’re also blessed with a largish area available, they might agree to be the one who plants pumpkins and lets them sprawl however they like and only need checking once some fruits get to the picking stage. Or set up an unusually long trellis for beans to grow as they please and be left to dry. Picking just needs to be timed correctly for best results.

    As for community.
    People who grow veg and fruit will very shortly find themselves acquiring the necessary friends among neighbours and workmates. No matter what you plant, or let self-seed, you will always need to be able to distribute surplus from time to time. An overwhelming abundance of cherry tomatoes or lemons or zucchini or broccoli or avocados needs to be dealt with somehow or other in seasons where you’ve overplanted or the weather’s been especially favorable to one crop or another. You can keep it to yourself and spend whole weekends or late nights after work turning the excess into preserves or sauces or soups or cakes or whatever. Just putting things into the freezer to deal with later requires time and work in the form of washing and/or blanching and wrapping and sealing.

    Even then, you’ll run out of either time to get it done or space to store some of it. Far easier to wander down the street with a basket of goodies to offer for free to those who can use it. (And if you have the right kind of neighbours – as we used to – you’ll come back with all sorts of goods offered in exchange. One of our former neighbours was a prize-winning backyard winemaker.)

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