Wednesday, October 26, 2016

National Geographic Features Lincoln Photographer

Erik Johnson’s interest in photography started with an iPhone.

He a was junior college in 2012 when he persuaded his parents to give him one for Christmas to replace the Motorola flip phone he’d been using for the last four or five years.

“When I got the phone, I started taking pictures of everything,” Johnson said. “My friends were like ‘Why are you taking pictures of all this random stuff? Usually people just take pictures of going out, to the bar or something, and putting them on Facebook.’”

He told them it was fun to capture things that people don’t always see or pay attention to.

“You might come back and say, ‘Wow, did you see that sunset?’”, Johnson said. “With a photo you can actually prove you saw it.”

That was the case on a late summer evening in 2015.

A storm rumbled into the Denton area while Johnson, who by then had upgraded to a digital camera, was out taking sunset photos.

“Usually storms make for good light and dramatic pictures,” he said. “I had it in mind if I could capture lightning above this specific house, it would be awesome. I went there. Spent some time there and, sure enough, the lightning was perfect.”

National Geographic thought so, too.

The magazine published Johnson’s dramatic photo over two pages in this month’s edition as part of its “Visions” photography section found at the front of the magazine. The caption reads:
“Above an abandoned house near Denton, Nebraska, a bruised summer sky crackles with atmospheric electricity. The phenomenon in this composite image -- four shots taken within 20 minutes -- is often called cloud-to-cloud lightning.”

Johnson, 25, said he’s still pinching himself over the spread. He’s a Lincoln East High School (2009) and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2013) graduate, who works as a sales analyst at LI-COR Biosciences in Lincoln.

“It kind of doesn’t feel real,” he said. “It’s amazing and super humbling and honoring. As a photographer, it’s only something I’ve kind of dreamed about … I’m really thankful.”

Especially since Johnson hasn’t been shooting photos for very long.

His mother, Kathy, said her son, the youngest of her and husband Stan’s three children, never took photos a youngster -- not until he got the iPhone four years ago while in college -- but he had an inclination toward art.

“In grade school and middle school, he loved to draw,” she said, noting he especially liked sketching cars and horses.

When Johnson discovered he enjoyed taking photos, he again went to his parents -- this time persuading them to get him a digital camera, a Nikon D7000, as a belated college graduation gift. He and his brother stood in line on Thanksgiving night 2013 at Best Buy to take advantage of a Black Friday sale.

Read the full article at

View more of Johnson's work when you subscribe to Nebraska Life Magazine. Nebraska Life Magazine has been a proud member of GROW Nebraska for over 16 years! Shop their products online at

Friday, October 21, 2016

Willa Cather novel inspiration to be next Tourism Serves site

LINCOLN, Neb. (October 19, 2016) from the Nebraska Tourism Commission— Nebraska Tourism’s fourth Nebraska Tourism Serves project will take place in Bladen, Nebraska, November 4 and 5. Nebraska Tourism Serves brings volunteers together to celebrate and restore beloved tourist destinations in our state.

The fourth project will be at The Nebraska State Historical Society's Pavelka Farmstead in Bladen, Nebraska, near Red Cloud (the home of Willa Cather). This property provided part of the setting for Cather's most famous work, My Ántonia. Those assisting with the cleanup will do a number of maintenance tasks that would improve the visitor experience, including painting to cover recent vandalism, repairing the cellar steps, landscaping and cleanup of the home’s interior.

“The Pavelka Farmstead is one of Nebraska's irreplaceable literary destinations,” explained Ashley Olson, executive director of The Willa Cather Foundation. “Once home to the prototype for one of our nation's celebrated literary characters, the farmstead also has the potential to provide an exceptional demonstration of Nebraska's Czech immigrant culture. The Willa Cather Foundation is pleased to work with Tourism Serves to make this site more inviting to guests as we prepare to celebrate the 100th publication anniversary of My Ántonia in 2018.”

Full schedule for the project on November 4-5:
Friday, November 4
9 a.m. – 4 p.m.: Meet at the Farmstead, 1137 Highway 4, Bladen, Nebraska 68928
Saturday, November 5
9 a.m. – 4 p.m.: Meet at the Farmstead, 1137 Highway 4, Bladen, Nebraska 68928

The service site is located southeast of Bladen, Nebraska, 1/2 mile south of the intersection of Highway 4 and County Road 1100. Volunteers should park along the road.

Lunch and drinks will be provided.

It's important for volunteers to remember that this is a country property and one without basic utilities, so layers of clothes, gloves, hats, dust mask, boots or whatever would help someone account for November weather are recommended. Work gloves will be especially important as a great deal of work will involve clean-up of dead trees, bushes, and fallen outbuildings. A port-a-john will be on the property.

This is the first year of the Nebraska Tourism Serves program, with the goal to organize four service projects. The first project was held in May, where volunteers helped restore the historic Fort Robidoux near Gering. Another project took place in June, where eager individuals cleared old railroad ties and did various other tasks along the Cowboy Trail near Chadron, preparing the 321 mile trail for completion in the future. Thirdly, in September a group worked to clean up the Shannon Trail that runs through 16 communities in northeast Nebraska. In total, the first three Nebraska Tourism Serves opportunities contributed over 360 man hours to these projects, making a significant impact on the tourism potential in Nebraska.

Interested in volunteering?
Anyone is welcome to volunteer. Volunteers need to complete a registration form by Wednesday, Nov. 2. The form can be downloaded at:

The Nebraska Tourism Commission is a proud member of GROW Nebraska.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sweet Smell of Success from a Stinky Surprise

GROW Nebraska is full of fun surprises, especially when we take a peek behind the curtain; get to know the member, their story and how their product came into existence. Often it involves a side trip in the career of a person who stumbles onto a path they had no idea existed. This is the delightful story of two guys, Joe Arnold and Randy Volkmer, a couple of engineers who invented a product completely unrelated to their long careers at Eaton Manufacturing in Kearney, Nebraska. The product is called Dishbone and their company is called HairbrainedIdeaz.

First, the back story. I had a great time chatting with these guys via speakerphone recently. Randy and Joe met at Eaton’s some 29 years ago. Both of them remarked they had wonderful opportunities in their work to design products to fit a specific need for the plant or for an existing customer. This gave them the delicious freedom to work without giving thought to specific costs or the need for marketing their design. Without those restraints, their imagination and creativity could flow freely and it created a real sense of possibility in them. Both of them clearly get a kick out of the manufacturing process.

Here were two guys who had learned to spot a need or problem, come up with a solution and engineer it into existence. The problem? A smelly kitchen greeted Joe when he returned home from a trip. He knew he had thoroughly (engineers are like that) cleaned every surface before leaving but he was met at the door with a nasty odor. He tracked it down to a dishcloth he had rinsed, wrung out well and laid across the sink divider. He identified the issue as inadequate air circulation. The cloth simply did not dry.

His engineer radar went off and he began to imagine something that would create a space for the air to get under and around the cloth, allowing it to stay fresh. I had to laugh when he told me he used hot glue sticks of all things, for the prototype! He actually cut the sticks into thin strips, glued them together, positioned them into a grid and formed little spikes on them to form air space between the dishcloth and the sink. Eureka, it worked! A happy ending to a stinky situation because according to Randy, kitchens should smell like freshly baked bread or cookies!

Joe began chatting with his buddy Randy and they started to figure out how to make more. Between the two, they had over 50 years of experience in sourcing and forming network connections. Before long, they found a local company that could make a mold and manufacture their design using injection molding with a pliable plastic material. Suction cups were added to keep the Dishbone in place. In a leap of faith, they placed an initial order for 300!

The fellows are a couple of geniuses but had zero previous marketing experience. Happily, another inventor and GROW member suggested GROW Nebraska as a great organization to begin building visibility for their product. Joe and Randy, who had formed an LLC, immediately became members in late summer of 2016 and exhibited at the Nebraska State Fair with GROW where they had a very gratifying response!

I love sharing a story about great ideas made real through the use of transferrable skills learned at radically unrelated jobs. Joe and Randy are prime examples! The brainy, creative guys are already plotting new inventions including expanded uses for the Dishbones concept. They may call their company HairbrainedIdeaz, but I think they could also call it BrilliantIdeaz, wouldn’t you agree?

You can find Dishbones in both GROW Nebraska retail locations, at the Conestoga Mall in Grand Island and at the Hilltop Mall in Kearney. Or, hop online 24/7/365 and order yours today. Be sure and snag some for stocking stuffers, too, at!
About the Author: Betty Streff is the Coordinator of GROW Nebraska store in Kearney. You can read more about Betty here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Andy's Sweet Jalapeno–Perfect for Pretzels or Pork Loin!

Earlier this year I had a chance to visit with Robin Newland when Robin’s Pantry was launching Andy’s Sweet Jalapeno Mustard. Right off the bat I was excited about the product because there’s nothing else like it out there! We were baffled about how to describe the intriguingly sweet-but-a-little-bit-hot mustard-type concoction. It’s sure not your mama’s boring yellow mustard! It’s chunky and thick and it’s got multiple layers of flavor in each unique combination. Foodies would describe it as complex. I call it yummy!

Robin and Andy joined GROW Nebraska this year and let me tell you, Robin is as fun and saucy as her products! She and her husband Andy love good food and cooking. In fact, before they were married, they spent many “date nights” in the kitchen! (Sounds fun to me!) One day, Andy brought home a mustard recipe to try and Robin wasn’t too excited about it because in her words, she isn’t a “mustard girl”. (Which turned out to be okay because this isn’t exactly mustard either.) Thank goodness, she gave it a whirl and as all the best cooks do, the two gave it their own touch.

I am super excited to have a new and different product on GROW’s shelves for the holiday season and could picture it as perfect for all the “foodie guys” on our shopping list! You know the ones, the wannabe chefs that fancy themselves to be Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain all rolled into one!

Nowadays, Robin provides daily lunches for the day care kids at King of Kings Church in Omaha and caters many events for the church and for lots of other customers, too. When I caught up with the busy gal at her home in Louisville, Nebraska, I asked her to give me a few hints about how she uses the mustards in her busy catering business! I figured I’d go right to the source, who’d have better ideas, right?

Robin suggests using the green olive and garlic version in meatloaf, a half cup to a pound of beef or pork. The smoky one works great as a rub on slow cooked meats, making the meat especially moist and flavorful. Robin cuts up green apples and sautés them in a small amount of butter with their cranberry mustard, adds brown sugar to taste and creates a chutney for pork loin! Yum! My mouth was literally watering when we were talking! Pressed for time? Boom! The awesome mustards are great right out of the jar with pretzels- perfect for impromptu snacking!

There are four delicious varieties and all share the same sweet jalapeno mustard base. In addition to the ones I mentioned, there’s an “Original” Sweet Jalapeno Mustard, and each flavor profile shares the same sweet jalapeno mustard base. All are available in two sizes, half pints and pints. The small jars are perfect for gift baskets, stocking stuffers or to sample, but once you taste them, you’re sure to want the big jar!

Andy’s Sweet Jalapeno Mustards are available in both the Kearney and Grand Island GROW Nebraska stores so if you’re ready to jazz up a boring sandwich or put some zip in your dip you can take home a jar tonight! Think ahead! Make a list of all those adventurous eaters and hungry guys on your gift list and give them something new and different to bite into! Great news! You can shop for them in your jammies because they’re all available 24/7/365 at!

About the Author: Betty Streff is the Coordinator of GROW Nebraska store in Kearney. You can read more about Betty here.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Day in the Life: Busy Bees

By Katherine Leszczynski, Ralston Recorder

It was about 9 a.m. on a farm in north central Omaha. Wendy Fletcher and coworker, Nicole Hofmann, drove a white van down a dirt road past corn fields and a pumpkin patch. They parked between a large tree and some pepper plants.

The women suited up in white jumpsuits, complete with Velcro at the ankles and wrists, gloves and a netted helmet that zips to the jumpsuit.

They walked over to a nondescript white box.

When Wendy Fletcher removed the lid, honey bees swarmed out.

“Good morning girls,” she said to the bees.

As a beekeeper, it’s just another part of Fletcher’s day in the life. Fletcher has owned Ralston’s It’s All About Bees! for the past 11 years. She not only creates all kinds of products from honey and beeswax, but she cares for the bees as well.

“My dad was a commercial beekeeper for 40 years in Minnesota and Texas,” Fletcher said. “He was a big beekeeper and I’m just a little beekeeper. It’s in our blood.”

Fletcher has swarms of bees on five different farms in Elkhorn and Omaha. She visits them to open up the boxes, scrape honey off of each honeycomb frame, try and clear off as many bees as she can and bring the honey back with her to the store.

“The bees put the honey down in the cells,” Fletcher said. “When it’s full, the bees put a cap on it made of beeswax.”

And while all the frames of honeycombs may look the same to an onlooker, Fletcher is able to tell what kind of flower the bees pollinated to create the honey on each comb.

“Different kinds of flowers make different kinds of honey,” she said. “Sunflower honey would be different from watermelon blossom honey. They are subtly different. It’s like different cheeses or how different grapes are used for different wines.”

Along with flowers, Fletcher’s bees pollinate produce on the farms where they’re located. It helps out the farmers who let Fletcher house her bees there.

“A lot of the local produce in Omaha is pollinated by my bees,” she said. “Our bees pollinate their produce and then we buy that produce.”

Bees buzzed around frantically as Fletcher and Hofmann went through the boxes for honey. The loud buzzing and numerous bees charging didn’t phase Fletcher.

The end of the season is near, Fletcher said, and bees don’t do well in cold temperatures. In the colder Nebraska months, her bees go to a farm in California and return in the spring.

“I went out to visit them and it was amazing,” Fletcher said. “I had never seen blueberry fields or orange groves.”

After returning to the store front, Fletcher took the boxes of honeycombs to the back where she scraped the beeswax caps off and put the honey-filled combs into a spinner. A spinner is a machine — similar to the workings of a washing machine — that will turn the honeycomb boards until the honey flies out onto the walls of the machine and seeps to the bottom.

“It flings it out,” she said. “But some of the honey goes to comb honey.”

Comb honey is when Fletcher leaves the honey inside the cells and sells a chunk of it in a jar. People can spread the comb on toast or biscuits or scrape the honey out themselves. They can even chew on the waxy comb.

“You can chew it like gum” she said.

After the spinner has flung all the honey off and it’s welled at the bottom, Fletcher turned the spigot and rich, golden honey poured into a bucket.

From there, the honey can be transformed into any number of the products Fletcher and her workers make: honey butter, jellies, salsas, barbecue sauces, creamed honey, beeswax candles, body care products and more.

“We’re constantly coming up with new things,” she said. “We use as much local produce as we can.”

While many people are afraid of bees, Fletcher isn’t bothered by them buzzing around. She said when she was first introduced to beekeeping, she was also afraid of getting stung. But now, she’s a pro with them.

“Once you get over that, it’s not so bad,” she said. “I think I have such a calm energy though. I love working with the bees.”

View some great pictures of Wendy Fletcher and here bees here!

It's All About Bees has been a member of GROW Nebraska since 2006. Shop some of their great products at GROW Nebraska’s retail stores–at the Conestoga Mall in Grand Island and the Hilltop Mall in Kearney or online at!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

A Family Dream

Don’t we all love a story where the good guy wins? A story in which hard work and persistence pay off? I know I do and once again I had a front row seat to hear a great story about Norm Krug and Preferred Popcorn, the company he breathed into existence in Chapman, Nebraska. As luck would have it, I was able to hear the history of the company from Norm’s very own daughter Andrea Krug Plucker, and what a story it is! Andrea recently returned to the company where she serves as their marketing director.

First, let’s rewind a bit to Norm's father Robert and his dream of buying a popcorn company. Robert Krug was a visionary and could see huge potential but it took the next generation to make it happen. He was determined that his son Norm would have the college education he did not have. Then, back in 1997, with an agricultural degree from the University of the Nebraska Lincoln and nearly two decades of farming under his belt, Robert’s son Norm bought Widman Popcorn in Chapman and began applying his intensity and obsession with agronomy to make his popcorn and the company, grow!

Through hard work, collaboration and focus, Norm engaged his friends and neighbors and with them has created a consortium of farmers who raise popcorn with the same obsessive attention to every minute detail of the growing process. I was surprised to learn that they raise some 14 different varieties of popcorn, each of which is particularly suited to a specific use. With that energy and intensity, Preferred Popcorn has grown to become the third largest producer of popcorn in the world, shipping millions of pounds across the globe!

I asked Andrea to share something that could be her dad’s motto, or words he lived by. She had to stop and think a bit and then said, “Dad hated the words “no” and “can’t”, we really weren’t allowed to use them. Instead, his question has always been, “how?” What a legacy he built using that simple philosophy and it neatly sums up the determination and grit Norm has applied to making Preferred Popcorn the company it is today. (Oh, and I asked Andrea if she still likes popcorn and she laughed “yes, and I eat some every single day!”)

Preferred Popcorn is one of GROW Nebraska’s most tenured members. They joined in 2007 and GROW has provided the company critical visibility over the years. In the GROW Nebraska retail stores, customers often make a beeline to the familiar blue and yellow two pound bags and the delightful assortment of microwave popcorn varieties like butter, extra butter, cheese and jalapeno! (Find out more on their “pop-ular” website, or check out their fun Facebook page!) Andrea hinted of new products that will be launched soon and we can’t wait to see them!

You’ll find every yummy kind of Preferred Popcorn in both GROW Nebraska’s retail stores, at the Conestoga Mall in Grand Island and the Hilltop Mall in Kearney. Up late and hankering for a bowl full? Pop online at and order it from your couch 24/7/365!

About the Author: Betty Streff is the Coordinator of GROW Nebraska store in Kearney. You can read more about Betty here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Pacha Soap, “Dirty Hippies” with a Heartfelt Message

Often times when an entrepreneur starts a business, one of the first things that must happen is the person has to sell himself. Just one look through the amazing website for Pacha Soap was, well, it was as they say, “You had me at hello.” What’s not to love about a company that was founded on the simple and heartfelt purpose to help people stay healthy and create jobs in some of the most hopeless places on the planet? I promise it will make you smile, too. Check it out at Pacha, by the way, rhymes with “cha-cha”, and means earth in Quechua, one of the native languages of Peru. (Peru? Stay tuned, I’ll explain.)

My job as the story catcher for GROW Nebraska is both inspiring and gratifying because I get to talk to great people like Andrew and Abi Vrbas who founded Pacha Soap in Hastings, Nebraska. You can read all about them on their website but the part I take delight in discovering is that little bit more of the story behind the story.

Andrew grew up in Atwood, Kansas. His dad was a brick mason and his mom worked as the editor of an area newspaper. He was encouraged by his sister’s experience at Hastings College and decided to go to school there where he majored in Construction Management and Spanish. Perfect for a career as a soap maker, right? It turned out that it was! Hastings College has an exchange program which took Andy to Peru, South America where he spent a semester immersed in the local culture.

At that time, there had been devastating floods in the area and the economic conditions were in shambles. Tourism had been a major economic driver and the industry was badly crippled. Vrbas saw many of the people there did not have the most basic opportunity to wash every day, something we all take for granted.

One night on the bus trip home, tired from a hard day at work, he had a lightbulb moment. Suddenly he realized he could connect the dots by teaching the people to make soap! Here in America it’s hard for us to imagine schools with so few resources they cannot even provide soap for children to use for hand washing. Every day, Andy saw that kind of economic hardship and he knew he had a solution. Making a basic consumable product was perfect because it was low tech, required only simple equipment and could utilize local herbs and plants as ingredients. Now with one simple process, making soap, the people could improve both their health and their economic well-being!

That remarkable trip to Peru had Andy at hello, too. Once he returned to Hastings he became obsessed with soap making, first in his mother’s kitchen and then in his college apartment. He learned all he could and began hatching a plan to repeat the process in other parts of the world, too.

Today, Pacha Soap has learned Andrew’s model works in almost any developing country across the globe. Burundi, Africa is the first place it has been implemented and the country now has three soap making shops that each employ more than a dozen local soap makers who supply soap to over 65,000 children every month!

During his time at Hastings College he met Abi, a fantastic friend who shared his vision. Abi is now Andrew’s wife and business partner. Together they’ve had some amazing adventures and they’re well on their way to creating a legacy that will last far into the future. Here’s one more reason to love it and buy it; every time a bar of Pacha soap is sold, a second bar is given to someone in need!

Pacha Soap is now on the shelves of Whole Foods Market which calls itself America’s Healthiest Grocery Store. I loved watching the video that Whole Foods created about them and the early days of their business. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it! Watch it at If you love it, here is a link to more!

Andrew and Abi have been proud members of GROW Nebraska since 2012. GROW is proud to have Pacha Soap in both our retail stores, Grand Island at the Conestoga Mall and Kearney at The Hilltop Mall. Be sure to take a look at Pacha’s liquid hand soap and bath salts, too. You can also order their fine products 24/7/365 at

About the Author: Betty Streff is the Coordinator of GROW Nebraska store in Kearney. You can read more about Betty here.