With fall season just around the corner, we've been pretty busy picking pumpkins, transitioning the barn space, and setting up all the fun on the farm. But the fall season work doesn't fall completely on the shoulders of our crew - there are a lot of people who help make this crazy thing we call a fall season work, and they deserve a lot of love for their willingness to go along with our schemes and ideas, amazing ingenuity, and all-around awesome-ness.
Our first pals are the family we have up at Larry's Welding in Lancaster. Kyle's uncles Larry and Vernon and cousin Eric and their guys have helped with all sorts of bizarre and random projects over the years. From the very first kettle corn machine (for a full story on THAT Frakenmachine, see our donut and kettle corn piece a few weeks ago) to the iconic cows to the big wagons that haul people out to the pumpkin patch every year - if it has metal on it, chances are these guys have had a hand in making it.
Kyle jokingly refers to them as the modern-day local blacksmiths: guys who have it all, can do it all, have seen it all, and - most importantly - can fix it all. You can find just about anything at the shop (even parts for some of your favorite fall season attractions, like the zip line!), and the breadth and depth of experience these guys have with fabrication is bar none. In all reality, Kyle's joke isn't really a joke at all, but a compliment to people who are so instrumental in bringing the fall season experience to you.
Larry and his guys do get to enjoy the fruits of their labor sometimes, too. In fact, you can usually see Larry out helping Kyle with random projects - like moving buildings onto the property - or clearing tables during busy days in the fall, or on the golf cart with grandma, just taking it all in.
A few miles away is Stonefront Farms and our friend Andy Buttles. These guys are not only our go-to for equipment we don't have (post hole diggers, skid loaders - you name it), but they are also our source for animals for our petting zoo. Those sweet calves you pet and feed during fall season come right from their farm to ours. On the other end of the food chain, some of the hamburger we serve during fall season and at our other events is locally sourced right from their farm.
The staff at Stonefront also has the distinct honor of being our designated taste testers. When we started experimenting with pizza or when we add new menu items, the staff at Stonefront Farms are willing and discerning food testers. And they almost always get the first batches of donuts for the season, just to make sure we've got them exactly right. And they seem really okay with that!
Another local business that fills a niche in the cogs of fall season life is West End Salvage, Kyle's go-to place for hard-to-find, unique, odd, and off-the-wall items for his equally unique, odd, and off-the-wall projects. There he's found wagon axles and running gears and tons of other random stuff - his best finds being some parts for the air cannon (specifically the tank that holds the air and the car axle the cannon sits on). And just the other day he pulled out two stainless steel sinks from the piles. He doesn't need them, but he might use them some day. Their good eye and Kyle's passion for transforming discarded items has made for quite a few important pieces in the fall season experience.
Our last shoutout goes to John Edge and Edge Electric. Not only did these guys do all the wiring and electric in the new red barn, but John and his crew are always there for us when we need them. He pops over and fixes any problems we have and Kyle has used his boom truck (and John himself!) for projects like stringing up the lines for the zip line and putting up the windmill by the Windmill Shed.
John especially seems to find problems to fix at the barn when we're making donuts. He has what we all wish we had: a sixth sense for when those delicious little donuts are being made. And he always find the opportunity to snag a few. We don't care. We'd literally be in the dark without him.
Thank you, farm friends. We wouldn't be where we are today without you!
In the early years, operating the kettle corn machine came with very specific instructions:
Don't use too much oil. Stir frequently. And when it catches on fire, shut off the gas and go find Kyle.
Back in that day, the $5,000 price tag on a new kettle corn machine was a little out of Kyle's budget, so he rounded up some family members and they put their "sure, I can make that" farmer attitude to work. The very first kettle corn machine was a product of a conversation with a knowledgeable carnival worker, quite a bit of YouTube research, some spare parts in the barn, and a little welding, It was what Kyle calls "a little quirky," but it did the job...that is, until it caught on fire. (And, yes, the answer to your question is, it did catch on fire...twice.)
Today, Kyle has a less Frankenstein monster-esque kettle corn machine, one that our employees can operate without needing a fire extinguisher at arm's reach. And these delicious kernels are a fall season staple!
The origins of our apple cider donuts also started under unusual circumstance. The summer Kyle decided to add the Snack Shack onto the old white barn, donuts were high on the list for food offerings, but the machine to make them was difficult to find. At that time, he was working pretty closely with the Grant County Fair board and had gotten to know the carnival operator very well. Kyle mentioned he was looking to add donuts to the fall season during a chat with him one day...and wouldn't you know - the guy had an old donut machine lying around in a trailer that he was going to toss out.
So the old donut machine came to call Vesperman Farms home. It didn't make great-looking donuts - they were misshapen and uneven - but the staff couldn't keep up with the orders. And Kyle knew that they were on to something with these donuts.
Although maybe not as dangerous as that first kettle corn machine, a lot of problem solving when into that first donut machine. Twice in that first fall season Kyle had to overnight parts when the motor burned up. And because the thing was old, there wasn't even a motor that fit it, so he spent nights reworking the motor to fit the machine.
Since that forgotten donut machine, Kyle has since upgraded to two newer models that are much more efficient and precise. Now we make 75-100,000 donuts every fall season!
Later one of those same motors ended up in the kettle corn machine, running the first auto-stir function that saved Kyle and his staff from some serious burns from hot, popping sugar. (Kyle used to dress basically like a beekeeper to keep himself from getting burned while stirring the popcorn.)
Donut making then....
...and donut making now!
Both the donuts and kettle corn have found their niche at the farm, and oftentimes are the favorite part of fall season for many of our guests. It's been fun for Kyle to see both foods evolve and take their own special place in many people's fall season experience. These fall treats are available soon - fall season starts September 22!
Can I just wax poetic about loaded baked potatoes for a minute?
Okay, you said no, but I'm going to do it anyway. Sorry.
There's no food that says sweet summer nights to me more than a loaded baked potato in a cardboard boat. Grab it from a food truck and then dish up your toppings at the condiment station. Eat it with a spork (or eventually your fingers because the spork would always break) while walking through the lights and the noise and the carnival color. Just pure deliciousness in the simplest of forms.
Now, baked potatoes are saying sweet fall days because they are making their debut at the farm this season. And I am so excited because I didn't think fall could get better...but it did. Good hearty potatoes with good hearty toppings. I'll be first in line to get mine!
This is just your average premium-selected, dry-rubbed-in-a-special-blend-of-herbs-and-spices, and slow-smoked-for-eight-hours brisket sandwich that you can find pretty much everywhere.
That's a lie. This brisket is pretty special, and you can get it here on the farm this fall season. You don't even need the sauces. They're really just for show.
They are locally sourced. They are hand cut, hand breaded, and then hand deep-fried (just kidding...we do that last step with a tongs).
And then they are served up to you new this fall season: chicken strips!
Sure these are for kids. But more importantly, YES, it's socially acceptable to order off the kid's menu here at the farm.
For a lot of this off-season, Kyle and his food crew have been experimenting in the kitchen. The fruits of that labor are four delicious food and drink options that are new for fall season! And we're going to be featuring them right here on the blog. AND if you pop on over to our Facebook page, you could win a free meal or two...or in this case, a free drink!
Kyle's been making fresh-squeezed lemonade for Night on the Square and a lot of other events off the farm, but this year we're offering it during fall season. It'll be available in the Snack Shack, reopening this fall season in the comeback story of the year (for us at least...more on that in a few weeks). Chat with Judy or me (cause I'll be there on weekends sucking on lemon rinds and stealing donuts) while you watch us make this refreshing and delicious drink! And enjoy!
Looking at the bridal suite today, it - like so many things on the farm - does not reveal much about its previous down-and-out status. The bridal suite has come a long way from its previous incarnation as a home garage, set to be sold at auction or demolished, and it's shabby-to-chic story makes this little building all the more special to us.
The Bridal Room Then
While you were chasing down deals in department stores on Black Friday 2016, Kyle was securing this rough-looking garage. The local hospital in town owned this house and garage and wanted them removed to make room for their expansion. They put out an ad for sealed bids and when they were open, Kyle won this garage for $200.
Buying it was one thing; moving it was another.
In typical Kyle fashion, he was just going to move this building himself, but the state wouldn't grant him permits to move the building across the state highway. So instead he hired Heritage Movers out of Mt. Hope, who took only about 5 hours to load the garage, move it just over 2 miles, and deliver it to the farm. The garage sat on the farm over the winter while we figured out exactly what we were going to do with this thing. And let me tell you, I had my doubts. But like always, those doubts were unfounded. I still need to learn that this plucky farmer can really transform even the ugliest of things into useful and beautiful spaces.
In the beginning of this project, there wasn't even a plan to turn this garage into a bridal room. Kyle originally thought it would make a good food stand for fall season or even a good place for small groups to gather. But once we took a look at the building in the space, we knew what it should be used for.
The transformation is the result of easily hundreds of hours of labor: from pouring the footers and placing the building to all the shiplap and rebuilding the stairs to deciding how to furnish the space (still not done yet!). We finished the exterior in time for our 2017 wedding season and put a hold on all construction during the summer.
The interior construction and design has taken place over the last few months. We went all Joanna Gaines in there with white shiplap; painted trim and mirror frames during cold winter nights; and in the last few months have been refinishing and staining the floors, finding salvage furniture, and hanging up some of Bruce's wood artwork to give the space a personal touch.
We took out the old straight staircase and put in a new two-part staircase with a landing. This gave the first floor a little more footprint and, of course, it was really all for the photos.
There's just a little more furnishing left to do upstairs, but this room is ready for the girls.
The Bridal Room Now
To celebrate, we had some amazing people come out in July and we participated in a styled shoot of the bridal suite. It was such a fun day and we're so excited to share with you some photos from the day as we announce the opening of the bridal room, all dressed up and ready to party!
Hair and Make-Up: Tres Chic Salon
Photos: Christy Bee Photography
Dresses: David's Bridal
I'll answer your first question right off the bat: No, I'm not Kyle's dog. But he does love me (kind of). See?
I am the utterly spoiled pupper of our venue coordinator Morgan and our tractor driver/bartender/general handyman Eric. I live with my best friend and fearless leader Summit and my favorite person in the whole world: my tiny human Wakelin. And I spend most of my days sleeping on the couch, snagging table scraps from the baby, and enduring embarrassing photoshoot after embarrassing photoshoot.
Now I'll get to your second and third questions: Yes, I look like a boy dog, but I'm a girl (no matter how many times Kyle says otherwise)! And I have no idea what breed I am. I came up on a rescue bus from South Carolina when I was just a teeny pup. At about three years old now, I've since grown into my ears, but not my nose.
Best we can figure, I'm a little lab, a little boxer, and a little German shepherd. We know I'm for sure a lab in personality though, 'cause I'm a lover, a VERY loud barker, and I cannot stay out of any body of water larger than a postage stamp.
I love visiting with you guys every Monday, even though I'm not always the most cooperative when it comes to posing for my photos. Why should I sit around and do what they want when there are things to smell, goats to herd, and squirrels to chase? I LOVE the farm - there are good doggy things to do here - and I'll be coming back every Monday to show you my tricks and fill you in on what's happening on the farm.
Thanks for getting to know me a little better! If you have any doggo buddies, drop their photo in the comments - I love meeting new friends. Gotta go for now...it looks like they're setting up for a buffet...
For our intern, Kyla, life is really all about the goats.
"Who doesn't like an animal that has rectangular pupils?" She asks, and we have to say, that's a pretty good point. If Kyla weren't here to learn as part of her internship through UW-Platteville, we're pretty sure she would post up as an animal attendant permanently. Because this animal lover has found her niche here at Vesperman Farms.
Kyla is from Wauwautosa, WI, and she's in her third year at UW-Platteville studying business administration, marketing, and communication. She's minoring in entrepreneurship, too. She plans to graduate this May but before she does, she needs to complete an internship for her program. And that's how she came to us.
She's been here a few months now, and has done just about everything. As someone who is looking into either starting her own business or going into small business, Kyla is getting some serious experience here at the farm, where we wear multiple hats in the day (and sometimes in just an hour).
Since she's been here, Kyla has (take a deep breath) run Facebook contests (including our new "how tall is the corn?" posts); painted our bridal suite; bartended, driven golf carts, and helped with food service for our weddings and events; created some training documents for our staff; organized the mess of photos in our Dropbox; made some cool videos for our blog and social media sites; and worked our strawberry season.
And what does she think of all this?
"I like everything about it. It's just a really cool operation. When I write my internship evaluations, they ask you to make connections between your classes and the work you're doing, and I feel I've learned a lot about concepts they teach you in class and how those concepts work in real business."
She pauses: "....and there's the goats."
So far, Kyla's loved running the "how tall is the corn post" and interacting with our customers best. So far, we've loved everything about her. Especially her 15 minutes of fame as the photobombing chillest intern ever in the background of this lovely couple's photo.
Basically, we're going to find a way to keep this intern around. We like her too much to let her go fulfill her dreams. :) Thank you, Kyla, for all your help and for just being you!
The corn maze at Vesperman Farms came about because of the sesquicentennial.
The very first corn maze that Kyle is aware of was in East Central Pennsylvania back in 1993. Five years later, in 1998, corn mazes came to Wisconsin in the form of Wisconsin. For the state's 150-year celebration, a farm in Janesville offered a maze in the shape of our cheesehead state. There was no pumpkin patch or activities or food accompanying this first maze, but the novelty of it attracted 50,000 people.
And this got Kyle thinking. At that time, he was selling pumpkins in Lancaster, but was already having ideas to bring a bigger version of his hobby 4H project back to the farm.
A New Idea Crops Up
Back in the 90's and early 2000's, farms like ours were very basic. They had pumpkin patches - and sometimes wagon rides to them - where you could buy pumpkins. Orchards sold apples. And maybe there were some jams and jellies and even some apple cider to purchase while you were there. At that time, "farm tourism" was a wholesomely new concept and people in the biz were just beginning to form ideas for activities, food options, and big attractions like corn mazes.
So in 2002, with the mutterings of this farm tourism concept developing, Kyle visited a couple of farms to look into the idea of moving his pumpkins back to the farm. He started to really like the idea of a "farm destination," so we opened for our first season on the farm that fall. The first year was just "take a ride to the pumpkin patch" and little else, but the plans for the life-sized twists and turns in the corn maze were in place for the next year.
Mazed and Confused
Now, I didn't know this, but even 20 years ago there were companies that designed corn mazes. And when Kyle decided to forge ahead with the maze idea, he really swung for the fences. He didn't hire just any maze designer - he hired the guy who designed the very first corn maze, a man who has set multiple Guinness world records and is world-renowned for his craft, England-based designer Adrian Fisher.
Keep in mind that Kyle was 20 years old, a junior in college at this point, just starting out his business, trying to keep up with classes and life. I mean, he's basically still a kid. And he calls a world-renowned designer to help a tiny up-start farm in Southwest Wisconsin add a maze.
So one day Kyle was in class and his phone rang. And he could tell it was a call from Europe but he couldn't answer - he was in class. He checked the voicemail after and it was Adrian Fisher, telling him that he'd love to do a corn maze for the farm. And Kyle called him back and they started work.
I asked, "Kyle, how did you get the nerve to call this guy up and negotiate terms and work with designers and do all these very adult things when you were still at the point where you wouldn't even answer your phone for a big business opportunity while you were in class!?" And he responded with great simplicity - for this is Kyle after all - "Anything worth doing is never simple. I wanted people to really be wowed by the maze."
After phone calls and emails over the ocean, the company delivered their design: a giant Jack-o-Lantern. Then Kyle, his parents, and his friend Matt spent four days and about 70 hours on the 5-acre plot cutting out the pathways, taking this concept design....
...to this backbreaking labor....
...and finally to this reality.
A Field of Ears
For the first five years, Fisher and his company designed the corn maze at the farm. And for those first five years, Kyle and his friends cut out the rows to bring it to life. After Fisher stopped working in the U.S., Kyle began working with the MAiZE company out of Utah and hired another company (again, I did not know companies like this existed) that specializes in cutting maze designs to shape the rows.
In the second or third year, Kyle also began designing and cutting a mini maze for kiddos and school groups. This process is a little less exact than the main event, but no less fun!
Come Ear Often?
It takes most people an hour or two to navigate the winding rows of the corn maze at Vesperman Farms. But for those involved in bringing this unique experience to the public, it's a year-long effort of creativity, watching the weather, agricultural know-how, and, yeah, a lot of passion.
The maze has taken a variety of forms in the last 15 years. From the first Jack-o-Lantern, it's been a crop circle, a big catfish, a steamboat, a flag and eagle, farm sceneries, and a scarecrow. Every year has brought different challenges and experiences to both the people responsible for the maze and for the people enjoying the fruits of this particular harvest.
For almost everyone, the maze fulfills a need for odd diversions or for simpler pleasures. Ann Dolan, a retired teacher who guides our school groups through the mini maze, believes that a corn maze represents a challenge and a joy to people who participate. "The kids love to make decisions and problem solve. They feel so accomplished when they make it through to the end," she says.
The maze - as with everything we do - is also about spending time on the farm. Navigating through the maze isn't just a walk through the cornfield. It's about sharing ideas and thoughts with your companions; about going down the wrong path and laughing about it; and it's about your relationships, with each other, with us, and with the farm. To us, the maze is really just another way people can enjoy life on the farm.
This year's corn maze is already cut and shaping up for you fall goers, and as always, we're counting the days until we open it up for the public. This year we'll send you off into the maze with some well wishes from Ann, who always tells her school group kids before they enter:
We enjoyed getting to know you guys. And we really want you to know that. You know...in case we never see you again.
Fun on the farm...in blog form!