Last week, I visited Bruce in his giant pumpkin nursery and learned a whole bunch of things about turning these big ol' seeds into big ol' pumpkins!
Bruce gets his seeds from the Giant Pumpkin Growers Association, and he spends quite a few weeks marinating them in some special growing sauce and planting them into small starter pots. They spend a few days in Bruce's makeshift incubator, which is a small cooler rigged up with a lightbulb and kept at a certain temperature.
When - and if - they germinate, these baby giants are moved from the cooler to a little bigger space: the back of Bruce's shop. There they stay safe from the cold temperatures under a heat lamp, and get the start they need to grow. The plants are all labeled (genetics in big pumpkin growing is a BIG deal - pun intended) and kept sorted until they are turned out to the field. This year, Bruce has about 10 pumpkins that have started to grow and each one has the potential to be a giant - one plant has grown from a seed that was harvested from a pumpkin that grew to over 1,000 pounds in size!
In the next week (if it ever stops raining!), Bruce will be transplanting these future giant pumpkins. I'll be following along the whole process, so stay tuned to see how these babies grow and grow and grow!
A year ago, Jane Henkel saw an ad for work on the farm and she thought, "hmmm...that sounds interesting." Today, this former food service director for Fennimore schools has a fall and a wedding season under her belt and is back in her "happy place."
Jane retired from 30 years' of food services last year, bought a place in Florida, and started looking for a part-time job that had a lot of flexibility and was something that she enjoyed. Food service in the schools is a lot of hard work, but here at the farm, Jane doesn't have to worry about the paperwork. She gets to do her favorite thing: be on the floor, prepping and cooking food.
The best thing about Jane is her sweet personality, but she also knows her way around the kitchen. During fall season, she comes in and helps prepare food for the busy weekends and make donuts. During our wedding and events season, she's here most Fridays getting our kitchen prepared for event menus. She loves to prep food. And like so many others, her favorite part of farm work is making donuts. "Seeing those kids with their noses against the windows watching us making donuts - It's just a real treat," she says.
Outside of the kitchen, Jane has a rich and wonderful life. She and her husband, Navarre, travel to Florida in the winter months and enjoy the beautiful sunsets, weather, and beaches. She loves to go up North, where she rents a cabin with her whole family in the summer, too. She has a daughter and son and two grandchildren who she adores and spends as much time with as possible. And her grandchildren LOVE to visit them in Florida!
For Jane, it seems that one of her happiest pleasures is visiting with others. Now that she's retired, her walks with her 11-year-old dog Maggie are frequently punctuated by chats with neighbors and friends. At the farm we get to enjoy her fantastic company and great conversation while she's dicing, chopping, slicing, and boiling. Any day on the farm with Jane is a really good day, and we're so happy that she chooses to spend her time with us!
Quinten Kreul's first years on the farm can be summed up by a blank white wall. He started, like many of our employees do, sugaring donuts in the old white barn when he was a sophomore in high school. It was a tedious job.
"For sure not my favorite," says Quinten, who goes by Q.
Since then, Q's broken out of the white-wall monotony. He's done everything on the farm: bartending weddings, setting up and tearing down from events, mowing the endless lawns, painting barns, building random structures and signs, even cleaning out the store room in the spring.
Though his job duties run deep here, Q's favorite things to do are driving the hay wagons to the pumpkin patch and bartending. He's a people person, after all, and he loves talking and hanging out with our farm guests.
Q is also Kyle's right-hand guy for a lot of off-the-wall requests. For example, when we were building the barn, after the trenches for the foundation had been dug, there was a heavy, heavy rain and all the trenches filled up with mud and muck. They couldn't pour any concrete until that was cleaned up, so Kyle called up Q and the guys spent a full day digging out sludge from the trenches. And while that may sound like a miserable job to many of us, to Q that's just a regular day on the farm. Plus, he has a low bar for misery.
"Really anything is better than staring at those white walls all day," he laughs.
Q is now a college student at UW-Whitewater studying cell biology. He plans to go on to chiropractor school after he's done at Whitewater and then hopefully land a job working with a sports team in Wisconsin. In his free time, he likes to do regular stuff - you know, watching sports and playing video games and hanging with his friends. But he's also a happy baker of delicious treats, a talent he picked up from his mom (also an employee here!), who made cakes on the side when he was growing up.
Even though Q isn't going to be the chef he wanted to be as a child, he's going to do great things with his future. How do we know? Well, anyone who can do anything from digging out muddy trenches to baking a mean batch of blueberry muffins is a force to be reckoned with.
Thanks, Q, for just being you and for all that you do for us at the farm. You're an absolute treasure...but we would like it if you brought us in some baked good every now and then. :)
Every year, the Wauzeka-Stueben senior class takes a trip. This year, the seniors went to New York City, and some donuts helped get them there.
Last November, the Wauzeka-Stueben class partnered with Vesperman Farms to sell apple cider donuts and kettle corn to raise funds for their senior class trip. In March of this year, much of the senior class, the school principal, and the class advisor went to New York City, a first for many of the group.
"Some of the stand-out experiences for students included the Statue of Liberty, Freedom Tower, and the 9/11 Memorial," says Dustin Smith, senior class advisor. "New York is a large city with so much history and culture, so there were many favorite experiences."
One of the things the class enjoyed the most were all of the street performers. Along with some silly exploits in a new city, the class also experienced some misadventures with Google Maps, but a few students and chaperones put their heads together and got everyone back on the right path.
The class also saw Wicked at the theatre one night (which they all loved!) and another night they had the option of attending either a Knicks game or Phantom of the Opera. They also participated in "hop-on, hop-off" tours, which are double-decker bus tours that travel to tourist attractions throughout the city, explaining the significance and interest of each area. "It was a wonderful, unique experience," says Mr. Smith. "A great way to travel through the city!"
Overall, the trip was enriching and entertaining for everyone involved!
Through the fundraiser, the class was able to raise just over $1,000 to go towards their trip funding needs. The cost of the trip is expensive - coming in at nearly $1,200 per student - so every cent helps them to make this trip happen.
"Overall, the fundraiser was very easy to do...it helped us to raise funds nearly effortlessly and everyone loved the products," says Mr. Smith.
Each senior class chooses their location for their trip, and at the farm we're excited to see where a few donuts can take these guys next!
For information on fundraising at Vesperman Farms, you can check out our website or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Look in the hard-to-reach places, especially on the WOOF.
2. Follow your nose.
3. Get plenty of eggs-ercise in the days beforehand.
4. DO put all your eggs in one basket.
5. Enjoy the spoils! Happy Easter, everyone!
The bunny came to help us prepare for our Easter breakfast! He's been busy this week sweeping, frosting donuts, grilling up sausages, hiding eggs, filling goody bags, and of course, practicing his selfies. That fuzzy guy sure is good at hiding eggs, but let me tell you, he's not too great with a broom.
The Easter bunny will be hopping by for photos, a delicious breakfast, fun farm activities, and an egg hunt on Sunday, April 14 from 8 a.m. - 1 p.m. We hope to see you there!
Ever wonder how strawberries grow? I did, so I asked Kyle. And he dropped a lot of berry knowledge on me.
We don't start our strawberries from seeds, but as plants: a little tiny crown, which is the growing part of the berry, and a root. We purchase this rootstock from a nursery in Massachusetts that specifically raises these little plants and sells them to farms. Kyle picked this nursery in particular because their climate and growing region is similar to Wisconsin's, which makes it easier for plants to adjust and flourish.
Sometime in mid-April, Kyle watches the forecast for a few days of good weather and then places an order from the nursery. They then take 15,000-20,000 small strawberry plants out of cold storage, package them up into bundles of 25, and ship them overnight on FedEx Freight to the farm. Once we get them, the real work begins for us, because in the next 2-3 days, all those little plants go in the ground. Kyle, his family, and our fantastic employees work shifts sunup to sundown to plant these little guys, working on a machine called the Transplanter, which can plant up to 1,000 plants per hour. If you want to check out how we plant these berries, check out our Behind the Berries blog!
For the first year, we don't interfere much with these little plants. They need this year to grow on their own. All during this time, these individual plants send out runner plants (called "daughter plants"), helping the plant grow and multiply and turning all these individual plants into multiple connected networks of vines. Oftentimes, the plants do fruit (grow berries) during this time, but we come through and pinch these berries off. We want the plant to put all its energy into growing and multiplying so it has a good base for fruiting in its second year.
During the first part of this growing year (in the fall), we do need to care for them. They need weed control and we go through and mechanically cultivate and till the soil. The runners like to go pretty wild, and they don't grow naturally into the neat rows we enjoy while picking berries. Therefore, we have to stop their expansion into places we don't want them to grow in by tilling the plants that are in those areas under and encouraging other runners to grow in rows. A lot of the maintenance that we do during that first year is to make things easier for the pickers - neat rows make it easy to get in an out of fields and give people more access to the berries that they love.
Over the winter, the plants will go dormant. After we've tilled, we spray a pre-emergent on the plants and cover them with straw. Although this is to protect them from the cold, it's mainly to help with the springtime growth. As soon as the sun comes out, the berries wake up and want to grow. The straw delays their growth, but in a good way: it slows down their "awakening" so they don't grow too soon or too quickly. The straw also helps suppress weeds and fills the gap between the fruit and the bare ground, therefore protecting the berries from fungal infections that come from the ground.
We watch the plants closely throughout the spring and into the summer, and if all goes well, in June we have a great picking season!
Once the picking is over, we mow everything off the top, fertilize the field, and do our best to control weeds. Even though there isn't anything aboveground after we mow, the root structure of the plant is still intact below, so the berries spend the rest of the summer and fall establishing new daughter plants and crowns for good fruit. Then we just repeat our process for the next 3-4 years until it's time to rotate fields, which you can read about here.
In the next couple of months, we'll feature more of our crops, including raspberries, pumpkins, and our giant pumpkins. Stay tuned!
Self-styled Donut Girl and Fry Gal, Ashley Cray has been working for us for years. She started making donuts during fall season, and although she still enjoys firing up the donut machine every now and then, she now helps us out with catering and food service, retail checkout during fall season, and is currently training to be a coordinator for our weddings and events.
Although she works late nights now with events, Ashley started with early mornings. When we only had one donut machine, we had to start super early in the morning to keep up with the donut demand throughout the day. She remembers slogging into the barn at 4 or 5 in the morning, working 10-hour days, and still feeling like they barely kept up with the donuts flying off the shelves. Now, we have two donut machines, so Ashley's days (thankfully) don't start as early as they used to.
Professional Photo by S. Kelly Photography.
Ashley's motto for life is that it's too short, so we need to make memories and cherish time with each other at every opportunity. This philosophy makes her work here at the farm very meaningful to her. She loves meeting people and helping them celebrate the big and small days of their lives, whether it's a family fun day on the farm or a wedding - to Ashley, each day is as important as the next, and each day is a treasure. Any time she leaves a shift, Ashley feels good about the impact she's made on others' lives, even if it's just in a small way, like a donut for a happy kid. And when she's making donuts, she has the best seat in the house:
"Probably my other favorite part of the farm is making donuts during fall season and seeing kids' noses smooshed up against the glass with their wide eyes and their caramel-apple fingers," she says. "It's fall season at its best."
Ashley's feel-good attitude towards the Farm and our purpose is exactly why we do what we do: we want everyone, even and especially our employees, to enjoy their time with family and friends on the farm.
Like most of our employees, the Farm is a second job for Ashley. By day, her professional title is a legal assistant for a law firm in Lancaster. But her personal nickname for her day-life is much different than all the hats she wears at either of her jobs. An avid hiker and biker, Ashely loves to get outdoors, and one of the ways she does this is to geocache, during which she goes by the moniker Backroads Ninja.
If you're wondering what geocaching is, don't worry - I had no clue either. But it's awesome! Geocaching is an outdoor scavenger hunt that uses GPS-enabled devices. Participants use GPS to locate items hidden in specific locations and logged by other geocachers. The app or the web-based site provides hints and descriptions to these hidden treasures, making it the perfect outdoor activity for someone who loves silly adventures - exactly our girl, Ashley.
So far, Ashley has found 84 caches. Her favorite find was a rubber duck trackable (similar to the Where's George? dollar bills). This duck had a little log and a code and had been all over the United States. But she's found other things, like kid's trinkets in a box or even sometimes pieces of trash. All these little treasures are stuck in dead tree stumps or in a fencepost or shoved into broken concrete - no matter what you find, Ashley says geocaching is always an adventure!
To us, this local farm girl is an absolute geocache treasure - we always love when she's on the schedule. She's an uplifting, happy-go-lucky friend to all she meets, and we couldn't be happier that she spends her time with us.
Last month, Kyle went to a party. Really.
Every year, Kyle joins hundreds of other pumpkin patch owners/operators at a conference called the Corn Party. Owners of farms like ours from around the nation join together in different locations to discuss new things in the industry, learn from each other, and tour farms in that area.
This year, Kyle, Bruce, and Judy went to Dallas, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, touring places like Orr Family Farms, Mainstay Farm Park, and Yesterland Farm. He even went to a farm with a helicopter pad. Sweet bridal party arrival, right?! They also checked out the Canton, Texas flea market and even went to a rodeo (although Bruce didn't wear a big cowboy hat and boots, to my disappointment).
Even though I was most interested in the flea market (which looked awesome...it's the world's largest!), of course the most interesting stop they made was to a gas station, called Buc-ees (pronounced Bucky's), which is a Texas-sized chain of gas stations. You know the saying "everything is bigger in Texas"? Well that's true for gas stations, too. This place has everything. This location had 88 gas pumps and the store was over 40,000 square feet. You want real vintage trucks filled with candy? You got it. You want an entire wall full of stuffed animals? You got it. You want six or seven soda dispensers with every single soda or every single flavor option imaginable? You got it. Kyle, This was the most magical gas station any of them had ever been to.
Kyle has been going to the Corn Party for about 10 years now. Every year it is held in a different part of the country. He's part of a group called the MAiZE Group, which provides support and community for people in the ag tourism business and is owned by one of the first guys who got in the corn maze game. This group is also who designs our corn maze every year!
Kyle loves almost every part of this conference - the community and the exchange of ideas - but the neatest part for him is the farm tours. At farms in Texas to New York to Chicago to Arizona, Kyle's seen so many different ways to run a business like his and so many different set ups for the farms. The inspiration of many of our local farm activities has come from these tours. We have this conference to thank for the zip line, the tire mountain - even serving food, including apple cider donuts! (For which I am so, so grateful.)
This year, he got a few more ideas from these Texan farms, and you'll have to visit us this fall to see he has in store (he hasn't even told me!).
If we're going to start to answer the question How We Farm, I think we need to understand what exactly is our farm. Not the history, but the parameters.
The whole farm is 200 acres. The part everyone is used to and knows about is about 40 of those acres. On those 40 acres are the activities area, the main barn, parking lot, berry and pumpkin patches, and corn maze. The rest of the farm that you see but don't play on is field ground for alfalfa, corn, and soybeans, or whatever the farmer who is renting the land decides to plant that year.
The 40-acre difference is made up on a parcel of ground that the family owns just down the road. This is hilly land, with a stream running through it, that is primarily used to grow corn and silage. This gets cut into a salad that feeds dairy cattle at a local farm.
Those are the straightforward stats of the farm, but if you want to learn all about the farm's history and past, check out our blog Celebrating 118 Years of Vesperman Family History!
Fun on the farm...in blog form!