A lot of things we need to live, plants need, too.
Many times, we are asked if we use fertilizer and chemicals on our crops, and why we use them. To start off our new series of blogs about How We Farm, we're going to address what always seems to be the elephant in the room: Why do farmers use chemicals on the food we eat?
We use fertilizer on our plants, including our pumpkins, strawberries, and raspberries. There is no danger in using fertilizer for plants. In fact, fertilizer provides to the plant some of the essential nutrients they need to grow (and many of those things are essential to our nutrition as well): Potassium, which we get from bananas (the most popular and well-known source); phosphorus, which is found in a lot of the green vegetables we try to get our kids to eat; and nitrogen, which we actually breath in from the air.
What's often misunderstood is the delivery of these fertilizers. Nitrogen for example, can be a gas, liquid, and, in fertilizer form, a solid. Smarter people than us have found a way to attach nitrogen to other molecules to make it solid in a pellet form, which is how it - and other nutrients - are sometimes delivered into the soil to fertilize the plants. It can seem weird to some that these essential nutrients, found so naturally in our food, can be formed into what seems an unnatural form. But it's just a modified form of delivery that uses the different state of the matter plants need. It's basically the same concept as multivitamin - but for plants!
PESTICIDES, FUNGICIDES and INSECTICIDES (referred to broadly as "chemicals")
It's not necessarily that we like using these on our crops, but it's really just that we HAVE to. If we didn't more years than not we would have a crop failure. Even though many people struggle with the idea that we use chemicals on our food, the pesticides and fungicides that we use on our crops do keep our plants healthy and alive.
For example, some years strawberries can end up with a bitter taste. This is the result of a fungus. Most fungi start from spores that are naturally occurring in the soil and they get into the plants through water. Rainwater is a great conduit for fungus. The splash of water on the ground will deposit spores onto the plant. Usually once a fungus gets on a plant and takes hold, it's "game over" for the plant. The best and most effective way for us to keep fungi at bay is to use a fungicide. At the farm we use an antibacterial/anti-fungal spray on our all crops (differing slightly based on the crop we're spraying), which is similar to us washing our hands with antibacterial soap. We don't want germs on our plants any more than we want them on our hands!
Pesticides are used at the farms, too. These are used mainly as a deterrent, but not a killer, of bugs. Bugs find and inhabit plants and can be seriously damaging. One way we combat bugs is crop rotation (we have a blog coming up on this soon!), but the other way is using pesticides. If you use Off! or Deet in the summer to ward off those insects, you're embracing a similar concept to what we're trying to do with bugs on plants. We don't necessarily want 'em dead, we just don't want 'em on our plants.
Many people see pesticides and fungicides as bad or poisonous, and we will concede that they are not our favorite things to use on our plants. However, to provide some context, bleach and many of the other household cleaners you can find in the cabinet under the sink pack a bigger punch that the chemicals we put on our plants.
We know you like sweet-tasting berries and plump orange pumpkins, so we do what we can to keep these plants healthy and happy so you can be healthy and happy, too.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comments - we'll be happy to answer them the best we can!
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
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.
"The pumpkin is a womb" is probably the most poetic thing I've ever heard Kyle say. But I guess after 20+ years of growing, there's a lot of love between the pumpkin and this pumpkin farmer.
Today the crew is finishing planting the 7-acre pumpkin patch at the farm. We plant a few varieties, from small cooking pumpkins to bigger ones for carving. In the next week or so, the pumpkins will start to pop out of the ground, and in 95-115 days, they will be fully grown, ready for fall.
Planting this year has taken about three days. The rain, including the spectacular cloudburst on Friday night, delayed us a few times. But the hot weather the last two days made for a great day of planting today!
To plant the pumpkins, Kyle uses a modified corn planter - an old Case plate planter - which seats two people, each in front of a seed hopper. These helpers drop seeds into into the hopper, which disperses the seed into the furrows. It's a hot, slow job, but it used to be a lot more painstaking. Like all things here at the farm, Kyle has constantly innovated his process - today we plant more pumpkins than we ever have, but at least it's not all on our hands and knees!
When I asked Kyle about what he's learned after all these years of growing pumpkins, he said it just comes down to weather and timing. Pumpkins need a good amount of rain right after planting to establish their root structure and develop their vines, but the hot, dry heat of August is perfect for when they are setting fruit. Last year was one of the best years for pumpkins: a lot of rain in July and a hot, dry August and early September.
It was during this conversation that I learned the pumpkin itself is really just a vessel (or womb, as Kyle said, to my delight) for the pumpkin seed. The pumpkin grows the outer skin and pulp during hot weather, which in turn serve as protective covering for those seeds. The pumpkin protects its seeds until the outer portion breaks down, releasing these soon-to-be pumpkins into the ground and starting the growing process all over again.
So the next time you find a whopper in the patch, give it some credit: it's been doing a really good job. And now I have a lot of questions about which came first: the pumpkin or the seed?
All in one weekend of May 1982, Donald and Margaret moved off the farm and Bruce and Judy moved in. While the next Vesperman generation put down their roots at the farm, Donald and Margaret settled into a house on Madison Street, the same one Kyle's cousin Eric lives in today. And for a few years all was pretty quiet at that house.
But in the late 80's, the front yard became a small market from September through Halloween. And this little farmer's market had one product: pumpkins.
Beginning in the early 80's, Bruce and Judy diversified their farming operation, raising more vegetables and selling them into smaller markets. As part of their diversification, they started a pumpkin patch and began looking for ways to sell pumpkins to people for carving, cooking, and decoration. The decision to sell pumpkins at Donald and Margaret's house in town came down to the old tried and true real estate maxim: Location, location, location. The visibility of the Madison street house made it a great location for a local market...and they knew the people living there.
The house, with its wrap-around porch and good-sized front yard, could hold a lot of pumpkins, and it filled up quickly. In those days, the family worked on the honor system. They would load up wagon after wagon of pumpkins, drive into town, and just cover the front porch and yard with orange bulbs. Sometimes they would put a "Pumpkins for Sale" sign up...sometimes they wouldn't. Sometimes they would staff the yard...sometimes they wouldn't. "Really, it was usually just an old metal coffee can with a hole in the lid," Kyle says. "People would pick up their pumpkins, leave their money, and that was kind of the whole operation." In that sea of pumpkins, the Vesperman family found something really special, something that seems to only exist in small towns: a unique event; a trust between buyer and seller; and a fun, special experience for many local (and sometimes not so local) families.
One thing that was pretty constant (besides all the pumpkins) was the presence of Kyle's grandparents, who thoroughly enjoyed pumpkin season. Donald especially found joy in porch sittin' - on crisp, sunny afternoons you could usually find him in his chair, chatting with the families that stopped by, thanking everyone for their business, and wishing them all a happy fall. And when it got to the final few days before Halloween, you could bet he'd throw in an extra pumpkin or two for ya, no charge.
When Bruce quit farming in 1995, Kyle, then in high school, still had an interest in raising crops, and he mainly focused on sweet corn and pumpkins. Even though back in those days he was busy with school and football practice, a lot of his fall weekends were spent picking pumpkins and taking them up to the house. "Sometimes I'd take up two or three wagonfuls, and in between loads I could tell people had been there. I'd be putting more pumpkins on bare spots that just an hour ago were full," he remembers.
After graduating and going to college, Kyle found a little more time in his schedule, and that's when his ideas for the pumpkins and for the fall season really began to take off. In 2002, he kept the pumpkins in the patch and invited families to come out to the farm to pick their own, marking the first official fall season and beginning a new chapter in the farm's history.
In many ways, though, Kyle's approach to his projects has remained the same. He still operates the fall season very similarly to the way he operated his small pumpkin market as a 14-year old: with some background and knowledge in the area, a lot of hard work and time, a (sort of) clear vision, and a lot of energy, he continues to create and share experiences that have the same magic of that little pumpkin operation. And even though it's on a much bigger scale now, 15 years later, the fall season at its heart is all about building relationships, spending time with family, and throwing in that extra pumpkin.
This story is part of 15 Year Features series to celebrate 15 years of Vesperman Farms' fall season. If you'd like to read more, click on the "15 Year Features" category!
A decade or so ago, the farm workshop was a pig farrowing barn. But today no swine smell lingers. Now when you walk through the doors, you catch whiffs of cut wood, Danish oil, sap, and wood glue. No oinks, but the whir of saw blades and the scratch of sandpaper. And instead of pigs, you'll meet Bruce, the farmer turned artist, working away on his latest wood project.
"Well, I was bored," says Bruce with his big smile. "I retired and I needed something to do and to keep out of Judy's (his wife's) way."
What he found was a hobby that keeps him both busy and challenged. His shop is littered with scrap wood, printed versions of project ideas he's found on Pinterest, pieces of paper with scribbled dimensions and important notes, and a variety of stains and paints he's been experimenting with. His shop isn't messy, man - it's creative.
Since he started, Bruce has become an expert in Pinterest, browsing the idea site for anything new and challenging, for things to make just for fun and for things that make practical sense for the farm.
Some of our favorite pieces are his mosaics, which are made from old pieces of scrap wood. He painstakingly cuts each small piece to size and shape, then glues them all together according to a preset pattern. These projects can take a few hours or a few days, and Bruce has created them in a variety of sizes and shapes, from the large barn quilts that hang in the barn to smaller pieces in a variety of designs, including a feather that hangs in my house. (And upon visiting his shop to write this blog, I found more feather pieces, which means I'm going to have quite a few Bruce originals in my house!)
And the practical projects he's worked on have been just as great. Bruce made napkin holders for the tables that we use for our public events, sanded and stained some beautiful old pieces of wood for our bar menu, and made all of our high chairs. So many of the pieces we use on a daily basis have come right from Bruce's shop.
In the past few months, Bruce has been working on smaller projects to sell during our fall season, and also spent about a week making a grand throne, which the Easter Bunny will have the honor of sitting in at our Breakfast at the end of the month!
For Bruce, tinkering away at projects and coming up with new ideas is a great way to stay busy and have fun. But like most of the Vespermans, this hobby is also about finding a way to contribute to the farm's business and history, and so many of his pieces reflect his attention to and care for the farm where he's spent his life. From re-purposing old barn wood that keeps this history of this place alive to making pieces that enhance the experience of people enjoying the farm now, Bruce isn't just one of the most useful guys on the farm, he's also one of the sweetest.
This story is part of 15 Year Features series to celebrate 15 years of Vesperman Farms' fall season. If you'd like to read more, click on the "15 Year Features" category!
This January, Kyle got off the farm and in front of an audience for two ag-tourism conferences.
His first speech was at the Wisconsin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference in the Dells, where he gave a presentation titled "Success: It's More Than Just Growing." His talk focused on expanding business outside of the fields, finding new experiences, and trying out new ideas to keep adapting to a changing customer base and a rapidly moving industry. As Kyle says, in this industry, you have to be willing to completely adjust your whole mindset to keep being successful, a message he passed on to all attending.
At the same conference, he also partnered with Marshfield Farm Safety Institution to talk about crisis and disaster management. They specifically focused on a real-life event that happened here last year, when a tornado siren went off during one of our weddings. Luckily, the tornado did not come anywhere near our guests, but it made for a valuable workshop on how to create plans for unknown or crisis situations and how to plan and prepare for the worst.
Photos by the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association.
Kyle then turned around and headed to Iowa for their Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference, where he was the keynote speaker. On Thursday, he gave a presentation about our wedding and events business, chatting with other ag-tourism professionals about all the things we've learned in the past three years, our system and processes, and how to manage a catering and beverage business. At his keynote address on Friday, he talked about our Farm's history and where that history will take us in the future.
Although Kyle really enjoys the opportunity to share our story, he's now happily back on the farm in his yellow t-shirt, planning to get back to where it all started: those sweet Wisconsin fields.
Here on the farm, almost everything (even stuff that most people consider garbage) gets put to use. We take sustainability pretty seriously, so from the buffet food to the buildings, almost everything finds a home (or a mouth).
One thing that is a reality of every event venue is leftover food. We spend a lot of time crafting the best formulas for food preparation, but because not everything can be predicted, we sometimes have food left over from buffets, events, and other activities. We would rather have excess than not enough (we believe you should not leave here hungry!), but all that leftover food just can't go in the trash.
So after an event, we first separate food scraps to feed to the pigs, cats, and other farm animals that are, uhm, less picky about where their plate is set. The remaining food that is not even pig-worthy goes directly to our composting pile, where is breaks down and is later spread in the fields as fertilizer for those delicious berries, good carving pumpkins, and corn for the maze.
We make sure that almost every piece of food that is not eaten by our guests find a purpose, therefore saving on waste and keeping our food items moving through the cycle of re-use!
Even buildings don't go to waste around here. As farms grow older, buildings fall into disrepair or just fall down (from the weight of their own age or by wind, storm, etc). When this happens, every usable piece of scrap wood is saved and stored here on the farm until we have use for them. We have re-purposed old barn wood for the kiddie picnic tables you'll see placed out during fall season, made some wooden spools that have served as decoration at our weddings and events, and re-worked many of these pieces into signage for the fall season and for our events. And of course, the finishes in the barn itself are fully reclaimed as well.
One of the best ways (in our opinion) of reusing these old wood pieces is Bruce Vesperman's new hobby of creating amazing decorative pieces for both the farm and for sale. He's been in his workshop most of the summer carefully cutting, placing, and framing up some of these wonderful items. Some are in our barn now for decoration, but others were sold to customers during fall season (with plans to do this again next year). I know I have a few orders in with Bruce!
Bruce and Kyle have also created some functional pieces for the business, including these great napkin holders and our wine rack!
Kyle takes sustainability even off the farm, rescuing old buildings, shipping containers, and other items that were destined to be torn down, burned, or tossed in a landfill. One of our projects last year was bringing in an old garage that has since been transformed into the backdrop for our outdoor wedding ceremony location, a beautiful little spot that's framed perfectly on the hilltop overlooking the farm. Now dubbed the Schoolhouse because it reminds us of those little one-room schools, this little building will eventually become a bridal room for wedding parties!
As we've expanded our business, we've found we need ample room for storing items like tables, chairs, buffet items, and more. So Kyle found a down-and-out shipping container and re-purposed it as our storage unit. Now we can keep all our things safely out of our way when they need to be, but accessible when we have to set up for that next event.
Next on the docket is this old beauty, which was hauled in from a neighbor's. We're not sure what it'll be yet, but we'll dream of something! After that, there are two more buildings on the project list, but rest assured that each one will find a home at Vesperman Farms!
One thing's for sure: If you have something you don't need, we'll find a use for it out here at the farm!
In the last year, we've been busy...building the venue of your dreams!
Vesperman Farms is very excited to announce that in 2016, we will be booking weddings and events in our new barn! Finished just before the fall season last year, the new barn has all the rustic charm you're looking for, with updated facilities (including permanent restrooms and a chef's kitchen) and a beautiful farm backdrop for your special day! To learn more about booking your wedding, visit our wedding or events sites. But before you do, check out the rest of this post and our photo galleries to learn all that's new with Vesperman Farms!
The barn began taking shape last June. We broke ground on June 8. Every day, it inched closer to reality!
Plumbing and wiring were especially intricate, but the awesome bathrooms and kitchen were worth the work!
We held our first event on September 13 for the hospital. We opened five days later for the fall season. There was a lot more work to be done, but everyone had a great time in the barn!
We've been busy this winter finishing the inside, insulating and wiring the place for lights and sound! We have a ways more to go--check back with us next month for the finished space! We're so excited to show it to you, we'll be posting photos the second after the last decoration is hung!
From the drawing board to the real deal, we're excited for you to host your events here at Vesperman Farms!
Fun on the farm...in blog form!