This past weekend, I brought my little assistant to help transplant Bruce's giant pumpkins. Okay, he didn't help at all (these pumpkins need a practiced gardener, not a 2-year-old on a mission to move all the dirt in Grant County), but we did get to see the next step in giant pumpkins: getting them into the ground!
Last week, Bruce planted six giant pumpkins, and Saturday he put two more in the ground. We helped with one.
He trimmed up these baby bigs, removing flowers and extra leaves to get them ready for planting. Then we drove over to the field, which might not look like an action-packed place right now, but the real magic is about to start.
Bruce plants these pumpkins sideways so they can follow the ground and so they don't break under their own weight as they grow. He spreads some Miracle Grow, kelp fertilizer, and a little insecticide for each plant to give it a bit of a boost, then he diligently gardens it for the next couple of months.
Each plant is planted about 20 feet away from each other to give them enough room to grow. The goal is to get them big enough and strong enough to have a pollinated pumpkin by the 4th of July, which means that soon this empty-looking field will be a sea a green leaves.
These pumpkins can grow up to three feet in just a day, and Bruce says that to accomplish that amount of growth, they need the right amount of rain, good heat, and a lot of love. When I asked him how long he will spend with these plants in the next few months, he laughed and said: "You don't want to know."
(Kyle added that Bruce spends more time with these eight giant pumpkins than he does with his 8-acres of normal-sized pumpkins!)
My little gardener and I will be checking back in on these pumpkins in the next two weeks and we can't wait to see these plants grow!
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!
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!
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!
This month, Kyle is back in school. But it's, like, a REALLY cool school.
Kyle is currently enrolled in a program called Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses. Goldman Sachs (you know, investments, banking, all the money stuff?) has a foundation that is focused on giving some of this wealth (not just money, but experience, knowledge, and energy) back to the business community. This program is a partnership between Goldman Sachs and Babson College, located in Massachusetts, which is the #1 school in nation for entrepreneurship, ranking ahead of those Ivys like Harvard and Yale. And the program is all about helping small business and small business owners.
What this organization has found is that there are many small businesses out there that have reached a certain size and success without their owners, operators, or presidents having formal training in management, entrepreneurship, or any of the seemingly "necessary" job skills normally associated with a small business owner. This very specific need has the potential to not only affect the lives of the business owners themselves, but they also know that helping them helps others: A thriving business provides more employment opportunities, stimulates more economy, and can give back in many ways to the community is belongs to. Their goals for these organizations are threefold:
This is an exclusive program that only admits a limited number of people a session, so it's pretty incredible that our local business owner is now a part of it. In the short time since its establishment, only 7,300 business owners have graduated from the program across all 50 states in the US, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. But the impact has been massive. Two years after graduating from the program, 47 percent of participating businesses grew their revenue by more than 77 percent and 56 percent of business added jobs in their communities. Not only that, but 88 percent of participating businesses have found new business partnerships, oftentimes with those in the alumni network to which they now below.
Kyle discovered this program during a rainy October day when our fall season crowds were low. He was reading the Telegraph Herald and discovered an article featuring the 10,000 Small Businesses program. After doing more research, Kyle was definitely interested. This program seemed way beyond the jumpstart business classes he'd been a part of before, and he felt that there was a lot of potential for both him and his business here.
There was a three-step process to get involved: The first was a paper application with all the business information and a description of Kyle's goals and aspirations for his business. Next was a whole series of financial documentation. After Kyle made it through these steps, he participated in an interview panel to see if he was a good fit for the program and dedicated to seeing it through. They were particularly focused on making sure Kyle was community driven - this program is not only interested in the business itself, but what it gives back to the community it belongs to.
In early February, he was accepted!
Kyle is now part of a 10-week program. He takes 2 online classes each week and twice he will travel to Massachusetts to participate in 4-day intensive classroom experience. Throughout the whole program, he will learn more about leadership, sales, financial documents, managing people, forecasting, supply chain management, and identifying opportunities within his own business. He will also have opportunities to practically apply these new job skills within his classes and within his business. He will leave the program with a comprehensive growth plan that he plans to apply and implement within the next couple of years.
Once Kyle is done with his classes, we'll be posting another blog that describes some of his experiences and we'll hint about what's next for the farm - a lot of exciting things. We'll also reveal his grade...hopefully he's a diligent student!
Until then, if you're interested, you can learn more about the program at the Goldman Sachs website.
While I was out riding in the pumpkin wagon this past fall, a few people asked me why our pumpkin patch had moved. I sort of fumbled an answer about what I assumed was crop rotation, but I realized I really didn't know. And when I don't know things, I bother Kyle. So I asked him: Why do our pumpkin patches move?
Crop rotation in a nutshell can accomplish four major things.
First, it improves soil nutrition. Crops take a lot of nutrients out of the soil, but they also put some back in. And each crop will take and put different kinds and levels of nutrients out and in of the soil. Moving the crops around can replenish nutrients in the soil, give the land a break from certain crops that can very quickly deplete essential soil nutrition. Rotation also helps keep soil erosion under control, which also helps keep the land healthy and able to continue supporting crops.
Second, it help slow down bug and insect infestation. Rotating the crops keeps bugs confused - what was once their preferred food has now moved - and therefore they don't find the crop as quickly or infest as rapidly if you keep them off their game. It can also disrupt the reproductive cycle of breeding insects, meaning that they struggle to either lay their eggs properly or newly hatched insects awake to a different or unacceptable food source.
Third, it helps fight agains fungus and virus in plants. Much in the same way that rotation fights insect infestations, it can ward off fungus and virus, too. When fungus finds a plant and a virus inhabits an area, continuing to plant the same crop will encourage the growth of these problems, while switching the crops can slow or even stop their progress through a plant community.
And, finally, it helps to control weeds. Rotation makes for healthier crops that will out-compete infestations of weeds and other invasive plant growth. It can also disrupt weed growth that will occur more frequently and rapidly in a mono-culture, which is a long-term growth of the same plant in the same area.
Basically, how I understand it, is that moving the crops keeps the problems that plague and pest both crop and farmer guessing and off their toes, which means the crops have a much better chance of survival and the farmer a better chance of a successful crop.
Now that I understood the basic premise, I had a few other questions:
Why do the pumpkins move every year and the strawberries stay in one place for a couple years?
The short answer is they have different growth cycles. The long answer is the berries are a perennial crop and the pumpkins are an annual crop. Annual crops start from a seed, grow, mature, multiple, and die all in one growing season. Perennials like strawberries start and grow in one year, multiple and reproduce in the second year, and continue reproducing and maturing in the years following. For annual crops, moving them around is essential and logical: they are restarted every year and so they are able to be moved frequently. Production of strawberries drops off after 3-4 years of keeping them in the same spot - after this time, the nutrients in the soil have dissipated and bugs and fungus have often found the plants. This means it's time to give the field a break and move the berries to another location.
Does rotation cut down on the use of fungicides and herbicides?
Yes, it can. But so much of this also depends on other growing factors, like the condition of the soil, the weather patterns, and the health of the seeds and young plants, so rotation doesn't always guarantee that these aren't necessary for a healthy crop.
Do farmers have to plan out their crop rotations years in advance?
Depending on the size of the crop land and the number of plants in rotation, yes. Smaller farms can often undertake less planning, but more the more you have to consider, the more complicated the rotation plans get. Ours are pretty simple, so we plan a couple years out.
For more blogs about how and why we farm, check out our How We Farm tag. And if you have any questions, drop them in the comments!
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?
Fun on the farm...in blog form!