By Kelly Gates
Country Folks Grower
Midwest Addition - May 2007
Volume 16 - Number 5
Leann Landgrebe Pelzel was a stay-at-home wife who had a humble passion. She grew a variety of vegetables organically in her backyard garden, including everything from heirloom tomatoes and chili peppers to bell peppers, arugula and other greens.
In 2003, the budding horticulturalist decided to try something new and what resulted was much more than she could have ever expected." I decided to set up a 20 ft. X 14 ft. Tent and have a vegetable stand at my parents' farm which is set just off a busy highway in Valparaiso, in northwest Indiana" she said. That year and she soon began growing her vegetables on a three-acre parcel. Having the fields on site created a convenient outlet for picking more organic produce when her stock started to dwindle. "There was a write-up about my organic produce featuring heirloom varieties in the local paper. Many people came from all over the place; I ended up running out of produce and hade to replant."
According to Leann, her parents were renting the farm land out, but her father had farmed years before and he was able to lend a hand. "My dad taught me how to run tractors and my mom helped me in the field," she said. "After the first year, I also started selling to restaurants and at the down town farmer's market. The biggest expansion was starting a community supported agriculture program. Our C.S.A features two harvests, two share types, two share sizes." A C.S.A. is a program where members prebuy their share upfront to help with costs of the farming operations. This helps to ensure the harvest & save the farmland.
Indeed, the new company, crème de la crop, hit the ground running, due in large part to Leann's keen sense of bartering. The savvy business woman traded produce for assistance; this includes her website from a graphic designer, massage therapist, bee keeper and attorney. She even had volunteers who helped in the fields in exchange for veggies.
Then in 2005 she hit a snag. "We started growing on a 20 acre parcel on my family's property, but then we were hit with severe drought and a lot of the crops we seeded didn't germinate," said Leann. "I had to decide what to water and maintain. We were at least able to sell enough to get by, but we've since cut back to around 10 acres." Despite the setback, Leann moved forward. She had purchased a junior Sutton seeder to help with planting as her selection of produce was increasing. The restaurant market expanded due to crème de la crop's reputation & unique varieties and a detailed colorful catalog Leann created for the chefs.
As the business expanded its offerings, a number of adjustments were made to planting techniques and several new structures went up to accommodate young plants. In 2006, the company purchased a raised bed/plastic mulch drip irrigation layer. We also purchased a new water-wheel planter that efficiently punctures the plastic and plants in one pass.
In 2007 30 4' x 24' framed wooden raised beds were built for root crops and baby greens and a 20 ft. By 100 ft. Cold house was built by using three tent roof frames as well as 4x4 wood posts. We also used 5 ft. X 10 ft. Cold frames "that my father had built many years before," said Leann. "We start the seedlings in a three-season sun room at my home using heaters & humidifiers when necessary, then everything gets moved to the cold frames, then the hot house."
As the season progresses the cold house is configured into a multi-functional space that can be used for growing plants as well as washing and packing produce. Soon the open space currently being used for Christmas tree sales, with its arrangement of vertical and horizontal posts, will ultimately be side walled topped with a roof and used for the onsite farmer stand. In addition we be building a shed that will be environmentally-controlled by air conditioning and dehumidifying units to facilitate product storage.
During the winter months, crème de la crop sells cut Christmas trees, wreaths, garlands and cuttings that are brought in from a grower in Michigan. Upon arrival, the company begins a unique process of prepping and displaying the trees. "We cut a sliver off the base of each tree and suspend them from a wood framework so they stand upright in buckets of water," she said. "This allows them to constantly be absorbing water and stay full and beautiful for a much extended amount of time."
For customers looking for prepared foods, Leann has created a line of value-added products such as jalapeno pepper jelly, green tomato chutney, ginger pistachio pumpkin butter and yellow, red and orange tomato juices and herb swags. They also have their own beehives for honey.
She has also committed herself to learning all she can about organic growing, routinely researching online and attending conferences where she networks with other growers dedicated to creating an eco-friendly, natural way of cultivating crops such as incorporating biodynamic principles.. At these events, she makes a point to connect with companies that supply organic products, learn of any new natural pesticide methods and discuss issues concerning small farmers such as preserving farmland, saving wildlife and marketing local.
The company currently employs a handful of workers, and additional employees will likely be hired seasonally", said Leann. "We're still trying to figure out how many employees we will need," she said. "Two new employees started at the beginning of this planting season and we will definitely hire more as we go."
Leann hopes to eventually be able to grow year round. Her plans also include a possible juice bar with prepared foods made from the vegetables grown on the farm that would be housed in a multi-functional building used for educational & cooking classes centered on growing & using organic food. Leann stresses, "Education & awareness of our food supply is key as well as preserving the American family farm" An interesting quote I heard this year about how folks are taking notice of eating more consciously, is from Willy Nelson, speaking about farm aid & the poor state of our food supply, "We started out trying to save the family farm, and now it looks like the family farm is going to have to save us."... Leann, concludes, "I hope we can do that."