SHELL LAKE — “I don’t know how she’s ever going to survive. She doesn’t have any African violets,” one elderly customer told another as the two women left Bashaw Valley Farm and Greenhouse back when it was a new enterprise with a single greenhouse in the midst of a dairy farm.
Through perseverance and diversification, the greenhouse did survive. This year, Steve and Linda Degner are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the business.
And they still don’t grow African violets.
“Thirty years ago, we took a homemade wooden greenhouse sign and hung it in the maple tree at the end of the driveway down there,” Linda said. “And it swung in the breeze on many open houses when we had sleet, snow, and rain.”
The greenhouse is on the farm that Steve grew up on between Shell Lake and Spooner, and Linda grew up a half-mile away on another dairy farm. It was at college in River Falls that they became a couple.
Steve was a student of ag business, but a year and a half into his studies the farmstead was going to be sold and he decided to buy it. At the time the dairy farm had one of the top-producing herds in the state.
“But the reality was it was a lot of work for a little bit of income,” Steve said.
Linda started out in dairy science in college but discovered by her second year when she almost flunked out that she needed to go in a different direction.
She connected with “an awesome advisor” named Terry Ferris, who steered her toward horticulture at River Falls and helped her get into some work study at a greenhouse and later into American Floral Art School in Chicago. She took a trip to Holland with Minnesota Growers Association in her senior year, interned at Indianhead Flower Shop in Spooner, and graduated with certificates in horticulture and design.
For a time Linda worked for UW-Extension. Meanwhile, dairy farming was, as it is now, not the most profitable business on a small scale, and the farm was a lot for Steve to handle. The Degners looked for other ways to supplement their income from the farm and began to do what has become a recurring theme over the past three decades: They diversified.
Steve ran across a for-sale 30-by-100-foot greenhouse in Hayward set up for hydrophonic tomatoes. They bought it in January 1988 and took the puzzle-load of pieces home and put it up over the summer and fall.
Their their first year in business was 1989.
Had they realized it would take off as it had, they might have arranged the layout of greenhouses differently and sited them further from their home, though the cost of investing in another well prevented moving them more distantly at the beginning.
“We tried to do everything by the book and we’re lucky we had customers the second year,” Steve said.
“Crackerjack marigolds were 3 feet high and blooming by May 1,” Linda recalled.
“And we had issues with ventilation — we didn’t realize how critical it was to keep temperatures cooler,” Steve said.
“So it was too hot in the greenhouse,” Linda said. “It was set up for tomato production. It was not set up for annual production, and we started with annuals, vegetables, and flowers. So we had to make some quick adjustments.”
Now they keep individual greenhouses at different temperatures, and they can move plants around to help better time their growth.
From the beginning the Degners have eschewed using chemicals.
“Partly because (daughter) Alyssa was just 2 years old (when the greenhouse started), and we realized immediately that having children (son Brandon came later), they would be in under the benches and playing with things and dirt in their mouth,” Linda said. “We just didn’t feel comfortable adding that to their diet.”
Their latest venture is to introduce into the greenhouses the beneficial insects nematodes and Aphidius colemani, a tiny wasp that lays its eggs inside aphid nymphs, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the aphids, turning them into mummies.
Linda spends a lot of time in the greenhouses doing 75 percent of the watering and all of the fertilizing. All that one-on-one time with the plants has built up an intimate knowledge of how they are doing and what issues to watch for as they grow.
The Degners have learned to be explicit with customers and to assume they may not know some of the basics of gardening, especially as more customers come with no connection to gardening, compared to the earlier days when customers tended to be more knowledgeable.
“I do think it’s coming back,” Linda said. “We’re starting to see some more of the younger generation actually interested in trying to grow things, but not nearly on the scale that we grew up with. They want to know where things come from, and they want to know how they’re grown.”
“Everybody now wants everything instantly,” Steve said. “They want something that’s flowering now. A lot of it’s like instant gratification. We grow bigger tomatoes, so they have tomatoes sooner. We start lettuce in packs now.”
Some greenhouses even start peas and corn in packs, and beans, too, which germinate in three or four days.
People in general are buying smaller seed packets, purchasing four-packs instead of six, and planting on patios and raised beds as they downsize vegetable gardens or want to try more varieties.
The Degners have learned from answering questions constantly that often the answer is, “It depends.”
“Rodents or deer have gone after my fruit tree. Will it survive?”
“What’s the best tomato to grow?”
“How much water does this plant need and when should I water it?”
Answers can depend on the amount of damage, soil type, weather, growing conditions, microclimate. The variables are infinite and can vary even down the road or on the next forty.
The Degners continue to consider what to expand, what to scale back, in an increasingly competitive market at the mercy of weather, Mother Nature, and trends.
“I can’t imagine me never working in the dirt or planting something. I don’t know that I’ll be planting as much in the future,” Linda said. “But there will always be that connection that way. And I’m grateful for the life they’ve given us.”