I’ve always been drawn to people who do what they love and are successful at it, especially if they go their own way about it. Their enthusiasm is contagious; their energy, impressive, and their courage admirable. Who wouldn’t be attracted to it?
Just this morning, my mom grinned and said to me “I like to make my own rules,” regarding a gardening issue we were discussing (okay, I know you’re curious–it was whether to cut down peonies after they’re done blooming or not). “I know, Mom, I know,” I said. I think that anybody who knows my mom would agree that that’s a wonderful thing about her.
Many years ago my mom, my sisters and I started getting together after church on Mother’s Day to drive to a farm near the city, called Papa Geno’s Herb Farm. This local farmer, we were ecstatic to discover, would open his place up a couple times of year and sell a happy and immense variety of potted herbs and heirloom tomatoes, and many other plants.
We were met by the bearded fellow, Papa Geno, himself. He was friendly and enthusiastic about growing things, and we liked him immediately. His plants were gorgeous, of course. We were drawn to this guy, with his open smile and his generous nature, and his willingness to share his expertise with us. He shared information with us about growing, recipes, you name it, and advised us on plant selection. He really seemed to know his stuff, which made him an instant friend.
Gardeners. 🙂 There are no strangers among folks who are passionate about growing things. Oooh. That’s tweetable, isn’t it?
My mom, sisters and I would throw budgetary caution out the (car) window for the afternoon, and would stuff our vehicle as full of herb plants (and a few heirloom tomatoes, if I remember correctly, which were a new and exciting thing to us back then, oh, and I remember some scented geraniums, too) as we could manage, drive home with our laps full of plants, and then spend the rest of the day puttering happily in our gardens. 🙂
Papa Geno made it possible for us to buy herb plants locally in great quantities and variety. Better yet, he’d share with us his vast store of experience in gardening and planting matters. We knew that we were buying plants and learning from an expert.
We were very happy.
🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 <—see? This was us. (From left to right–Mollie, Anne, Mom, and me.)
A few years into this excellent tradition–that we fully intended to continue until we died–Disaster! We heard through the gardener’s grapevine that Papa Geno was no longer selling to the general public, but was doing business through the internet only. He had become quite successful, apparently, and was up to his eyeballs in selling plants, but it was all online now.
We cursed this new-fangled (and, fleeting, we were sure) world wide web fad soundly, and deeply mourned our fun local plant-buying excursions, which had come to an untimely and unfortunate end.
We (grudgingly, it’s true) wished Papa Geno all the best, and tried to forget about Papa Geno’s Herb Farm. It wasn’t easy. Shoot, it wasn’t even possible. Dreamy visions of many varieties of healthy seedlings from which to choose for our summer gardens, locally available at that, do not die easy.
But we did our best to struggle on.
Then, skip forward, a decade or so. The Papa Geno disappointment was merely a sad memory at this point. I started writing a blog, and soon got to know a fellow gardening nut through his comments on my blog. (I use the term “nut” in the most flattering way possible, Gene.)
This guy’s name was Gene.
Gene and I became fast gardening friends, and I appreciated his intelligent and thoughtful (and sometimes sarcastic) comments on my blog. I was sorely puzzled why he’d be reading the likes of my blog (his being so intelligent and all ;)), but I was glad that he was. We started having conversations through email. He told me he lived in Nebraska, too, not too far from our place, at that.
Finally, this Gene person with excellent blog taste invited me out to his place to see his gardening operation, since apparently he grew a lot of plants. He thought they might be amusing to me, being rahther overly fond of plants and gardening. So we made a garden tour date, because it didn’t sound like he was an ax-murderer, he lived fairly close, he’s generous and gregarious, and also it sounded as if he had quite a plant-growing operation going on out at his farm not far from Lincoln, that I really wanted to see. (I have suspicions that you are way ahead of me, Gentle Reader.)
Then one day, Enlightenment! I was reading an email from Gene, and it clicked. I gasped. I didn’t breathe for a full minute. I blushed. I blanched*. This guy Gene, I realized, this prolific plant grower and one of my favorite Gentle Readers, had to be . . . just had to be the elusive Papa Geno, himself.
You could have knocked me over with a baby endive leaf, Gentle Reader. (Sometimes it takes me awhile.)
And the rest, as they say, is history. The kids and I did go over to visit Gene, and we’ve gone over now for a couple of tours of his place. He’s given me armloads of plants. He let us hunt for mushrooms at his place (we didn’t find any). We’ve become friends in person, which is even better than being friends through blogging and email. I’m still full of admiration for him and his operation, for how hard he works and how smart he works.
I’d like to be a gardener like Gene when I grow up. 🙂
Not only does Gene know his gardening stuff, but he has taken a simple gardening operation located in rural Nebraska, and made it into a high dollar business, through his hard work, long hours, and tapping into the endless opportunities of the Web. Which did not, as you may be aware, go away.
Perhaps even more importantly, he has shared lavishly–he has given away plants, gardening information, recipes, and perhaps most importantly–his expertise in mentoring many young farmers. Gene already has built quite a legacy, with many young farmers all over the Midwest whom he has worked with and helped launch their own farms. And he’s still building!
I’m going to share a bit of his story with you, and then I’ll share a short interview I did with him recently. The photos in this post were taken by my lovely daughter Amalia, since I was too busy visiting with Gene to bother with a camera. (Thanks, Amalia!)
This is your lucky day, Gentle Reader. There is enough garden tech to thrill the most hard-core gardening geek in this post. Let me introduce you to my friend Gene. I could write lots (and lots!) of blog posts about Gene and all that he has done in his life (so far), but I’ll start with a quick list of his accomplishments:
- A Nebraska native, Gene grew up in Palisade, Nebraska, the son and grandson and great grandson of farmers and ranchers who homesteaded the area in 1890.
- A former professor and New York City executive, Gene moved back to Nebraska to start raising herbs and live a “simpler life.” (Kinda ironic now, eh, Gene?) 😉
- At one time (at the time of our giddy visits to his farm) Papa Geno’s Herb Farm developed the largest collection of herb plants and scented geraniums in the United States, and also had gourmet and heirloom veggie seedlings available. (Those were good days.)
- At one time, Gene’s operation was shipping out 130,000 plants in a 15-week period.
- Gene spent several weeks one summer teaching women in Africa how to grow lemongrass for profit, and also how to grow their own vegetable gardens. (That’s a whole ‘nother story, folks.)
- Gene was part of the nonprofit Bulungula Incubator that won the prestigious $100,000 John P. McNulty Prize — the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for those solving social, economic and environmental problems in their communities.
- Gene majored in history, political science and English at the University in Lincoln. He landed in New York in the 1970s, and was president of the American-Scandinavian Foundation for a time, until NU President Woody Varner talked him back to Nebraska to help launch the University of Mid-America, a distance education effort that lasted 6 years.
- Admits that “Africa changed him.” After his trip to Africa, he returned to Nebraska impressed with the power of personal interaction and how effective it was. He narrowed his focus, working with individuals and small groups instead of with government agencies or large nonprofits.
- Gene’s business and products have been featured in many regional and national publications, including two features in Inc magazine.
- Gene grows in greenhouses, high tunnels and in the field, using organic and sustainable practices. He is a Certified Natural Grower, and a former Certified Organic Grower.
- Gene speaks 6 languages, including Swedish, Danish, French, Norwegian, Spanish, and English.
- Married to Dorrie and father of 3, grandfather of 6.
Gosh. Now do you see why I gasped and blushed and blanched*? This guy knows his stuff.
At a recent visit with Gene, I asked if he would do an interview with me, and he graciously answered a few questions, between his crazy-busy spring schedule. Of course I caught him at the very busiest time of his growing season (sorry, Gene).
Why herbs? And what are some of your favorites, that you wouldn’t be without in your garden?
Gene: In my twenties, I had some minor heart issues. My doctor suggested eliminating salt from my diet and recommended replacing it with fresh herbs. I lived in NYC then and fresh herbs were readily available in markets in Greenwich Village.
My most used herbs are savory, rosemary, thyme, lavender, tarragon and of course basil.
What brought about the change from the herb farm to the online business?
Being in the right place at the right time with the right experience and skill set. I had maxed out the Lincoln retail and wholesale markets and wanted to grow my business.
What are you most excited about growing right now?
It changes every year. I’m very interested in season extension using high tunnels now. My apprentice Matt and I are growing lettuce and baby kale year round, and we are experimenting with new greens in the field and greenhouses. My biggest summer crop this year will be “baby” vegetables.
Where do you do most of your marketing these days?
I market now chiefly to restaurants for the produce, and to Earl May for the organic bedding plants.
I am pretty sure that I can state that I am the only grower in Nebraska that supplied head lettuces to restaurants for 52 weeks last year.
What are your strategies for keeping up with all your plantings? Any plans to slow down/downsize/retire?
I am gradually downsizing some aspects of what I do, but there are always new and interesting opportunities popping up. For example, I am involved as an advisor/consultant to a faith-based non-profit in Omaha that will commence creating a major urban farming venture in North Omaha in the near future. It’s totally challenging to make the numbers work!
My most important crop is, and has been for a while, the mentees, apprentices & interns that have sweated in my greenhouses with me. I totally learn as much from them as they learn from me and they have all inspired me to try new and different crops and growing methods, and (most importantly) to think about a lot of things differently. I have had nine young people working here (all but one were women) who have done absolutely great work, and I am fond of all of them.
Tell me a bit about your farm–how many acres, how many greenhouses, and whatnot?
20 +or- acres, but only two devoted to veg and bedding plant production. Four greenhouses, the largest of which is being used solely as a high tunnel.
What are your favorite heirloom tomato varieties?
Certainly Green Zebra, but beyond that, any of the non-red varieties. Chefs totally love receiving a basket full of multi-colored tomatoes, and I assume that their patrons do too. I am growing 19 varieties for commercial sales this year and have another 5-6 that I am trialing for the first time. There’s a huge demand for heirlooms among upscale restaurants!
Any advice to young farmers?
If you are risk-averse, find a desk job. Be prepared for many 80 hour weeks and lots of hard work. Be mentally tough – it is heartbreaking to watch one’s entire crop get hailed out in 15 minutes. Inherit land and equipment. Think constantly – like every single day – about how you are going to market your crop. Plan, plan, plan. Keep good records. Figure out how to differentiate your farm/products from your competitors.
Many thanks to Gene for the time he took out of his busy day to visit with me, and for being such an awesome example for so many young farmers. Farm on, Gene!
P.S. Local gardeners can find Gene’s plants at the Earl May stores, with the tags labeled “Heartland Naturals.”
For further reading about Gene and his accomplishments, here’s a recent article in the local newspaper.
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