by Bill and Mary Weaver
Klinger Farm and Farm Market, with its short growing season in Chippewa Falls in northern Wisconsin, has found many ways to succeed with growing and marketing its top quality vegetables. For example, they now produce their own vegetable plants, in an unusually large number of varieties (22 varieties of tomatoes, for example), for planting in the spring, so they have all their plants ready when needed.
In fact, beginning with a hobby greenhouse started by Great-uncle Dave Klinger, 78, currently head grower of the greenhouse and the vegetable operation with Mary Klinger-Amelse, the operation now has 18 greenhouses, with a total of six acres under plastic. The sale of their wide variety of flower, herb, and vegetable plants, to customers who travel from as far as Minneapolis, gets their spring season off to a good start.
“We generally sell 99 percent of the bedding plants we grow, and our 17,000 hanging baskets right here are our farm market. We strive to sell very high quality bedding plants, and we have one of the largest selections of spring plants in the area,” commented Troy Amelse, son of Mary Klinger-Amelse. There are currently four generations of the Klinger family working on the farm.
Regarding the 100 acres of vegetables they grow, “We plant about 100 different varieties. For our largest vegetable plantings, we grow about 40 acres of irrigated sweet corn in 12 plantings of six varieties, including Temptation, Allure, and Luscious; 25 acres of potatoes, including Russet Burbank (also known as the Wisconsin Baker) Norkotah, Superior, Red Norland, Yukon Gold, All Blue, and some fingerlings; four acres of tomatoes; and eight acres of a variety of sizes of pumpkins,” for the fall Halloween extravaganza, which includes a four and a half acre, hand-cut corn maze designed this year by Troy Amelse’s wife Brittany.
“Because our sweet corn is irrigated, available in very large quantities, and picked by hand several times a day to keep it fresh, customers will drive two to three hours to buy their sweet corn here,” remarked Troy. “In fact, we have customers fly down from Alaska to buy our corn, then ship it back home for fresh eating.” Despite their location in farm country, “This past weekend [the second weekend in August]” we sold 200,000 dozen [that is the correct number], all at our retail farm market.”
In addition to the usual by-the-pound sales, the Klingers are able to sell a lot of their tomatoes, potatoes, winter squash, cabbage and red beets in bulk in some surprising ways.
In this primarily ethnic German area, customers buy cabbage by the multiple bushels. “Extended families will work together to turn 1,000 pounds of cabbage into sauerkraut. They make a party out it, shredding the cabbage with a cutter while they watch a Packer’s Game,” smiled Mary. This tradition has endured for many years.
A surprising number of customers buy tomatoes in bulk. “Younger women, many in their 30’s, are learning to can,” explained Mary. “They often also make and can salsa, using our hot peppers.” “We can sell 50 bushels of tomatoes to canners in a weekend,” added Troy. Klinger’s prices, which YELP has rated as ‘inexpensive’, also help to draw crowds.
“We still have customers who buy 50 pound bags of potatoes to store at home for the winter, and we sell a lot of them,” commented Mary who has worked with the operation for 40 years. “We don’t sell nearly as many in bulk as we used to, though. We used to sell 100 pound bags.” The Klingers have a gas-heated potato storage where they store potatoes to sell all winter in their year-round farm market. “We also have quite a few customers who will buy 50 pounds of winter squash, mostly Buttercup, to store for the winter, and we wholesale winter squash by the pallet to a local orchard.”
The Klingers have not had problems with Buttercup squash’s tendency to mold and get soft spots during storage, although powdery mildew blowing up from the South hit their squash fields for the first time ever last year.
Great-uncle Bob, 82, with the help of Great-uncle Dave, and Mary, direct the succession plantings of many vegetables through the short growing season so the Klingers can have top quality vegetables through the summer and into the fall. “We can make succession plantings of red beets up here until the end of June, and we do,” explained Troy. “Red beets are another vegetable we sell in bulk, as well as by the pound.” The Klingers have connections with several seed companies for whom they trial new varieties to see how they perform in the northern Wisconsin climate. Rutabagas and bell peppers in several colors are also grown. Bob also chooses varieties and orders all the seed for the vegetable operation.
Last year was the second year for their farm’s CSA, which has two drop-off points in addition to the farm market. Their CSA attracted a lot of interest.
Unexpectedly, the Klinger Farm is one labor-intensive farm operation that has not had difficulty finding plenty of local labor. “We actually have so many applicants, we have to turn 10 to 20 applicants away each year. A backbone of our labor force is the wives of neighboring farmers who grow field crops only, and “they are great workers. We also hire a lot of teenagers, and more and more college students home for the summer.” The Klingers hire “upwards of 40 people” in spring for the greenhouses, and about 15 to 17 full-time to help with the vegetable operation.
In the fall Klinger Farm Market becomes even busier, with families drawn by their fall entertainment, including the large corn maze that creates a different design every year. Their petting zoo has llamas, and in some years, long-horned Highland cattle, sheep, donkeys and goats. There are plenty of activities, including pumpkin bowling; gourd checkers; gourd tic-tac-toe; scavenger hunts; a jungle gym; and duck races to keep children occupied while their parents do some serious shopping for fall vegetables and decorative items like broom corn, ornamental corn, a wide variety of gourds, straw bales, corn shocks, asters, and 2,000 mums, grown in one of their greenhouses.
The farm, which has been in the family since 1904 with 196 acres, has evolved and grown quite a bit over the years. Today it covers 900 acres, with 100 in vegetables and 600 in cash crops. After many years in field crops only, Great-Grandpa Dennis Klinger raised some potatoes as an FFA Project in 1956, and this led ultimately to the potato storage, followed by the farm market, the vegetable operation, and eventually the greenhouses.
The success of the operation has depended on the hard work and foresight of many Klinger family members. In addition to the Great-uncles of the 3rd generation already mentioned, the 4th generation is strongly involved, as is the 5th generation, with hopes that the 6th generation, now beginning join in, will take on more responsibility over coming years. Few family businesses can boast of having so many family members, from so many generations, working together so successfully, over so many years.
A Wisconsin market, the Klinger Farm
by Bill and Mary Weaver