by Bill and Mary Weaver
Glenn and Gretchen Boldt, owners of Hilltop Greenhouse and Vegetable Farm, a greenhouse and wholesale vegetable business in Ellendale, MN, exemplify the “can do” spirit and optimism in the face of seemingly endless adversity so often associated with Midwesterners.
Their tragedy began suddenly on June 17, 2010, when more than 30 tornadoes touched down in their area.
“Many of our neighbors’ homes were destroyed, but most were left with field crops that could be harvested in the fall for income,” said Glenn. The Boldts, however, had everything they owned reduced to rubble — their home and household belongings, greenhouse, shop, equipment repair building, the young plants growing in the field for their wholesale vegetable business, tractors and trucks — everything they needed to produce an income from their rubble-strewn land.
In 2011, the Boldts built a small, snug home, with lots of sun-oriented windows to replace the home they’d lost. They put up a temporary greenhouse, and were able to grow flower and vegetable plants again, but on a much smaller scale.
In 2012, their new six-bay greenhouse was ready for use.
“We had insurance to cover some of the rebuilding from the tornado damage, but not enough.”
This past January, Glenn, Gretchen, and daughter Julie were back at work in the greenhouse, seeding their own plants and starting their own cuttings.
Given their location in a lightly populated area, it is good the Boldts have set high standards for their greenhouse plants. “Customers need a good reason to make the drive here,” commented Glenn.
“We primarily draw from Albert Lea and Austin, MN, but we also have dedicated customers who come from Rochester and Minneapolis every year. Our plants have to make people say, ‘Wow! You have plants and quality that we can’t get at other greenhouses.’ Our quality and variety are what make us a destination for a second trip and a third trip, year after year.”
Gretchen commented, “We pick the best possible varieties of plants that will grow and bloom all season for our customers.”
“A gentleman who had been traveling for several months stopped in recently, and said we had the best plants he’d seen on his whole trip,” Gretchen added.
But sales have been slower than they’d hoped, both because of the economy and the weather. “In a tight economy,” noted Glenn, “you can love flowers to the ends of the earth, but the fact remains, people don’t need flowers when they’re worried about making mortgage payments.
“The nice thing here, though,” he continued, “is that a customer can spend only $50, and have plants that make them feel good, and make their yard look good all through the season.”
Fortunately, not all Hilltop’s customers have tight money constraints. “We have a planting to deliver Monday, all in containers, for a customer who tells me what she wants, and for her, the price tag is not a big issue. She’s getting up in years, and we’re trying to find her plants that are easier to take care of. Gretchen stops in to help her with them a couple of times a year.
“In our business, we hoped for a good Mother’s Day and a good Memorial Day, but the weather had been mostly chilly and wet, and people weren’t thinking much about gardening. This has been a trying year so far. The weather was not much in our favor.”
Another serious worry lies behind these concerns about the greenhouse business.
The Other Half of the Business
The other half of the Boldt’s business is their wholesale vegetables, sold to grocery chains. So far, the weather has kept the soil consistently too wet to get the tractor into the field to plant anything this season.
The continued wet weather currently has no end in sight. “There are unplowed fields all around here,” continued Glenn, “in addition to our own. Usually all the grain and soybeans would be planted by now, and we’d have vegetables planted and growing. Many farmers around here grow for the canning companies. They are usually finished planting by June 20. Many of these farmers have also not begun working the land yet.
“For certain crops, if they’re not planted soon, it will be too late to plant.”
Yet Glenn seemed remarkably cheerful, and Gretchen commented, ”We’ve been blessed.” They and their extended family are safe, and they still have their health, vigor, the basic optimism and the desire to get through this and build the business back up.
“Yes, I’m cheerful,” stated Glenn. “I don’t feel guilty about what’s happening, because I don’t have any control over it. If I wouldn’t have been able to plant because I needed to get a tractor fixed and hadn’t gotten the job done, I’d be mad at myself. It would be my fault, because I didn’t get ready. This isn’t that way. Even the old-timers say this spring is unusual, reminiscent of ‘92 and’93.”
But this is also in part a somewhat local phenomenon. “Fifty to 75 miles west of us, they’ve been able to get crops in the ground. We had close to 20 inches of snow here on May 1, but a farmer 150 miles to the west was planting corn that same day. He was finished with his planting by May 6.”
“Another lingering effect of the tornado is that we had to lay off all our employees,” said Gretchen. That included a daughter’s husband, who used to love to work full time for the operation.
The Boldts use minimal employees these days, finding it makes more sense financially to work long hours themselves.
Giving Classes in the Greenhouse
This year for the first time, the Boldts have advertised to give classes in the greenhouse. “We’ve had good results,” said Gretchen. “We tried to make our class fees fair. It’s nice to be able to use the greenhouse early in the year for something like that.
“We let the people plant plugs, the same ones we use. We provided the pot, the soil, the seed, and the cuttings. Then we let them grow the plant in the greenhouse until they were ready to plant it in their yard.
“We usually serve refreshments. We visit. We have a lot of fun,” she concluded.
Minnesota growers stay optimistic throughout setbacks
by Bill and Mary Weaver