Glen and Beth Elsbernd, and their children – (from left) Nora and Anthony – blend dairying and growing produce on their farm near Calmar, Iowa. The Elsbernds work with Glen’s parents, Alan and Susan.
PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
Glen and Beth Elsbernd, and their children – (from left) Nora and Anthony – blend dairying and growing produce on their farm near Calmar, Iowa. The Elsbernds work with Glen’s parents, Alan and Susan. PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
    CALMAR, Iowa – Glen Elsbernd knows his way around cows and cabbage, Holsteins and hot peppers. This northeast Iowa dairyman has blended his background in dairying with a growing interest in plants.
    “I like growing plants and working with them,” said the Winneshiek County farmer. “I’d always worked with animals and had a good feel for that already. So, I wanted to work more with plants.”
    Elsbernd produce business, G It’s Fresh, was coined when he developed a business plan in high school.
    He grows a variety of vegetables and finds time to help his parents, Alan and Susan Elsbernd, on their 120-cow Holstein farm. Alan grows 600 acres of conventional and organic corn, oats and hay. Some is sold as feed to organic livestock farmers.
    Elsbernd’s wife, Beth, pitches in with one of the two daily milkings and also keeps the herd’s records. She also tends to Anthony, 4, and Nora, 4 months.
    The dairy operation is not organic. Elsbernd said going organic is one of the family’s long-term goals.
    In high school, Elsbernd grew acorns and the seeds of other trees during the winter. That led to his interest in vegetable production. Next came courses in horticulture at Hawkeye Community College, Waterloo, Iowa. During college, Elsbernd worked on a farm that grew medicinal herbs. He gained valuable experience on a produce farm near Chaseburg, Wis., followed by launching his Iowa venture.
    Elsbernd has his produce business on two farms. At the home place are two greenhouses tucked behind the cows’ bedded-pack barn.
    These greenhouses are called high tunnels. Each building is 30- by 72-feet and heated with LP gas and ventilated with louvered fans on one end wall.
    High tunnels cost less to put up than regular greenhouses, Elsbernd said. Yet they deliver the same benefit of being able to get plants going and growing sooner and keeping them growing later than conditions outside might allow.
    The high tunnels are equipped with drip tape that efficiently delivers water to the base of each plant. Between the rows of plants, landscape fabric provides a convenient and dry walking surface.
    Elsbernd said he expected to start picking ripe fruit around mid-June. He trucks the tomatoes to a nearby farmers’ market.
    The other high tunnels have benches and are a temporary home to onion plants, other vegetables and hanging baskets of flowers.
    Each year, Elsbernd starts thousands of transplants. Many of his young onion plants are shipped to other commercial growers who do not have their own starting facilities. His onions are sent between the Appalachian and Rocky mountains and north of Missouri.
    Other transplants are trucked to a site on another part of the farm.
    There, Alan has some of his row crops and oats, while Elsbernd has vegetable transplants growing in the roughly 10 acres of rolling land. The sandy ground is good for vegetables, he said, because it warms early and drains well.
    Later in the season, Elsbernd rents a refrigerated semi-trailer as temporary storage for his crops until they are marketed.
    Using a specialized machine, Elsbernd made raised beds to transplant into. Each bed is covered with black plastic to retain heat.
    Each raised bed stretches 1,000 feet. Together, the beds are home to a diverse mix of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumbers, kale, onions, peppers, tomatoes, watermelons and winter squash.
    Kale, a type of leaf cabbage, is a popular crop. One reason kale is so well liked, said Elsbernd, is that it is nutritious.
    Elsbernd said kale, potatoes and onions are his main crops. Those sold the best last year.
    Just as he grows a diversity of produce, Elsbernd markets his vegetables at various locations. Along with the farmer’s market, he attends indoor markets in the area.
    Another sale venue is State Line Produce, Lime Springs, Iowa.
    Elsbernd’s produce business keeps him busy all year long. In January, he sets to work in the high tunnels, starting onions. By Valentine’s Day, it is on to planting flowers in hanging baskets.
    Then he starts other produce, and he is shipping onion plants by the end of March. In May, he sells flowers at markets and plants outside.
    “But this year it was snowing in the middle of May, so it was early June before we got everything in,” Elsbernd said.
    June brings the start of kale harvesting, followed by cabbage and broccoli in July. Onion digging starts in August, followed by potatoes in September. The work of storing potatoes and onions carries over deep into the fall.
    “Then we just keep packing out and start the cycle again,” Elsbernd said.
    Yes, his produce business can be complicated.
    “There are a lot of layers to this onion of a farm,” he said. “But I enjoy it. It’s a lot to keep track of, but we enjoy what we’re doing.”
    By no means do the Elsbernds handle all the vegetable work themselves. Between the dairy and the produce, they employ seven people part time.
    “We have some quality help right now,” Elsbernd said. “And, that’s hard to find.”
    Although he often puts in long days – 4 a.m. to past 10 at night – Elsbernd likes the farm’s combination of cows and vegetable crops.
    “We’re working to find a balance to it all,” he said. “How much of which stuff for the produce end of it.”