Mayesh Flowers Feature Story

Cindie Boer, fearless editor of Awesome Blossoms, was intrigued by a declaration on the invoice of one of Mayesh’s vendors that boldly proclaims: “Probably the Largest Bittersweet Farm in the World.”

Thus I found myself driving through Crawford County, Wisconsin late one balmy August afternoon to learn more about Star Valley Flowers.

In the southwest corner of Wisconsin, between the mighty Mississippi river and Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s seminal house built in 1914; one will find  an unusual land formation, a confluence of five valleys that converge into one central point. Just a little to the south of its center one will encounter the community of “Star Valley”, population: 21.

A little after 7:00 in the evening, I pulled up to a stop sign at County Road ‘B’, which essentially is downtown Star Valley. I glanced at my map for reassurance, and then continued west, chasing the sun that was flashing through the trees on the hill above me.

I needed all the reassurance I could get, as I was in the middle of nowhere.  An old hillbilly song kept going through my head:

“There was an’ old man who lived up on the hill, If he ain’t moved away then he lives there still.”

The fields that bordered the road were intensely green, alternating between  the deep chartreuse of ‘RoundUp-ready’ soy beans, tufted emerald pastures and armies of verdant corn bearing golden plumes. The fields rose gently away from the road, undulating until, like the lip of a bowl, they sharply angled up, at which point cultivation capitulated to the somber viridian woods that cloaked the hillsides in deep, silent shadows.

I crossed a creek, headed up the hill and into the woods, swallowed by the cold shadows. I kept ascending until sunlight ruptured the umbra of the canopy, and flooded through the windscreen. I was out of the woods and on the crest of the hill, and still blinking; I could see verdigris fields punctuated with bales of hay. Looking further down the ridge I could make out on some red barns, and a white farmhouse. I had finally made it to “Star Valley Flowers”. And apparently Phil still lives on the hill, as he was there to meet me.

Phil Mueller started work at Star Valley in 1999, at the invitation of his long time friend John Zehrer. John started the farm in 1985, but could no longer handle all the work, and needed a sales person to handle the increasing size of the business. Originally from Iowa, he had been bouncing around the USA, and welcomed the opportunity to return to the mid-West. Phil handles all the marketing and sales of the company, but has a down-to-earth approach, as well as a fairly erudite knowledge of the flowers.

Because the sun was setting quite fast, Phil gave me a quick tour of the farm in one of the “mules”. (Don’t ask; I guess it’s what they call ATV’s in SW Wisconsin.) Bumping along a track in the mule, Phil sharply turned, and we flew between two long rows of shrubbery. It was the bittersweet, trained onto wires, much like grape vines are done. We drove up and down, row after row, then bumping down the hill we came to rows of curly willow, then viburnum berries, subsequently past stands of lilac and forsythia, between spindleberry and finally cruised amongst rows of crab-apple. This is a very large farm, comprising 200 acres in all, with 150 that have been planted out, and a full 100 acres in production, that is to say mature plants that are able to be harvested. There are forty acres of Bittersweet!

“You know,” said Phil, as we bounced along “I have had so many comments and inquiries stemming from the tag-line we put on our business cards and so on. I suppose it is the curiosity to know…” Well, it works. And it probably is the largest Bittersweet farm in the world!

“Ready for dinner?” inquired Phil, in a tone and delivery that indicated that he was. “Bring it on” I replied, as I was famished, and ready to relax.

We drove over to John Zehrer’s house in the twilight. We arrived at a two story log-cabin that was imposing though not overly large. Inside was very cozy; I suppose it is the thick logs that give it a massive appearance.

Sitting out on the patio, we chatted about all and sundry, now and then slicing some cheese on to a cracker.

“Good cheese”, I commented between mouthfuls, “I suppose it is from around here?”

“No, no, not from here…actually it’s all from France.” Phil surprised me with his matter-of-factness, but he did proceed to enlighten me: “Most of the dairy farmers simply process the milk, and send the curd to Kraft, who processes it into the cheese. There is very little production of local crafted cheeses, largely because they do not allow the cows to be grass-fed.”

In fact the only aged cheese produced in the area comes from the Mount Sterling Cheese Cooperative, a village about 5 miles from Star Valley, which produces world-class goat’s milk cheese, aged in the French style. Their aged cheese garnered the Bronze medal at the World Cheese Championships in 2002. Sadly, I was to find out, a lot of farmers are closing their doors, selling the farms and moving on, while some unlucky ones simply have the farms foreclosed on them.

We sat down to a fine repast of fresh trout that John had caught in the creek, accompanied by organic beets, swiss chard, tomatoes and sweet, sweet corn. The honest flavors and rich nourishment of the local alimentation was in sharp contrast to the stark reality of country living and its economics. After dinner we stepped out on to the porch. I looked out at the mysterious moonlit landscape that was blanketed by a layer of thin fog, swirling ever so slightly across the valley floor, like the tendrils of cigarette smoke in an old black and white movie. The incessant metronome of the cicadas, the fluttering of bats’ wings, the distant calls of a night owl and the shimmering of leaves animated by a breeze furnished the night with its peculiar syncopated soundtrack.

The night was now well drawn in, I bid John goodnight, and drove back to the farmhouse with Phil. I got out of the car, and thanked Phil again, enquiring as to keys for the house.

Phil cogitated for a moment: “Mmm…Actually, I don’t think there is a key for the house. In fact, nothing is locked up around here…cars are the same, we just leave the key in the ignition.”

With that, he said goodnight and drove off into the moonlit countryside. For some moments the headlights traced the night like two sparklers and then were extinguished.

Given the beauty of the country, one wonders why anyone would leave, to go to the city, to work and live there. It is a question that has been posed ever since the industrial revolution got under way in 18th century England. These thoughts tumbled into the kaleidoscope of my dreams, and refracting with many others, carried me away to sleep.
I awoke with a start. The sun had just come up and was streaming through the windows. Looking out of the window, I could see it would be a beautiful day. There was not a cloud in the sky. In the valley I could see swirls of cool oxygen being exhaled by the vegetation, wispily rising and uniting with other swirls, condensing in the warm sunlight, combining like strands of cotton candy into low level clouds that flooded into the clefts of the earths crust.

“Shorts”, I said to myself, “It’s gonna be a hot one.”

I dressed quickly and headed down to the barn.

John was already there, and he poured me a most welcome cup of coffee. The barn was empty, and the farm barely stirring, but one by one the farmhands arrived for the upcoming days work, and by the time I had finished my second cup of coffee, the day’s activities were well underway.

Bittersweet, celastrus orbiculatus, is generally harvested towards the end of August, and the beginning of September. The crop has to be in before the first frost which generally occurs towards the end of September. Occasionally the frosts start later, and once in a while arrive perilously earlier. John had been able to cut a few early bunches of Bittersweet, and let them ripen so that I could see the product. Otherwise, the crop of berries was still green, although even at that stage they are quite attractive. Bittersweet is harvested in its green form. If possible, the leaves would be turning yellow, which ensures a homogenous defoliation at a later stage, but this is a fortuitous state and one which will not delay the harvest. The crop is then brought to the barn, where it is given a post-harvest treatment and pulsed overnight to maintain stability of the berries. The following day it is dry-packed in boxes and placed in cold-storage. Within a few days the husks of the green berries split to reveal the lemon colored seed pods. These slowly ripen to orange, then copper and after about a week into the signature brilliant vermilion seeds. By this time, most, if not all the leaves have dropped off, resulting in the wonderful serpentine stems and their organic pearls. At this stage the berries are very stable and are shipped to strategic marketing partners in various parts of the United States, including Mayesh in Southern California.

Counter-intuitively, if the berries are allowed to ripen on the bush, then the product becomes quite unstable, and the seed pods will fall off the stem in transit.

John Zehrer concluded his Bittersweet 101, and with replenished cups of coffee in hand, we set off on a daylight tour of the ranch. In the distance John pointed out Star Valley, with its unusual land feature. The farm is situated on a fairly flat hill-top and also encompasses three sides that slope down into the valley. The mule was dropping quickly down the eastern flank, and John pulled up in the middle of a row of Bittersweet.

The young plants are trained on horizontal wires, and the first two years are spent in structuring the plant. The fruits grow on stems that sprout from the previous year’s growth. Consequently, it is at least three years before the plants may be harvested. Much attention is given to the structure of the plant, because with such an investment of time and money, it is critical for maximizing the yield of future production.

We headed north, across the flank of a hill, and paused by rows of curly willow, salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’. I had never seen it growing, and was intrigued. John wryly commented that the willow is basically a weed which each year they more or less slash down to the stump, and every year it puts out a whole new set of stems. I knew this was a cool place when I enquired as to whether or not they had considered growing ‘Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick’, corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, and they actually had a few plants. No productivity was the main drawback. This is a shame because it has really interesting, contorted stems.

Further along I saw the yellow berries of viburnum opulus ‘Xanthocarpum’, a striking contrast to the red-fruited viburnums. The leaves have interesting  oak-type leaves, and fresh, lemon colored berries. Unfortunately, this too is a slow producer.

We continued across the north flank, through a grove of viburnum trilobum, the glorious red berries that have been available at Mayesh. The fruits were going off, a dazzling display of ‘High Cranberry’ illuminating the rich, green foliage. This is a native American plant, and a cousin of the viburnum opulus ‘sterile’ prized for their green blooms in spring. It was held in high regard by the Indians for its medicinal benefits.

Again, this is a herbaceous shrub that needs at least two or three years for proper plant formation and growth. The result is an extremely high yielding plant of quite large proportions. Without management it can grow as high as fifteen feet tall and twelve feet wide. The season can be expanded as well, with harvesting starting at an immature stage of green berries flushed with red right on through to its ripe stage when the berries are almost translucent.

Frequently on the tour, we passed large swathes of green shrubs and bushes that were, by and large, anonymous. John pointed out that these were crops that had already been harvested, or were still to be cut. The selection of herbaceous shrubs on the farm is extensive, starting in the spring with forsythia, lilacs, mock orange, followed by peonies. These give way to the flowering crab-apples, then viburnums, spireas and clematis. Through summer and into autumn, they harvest peegee hydrangeas, as well as ninebark, a shrub with very attractive dark plum-red foliage, particularly the cultivar ‘Diablo’. Fall crops are the willows, fasciated willow, euonymus fruits, viburnum berries, bittersweet and ilex berries. The year concludes with the harvest of curly willow, and the dogwoods for their bright red and yellow colored stems. As well as the shrubs they grow a seasonal crop of Lily of the Valley, and a variety of annuals and perennials including ‘Bleeding Hearts’and ‘Kiss-me-over-the-Garden-Gate’. By means of this intelligent planning they are able to maintain a product line throughout the year with a small and efficient labor force.

Halting at the edge of some woods that descended into a gully, John suggested we take a detour on a trail through the woods. The tall trees rose as columns from which thrust vaulting limbs that created great naves. This natural sanctuary was illuminated by the sun backlighting the leaves of the trees. It was as if a hundred thousand yellow butterflies had simultaneously burst from their cocoons. Like primitive sepulchers, tree trunks lay broken amidst the leaf mould, scattered hither and thither, as if some tomb robbers had looted their contents, oblivious to the jewels that embellished the outsides.

Climbing steeply, the mule suddenly tipped forward and we emerged from this divine canopy, for my part feeling as though a calming spirit had entered my being.

The western flank of the farm was bordered with a variety of coniferous species, interspersed with the occasional hardy deciduous specimens. Then we entered a field of year old viburnum plants that were part of the ongoing development of new products for the market. The fruits looked remarkably similar to the steely-black fruits of v. tinus but were displace amongst foliage of the much more attractive v. trilobum. Next year should see the first production of this new cultivar v. ‘Blue Muffin’.

We exited the field to the south and turned eastwards, running along the frontage, heading back towards the farmhouse, in the back of which was a tire swing, inviting shade and a reasonable impression of a cottage cutting-garden. On closer examination it turned out to be the trial garden of various  plants, which were in various stages of development. Hostas, and their seed pods, hollyhocks, perennial phlox, Joe Pye weed, various viburnums, a few motley hydrangeas, rhubarb which I imagine is for eating and some Plume poppies, which is not a poppy at all but macleaya microcarpa. The overall effect of the garden is quite charming and extremely pretty, which combined with the fresh air, the tranquility of the countryside, and the measured pace kindled all sorts of romantic notions in my head.

John explained that due to the intense frigidity that envelopes this region in the winter, the plants have to be incredibly hardy to survive. Often, crops which weather northern European climates satisfactorily, simply cannot take the intense, freezing ground temperatures of this part of the country. I am a northern European transplant, and my romantic ideas withered at the prospect of a freezing winter faster than you could say ‘Green Acres’.
Wandering out of the garden, I was surprised to learn that it was already lunch time.

The entire crew of the farm sat down for lunch at a long table in the kitchen, situated at the back of the big barn. I was surprised by a tasty and spicy ‘pollo en mole’ with rice, salad, tortillas and fresh watermelon juice, right here in the Wisconsin homeland. Half the crew, including the cook, came from Mexico, two of whom came from Veracruz. I enquired as to how they could stand the brutal winters, having lived in a sub-tropical zone, but they matter-of-factly said that they were happy to be working legally, and that the summers more than compensated for the rough periods of near-hibernation. The rest of the crew was from Wisconsin, but they wolfed down the Mexican meal with abandon.

It was a strangely comforting environment that I found myself in. It underscored the ideas outlined in our constitution, principally freedom, liberty and the right to pursue happiness. On a farm homesteaded by a Norwegian family, the industry of immigrants from the Old World alongside that of immigrants from the New World was producing significant benefits. Despite their neighbors’ election to abandon the land or to succumb to the demands of agribusiness, Star Valley continues the pioneering spirit of our forefathers. In the face of adversity and at the expense of being ridiculed by the local farming community, growing flowers has proven to be a rewarding venture in every sense. The land is tended and cared for, and reciprocally the land supports people who might otherwise have had to leave the community, and it gives succor to people looking for a new life.

Undoubtedly our troops in Iraq are heroes, willing to lay down their life for our country. But if the country is abandoned to the concerns of big business, with little thought for the people who live there, for the very communities from whence our soldiers come, then one would have to ask; for what ideals are the soldiers fighting for? And what are the survivors coming home to?

Whether they are producing flowers, organic heirloom vegetables, pasture-fed lamb or aged cheese, these modest farmers should also be our heroes. Through their ingenuity, the relationship to the land and their appreciation of nature they are doing their part to preserve the communities, to maintain  self-respect and provide meaningful and gainful employment. Significantly, they are accomplishing this in a truly American way; they are succeeding in a free market using a capitalistic approach.
After lunch, I went outside with most of the crew, where we had some coffee and smoked some cigarettes. “Despues un taco, un buen tabaco,” as they say in Mexico We conversed alternately in Spanish and in English, though at times it was easier to understand the Mexicans than the twang of the men from thereabouts. Good people, I thought to myself, and good country. I asked then if they would mind having a group picture taken, and though some feigned shyness, I was finally able to corral the crew for a quick photo. Then it was back to work.

I accompanied John over to a field adjacent the farm buildings. This land was upon the hill-top and generally flat. Crossing the field we came to a shade-cloth cover of approximately one acre of fine hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’, the PeeGees as they are called, as well as some lace-cap varieties. Alongside the white, there was also a fine new cultivar ‘Limelight’,  a creamy suffused pistachio color. These are particularly impressive for their prolific growth, which if not managed well, produce an over-abundance of lateral side shoots. One man’s poison is another man’s pleasure; and it appears to me that these horizontal stems with many erect panicles are quite interesting materials. Also being grown are some spectacular hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’, with over-sized white heads.

Finally, we took at look at a couple of “failures”, as John referred to them. They are, in fact, new species on the farm, and as with learning about any new product, there is still a considerable learning curve. One item was symphoricarpus albus var. laevigatus, the large white “Snowberry”. It was looking somewhat unattractive, with undesirable spots on the fruits and leaves. This looked like a problem of location, possibly desirous of more shade and wind protection. The second item was rose hips, of which were planted six or seven varieties. Having somewhat more knowledge of roses, it would appear that the plants needed more time spent on plant structure, before attempting to harvest them. I also advised John that roses are a high-maintenance proposition, requiring a lot of attention throughout the growing season, particularly disbudding and pruning. Most of the hips were growing prostrate, close to the ground, but with magnificent color.

We returned to the barn so I could take a look in the coolers, and see what was being harvested. Today being a Tuesday was not particularly busy, although I would be able to see a representative sample of products. John explained that Star Valley also does marketing and shipping for some of the small growers in the area, so most probably I could expect to see a few other items. As we walked back John told me a little about how he got into the floral industry.

John had no prior horticultural knowledge when he started Star Valley, and his entire experience of growing is through trial and error. Mistakes and faux pas come with the territory, but being observant and patient John was able to learn from his errors. He started about twenty years ago, and like most farmers, considered a variety of vegetable and grain crops that were typically grown in Wisconsin. He concluded that the returns were dismal. As fate would have it, he had been doing some construction work on a florist’s shop, and upon seeing the flowers delivered, John enquired as to prices and so forth. The prospect of much better returns on flowers elevated his spirits, and he plunged wholeheartedly into growing flowers, at first annuals such as Zinnias, and Sunflowers, and then slowly planting out shrubs. Early on, John recalled, when a grave bug problem developed in his greenhouses he applied a treatment he had learned when he had been keeping bees. When gathering the honey, he would extract the combs from the hives and gas them with cyanide. He observed that the gas knocked out the bees pretty effectively. John applied this knowledge to the pest problem, filling the greenhouse with cyanide. It killed the bugs alright, and killed all the plants too!

But failures are part of the growing process, and John and Phil seem to approach their work with a passion tempered by experience. I gathered the distinct impression that while there is a keen interest in the success of all of their products, they are quite accepting of nature’s part in their endeavors, and their role as husbands of the land.

Their ambitions are as expansive as the day is long, but if it doesn’t get done today, it will surely be resolved tomorrow.

Before I left, I asked John what he thought was the most important thing about living today. He replied immediately, with an answer full of country wisdom: “Breathing.”

Used with permission.
Copyright © 2005 Mayesh Flowers All rights reserved.

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